The founder of Kenya’s Ol Donyo Lodge is now saving lions, rhinos, and elephants.

By George Rush
September 17, 2012
Credit: Tom Hill

The sun has just come up over Kenya’s Chyulu Hills and Richard Bonham is already soaring over the plains where giraffes and oryxes are foraging for breakfast. His 44-year-old Cessna 206 has seen better days, but his bronzed fists grip the throttle with the authority of a man who’s logged 8,000 or so hours in the air. Down below, he spots his destination: the Mukururu Rhino Camp, outpost for one battalion of his game scouts. He also spots a problem.

“Ant bears have dug holes in the runway,” he says.

Even though he can only use half the dusty airstrip, Bonham deftly lands the plane and jumps out. At fifty-seven, he’s a trim six feet. He wears sea green chino shorts and R.M Williams half-boots. He’s greeted by Richard Kech. The former Kenya Wildlife Service warden is training Bonham’s scouts to protect the country’s last free-ranging black rhinos from those who’d kill them and saw off their horns.

Bonham’s Maasailand Preservation Trust has recently drilled a well in this preserve, so the dozen or so surviving rhinos won’t have to risk looking for water elsewhere. He’s now come to plot their waterhole. After surveying the lava fields, he maps where the pipes should run. Kech asks him if he’d like to inspect the new recruits—towering young Maasai who’ve traded their red shukas for fatigues. Nine of them fall into formation. Bonham, whose distinguished bearing and burled voice recall Sir Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai, walks among them.

“How many of you have seen a rhino before coming here?” Bonham asks in Swahili.

Only a few raise their hands. Bonham tells them they are the first line of defense against armed poachers. You can see the pride in their faces. You can see it, too, in Bonham’s as he watches them attempt regimental drill.

“Well done,” he says. “Well done!”

And, with that, Bonham returns to the sky.

* * * *

The rhino camp is just one of Richard Bonham’s regular stops. In the course of a day, you may find him putting an electronic collar around a sedated elephant, trying to talk inflamed warriors out of spearing a lioness that’s killed their cows, or conferring with his detective agency of reformed poachers and imported bloodhounds. Bonham has been named one of the best guides in Africa. But his current passion is conservation. He admits he’s a “bit of a contradiction.” Though he founded Ol Donyo Lodge, one of East Africa’s most luxurious resorts, he is happiest sleeping in the bush. Though he’s beloved as “the white Maasai” by the herders of that tribe, he has branded some of their leaders as corrupt. And though he’s been a professional hunter, he finds it harder and harder to pull the trigger.

His father, Jack Bonham, was a British rambler who sought his fortune in Kenya and became one of the country’s first game wardens. An elephant attack cost Jack a leg. Still, at bedtime, he imparted a love for the mighty tusker with stories of two little poacher-pursued pachyderms, Mumbo and Dumbo. As a boy, Richard would roam the coffee plantation inherited by his mother, Kathleen, who taught Kikuyu women health care. Even during the Mau-Mau uprising of the 1950s, his chief playmates were the children of plantation laborers.

He went to school in England, but returned to apprentice with the last of the Mogambo-era hunters, Bunny Allen. When hunting was outlawed in Kenya in 1976, Bonham turned to the air, becoming a bush pilot. He flew German astrophysicists into Zaire’s jungle for secret ICBM tests and flew oilfield hands out of southern Sudan as the civil war there re-ignited. “The pilot who took over for me was killed,” Bonham recalls.

In 1979, he started his own small safari company, specializing in areas other guides didn’t go. When British MP Tom Arnold offered to foot the bill for “the last safari into the last wilderness,” southern Tanzania’s vast Selous Game Reserve, Bonham was tapped to steer the caravan. Peter Matthiessen, who chronicled the journey in his book, Sand Rivers, wrote at the time that the 25-year-old Bonham was “laconic” and preferred to eat with his African porters. Even today, Matthiessen recalls, “He was very competent.” In 1985, Bonham organized the first-known crossing of Africa by boat for Lorenzo and Mirella Riciardi. The 3,700-mile journey became the book African Rainbow.

Bonham’s love for the untamed Selous led him to turn his tented base-camp there into the still-thriving Sand Rivers lodge. Meanwhile, he kept searching in Kenya “for a patch of bush that didn’t have anybody in it—to make my home.” In 1986, in the Chyulus, he followed an eland up a ridge that overlooked the vast plains and Mt. Kilimanjaro.

“I felt, ‘This is it.’”

