The aristocratic class that owns huge tracts of land in Kenya
by Dauti Kahura

The aristocratic class that owns huge tracts of land in Kenya

Laikipia Plateau, estimated to be about 10,000 sq km or 2.5 million acres, has the biggest number of white landowners. It stretches from Mt Kenya in the east to the Rift Valley in the west. The Laikipia Maasai, who number approximately 35,000, are squashed on different patches of land, which measure about 1100 sq km or an equivalent of 281,587 acres of land.

On the other hand, foreigners comprising mostly the British and American "aristocratic" class and a few influential local politically well-connected barons, occupy thousands of acres of land on an individual basis. Only 20 own 74 per cent of the total land in the Laikipia District. In the Laikipia Plateau, private ranches range from "small" concerns of 5,000 acres to endless horizons of massive land properties that are over 100,000 acres. There are approximately 36 estates. Two of the 18 estates are owned by multi-millionaire Hollywood A-list types who entertain tourist guests. Many of the private farms and ranches are today being converted to wildlife sanctuaries.

Ol Ari Nyiro Ranch

Italian Baroness and socialite, Kuki Gallman, who owns 100,000 acres (L/R No. 8049), is one of the big landowners in the district. It is known as Ol Ari Nyiro Ranch or Laikipia Ranch (Ol Ari Nyiro in the Maasai language means the place of dark waters). Kuki and her second husband Paolo Gallman bought the ranch in 1974. After the death of Paolo and her son Emmanuel in 1980 and 1983 respectively, Kuki transformed the property into a reserve, providing a wildlife sanctuary in 1984. Her husband was killed in a car accident, while transporting a cot for their unborn baby. Three years later, tragedy struck again and Kuki’s 17-