The Maasai let him build a cottage. A few other cottages followed. With his tireless sister, Trish, handling bookings, he had himself a lodge. He named it Ol Donyo Wuas, “the spotted hill.” The resort was 10 years old when a brush fire, set by poachers, devoured the Bonhams’ work. But they rebuilt. Ol Donyo Wuas’ reputation grew. The private reserve provided a more intimate encounter with wildlife than you could find at parks where the minibuses could be bumper-to-bumper. (Guests also found Bonham’s personal menagerie of orphaned cheetahs, hyenas, and warthogs.)

Bonham developed a bond, too, with the Maasai. One day he gave a lift to a young woman who gave birth in his car. When he nearly died in a plane crash, the tribe sent its condolences. “I probably had a 100 goats arrive at my house,” he laughs.

The Maasai were overjoyed when he found love. The nomadic charmer had resisted marriage till he was 41. “I was a bit wild,” he says sheepishly. Then he met Tara Hunter, gorgeous granddaughter of another famous game warden. Tara, who is 14 years his junior, recalls the rake’s proposal in a London restaurant: “I thought he was pulling my leg.” About 250 Maasai turned out for their wedding. “They dressed us both in traditional garb,” says Tara. “The elders blessed us. It was a three day party.”

* * * *

Bonham became more and more invested in the future of the 10,000 Maasai on the 300,000-acre Mbirikani Group Ranch. He was also determined to stop the tribe from poisoning the lions that ate their cows. (It’s estimated there are only 20,000 lions left across Africa—down 90% in the last 20 years.)

Bonham started the Maasailand Preservation Trust in 1992, finding an invaluable ally in American venture capitalist Tom Hill. Together they raised funds to pay the herders for their losses. “In the eight years since we started the Predator Compensation Program,” says Hill, “we’ve lost no more than one lion per year.”

Bonham also took on the poachers. Since the Kenya Wildlife Service concentrates on the national parks, Bonham taught barefoot Maasai how to use a GPS. He also supplied them with an even more wondrous tracking device—the English bloodhound. “Officers” Bosco, Drastic and Judy racked up so many prosecutions—even hunting down a suspect who’d fled by motorcycle to Tanzania—that some poachers believed the dogs were magical. The slobbering investigators twice caught Mutinda Ndivo. To his surprise, Bonham offered him a job. “I was confused at first,” says Ndivo, who now handles the hounds. “But this is a much better living. I can sleep at night.”

“Most poachers don’t stop when you say, ‘Hands up!’” says Bonham. “They have poisoned arrows and machetes. There have been firefights. We’ve had scouts get hurt.”

The reserve has become more of a warzone as the price of illegal ivory has soared. Ol Donyo boasts some of the biggest tuskers in Kenya. Bonham and Hill link the rise in trafficking to the influx of construction workers from China, where two tusks can fetch $100,000. “There is a lot of money to pay the killer,” says Hill. “Somalis are coming in with AK-47s.”

Bonham has gotten reinforcements. Famed zoologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton has helped to monitor the pachyderms. The Tusk Trust and photographer Nick Brandt’s Big Life Foundation have given him the means to train 200 scouts throughout the 1.5 million-acre Amboeseli-Tsavo ecosystem. The National Geographic Society supports the Predator Compensation Program.

Luxury lodge operator Great Plains Conservation was so impressed with Bonham’s scheme that the company bought into Ol Donyo Wuas in 2008.

“We saw it as a chance to create a working model that could be rolled out to other regions,” says famed filmmaker and Great Plains CEO Dereck Joubert, who co-founded the Big Cats Initiative with his wife, Beverly.

Great Plains promptly tore down the rustic cottages Bonham had designed on the back of a cigarette wrapper. They were replaced by 10 exquisitely decorated villas—most with their own plunge pools and rooftop star-gazing suites. The contemporary-colonial main lodge featured a menu and wine list to satisfy the snootiest explorer. (Travel + Lesiure dubbed it a “World’s Best Hotel” in 2011 and 2012.)

Bonham still has a stake in Ol Donyo Lodge, as it’s now called, but he is just as happy to let someone else do the greeting. “Hosting gets pretty monotonous,” he says. “And you have to be diplomatic—tell yourself ‘the client’s always right.’ Which I wasn’t very good at.”

The Bonhams still throw a good party. They’ll often invite Trust donors for sundowners around the fire at their home, a soaring thatched dwelling where acacia wood and lava-rock entwine like a temple ruin.

By dint of his personality, Bonham has inspired Ol Donyo’s well-heeled guests to support the ranch’s medical programs and eight schools. Of course, Bonham remains the daily solver of problems.

Bonham professes, “I’m hopeless at administration.” Still, he’s impressive in a lunch meeting with senior scouts. In between bites of boiled goat, he briskly dispatches rulings on buying a computer and motorcycle (“Sorry, guys”), trapping a rogue lioness, and fining a warrior who has clubbed one of his game scouts.

His fast, improvisational management style may be based on reflexes learned in the bush.

“Richard can deal with any situation,” says Hill, who recalls the Kenya Wildlife Service once asking Bonham to shoot an old male lion that had gone on a rampage. “So we’re crawling through thick brush. The lion is doubling back on its tracks, trying to sneak up on us. Suddenly, it came at us. In a split second, Richard took the lion on, so it would go for him, not the rest of us. He was cocking and firing while being shredded in a thorn bush. The lion ended up being 10 feet long, 450 lbs. Richard reacted with such bravery and calmness. Hemingway would have said, ‘Here is a true man.’”

Not that Bonham buys into Papa’s macho code. “I’ve had some close run-ins with elephant, buffalo, hippo,” he says. “Whenever you do have to shoot your way out, you backtrack and think, ‘What could I have done differently? It’s not nice to kill something. It’s horrible.”

For years, Bonham guided rich hunters on porter-supported walking safaris into the Selous Reserve. He only shot buffalo—“meat for the pot”—and not just any buffalo.

“He’d have you follow a herd for three hours in the heat of the day,” recalls his nephew, Richard Pye. “Finally, you’d stalk up on them. He’d pop his head up above the grass and say, ‘Nope, none here’—meaning there were no old bachelors. So we’d have to turn around.”

Several years ago, Bonham told me that “hunting can be a useful conservation tool. Because it generates a lot of money for protection.” And yet, he confessed, “At the end of each season, I feel like I don’t want to kill another animal.”

It wasn’t long after that conversation that he resolved to quit hunting. “The time for that is over,” he said. “I’ve just had enough of it.”

He’s still willing to take people to the Selous—“so long as it’s just for walking.”

Hill believes that, after all the animal charges, bouts of malaria and years in the blazing sun, Bonham is taking more precautions. “I think he’s used about seven of his nine lives,” says Hill. Bonham has also gotten quite attached to his children—Kora, 16, Jack, 13, and Saskia, 9. “You start thinking about them losing their father,” says Hill.

Human predators still lurk—not just the poachers but the curiously well-off Maasai ranch committee officers whom Bonham would like to see open their books.

“There are people who want to destroy us,” says Hill. “For their self-interest.”

“It wears you down,” says Tara. “As upbeat as Richard is, there are times when he holds his head in his hands and thinks, ‘What am I doing?’ Richard doesn’t get much of a salary. It’s all done sort of pro bono. I say to him sometimes, ‘Richard, all this effort goes into this land that we’ll never own. Do you not think we should buy land somewhere else?’ But he will never leave here. We’ll go for a game drive and he’ll say, ‘Look at that giraffe! When I came, there were only six. Now there are 200.’”

“One Christmas, we were about to have dinner when a Maasai contingent came in,” Tara continues. “They’d walked 25 or 30 kilometers to see Richard. He asked them all to sit down to eat. We had nothing apart from a chicken. I said, ‘Richard, this is our family day!’ But he said, ‘They don’t know it’s Christmas. They’ve traveled so far.’”

“When you see people hit a brick wall, you do what you can to help them over it,” says Bonham. “I could never be that guy who gets on the 8:15 train and comes back on the 5:15. Everyday here is different. You wake up in the morning and you don’t know where you’re going to be in the afternoon.”

ol Donyo Lodge

At Kenya's ol Donyo, Great Plains has partnered with the local Masai community to protect the area's wildlife while helping to support neighboring villages. While there, ride alongside a herd of giraffes on a horseback safari. Nights are spent in completely revitalized standalone thatched villas boasting cushy fabrics and elegant decor with views of the savannah below and Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance. The balcony’s day beds make excellent napping spots. Baths feature indoor and outdoor showers and dual vanities. Most villas boast infinity plunge pools. Everything from candlelit dinners under the stars to daily laundry is included in the rates leaving guests with little to worry about beyond seeking out the Big Five.

Nights are spent in completely revitalized standalone thatched villas boasting cushy fabrics and elegant decor with views of the savannah below and Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance. The balcony’s day beds make excellent napping spots. Baths feature indoor and outdoor showers and dual vanities. Most villas boast infinity plunge pools. Everything from candlelit dinners under the stars to daily laundry is included in the rates leaving guests with little to worry about beyond seeking out the Big Five.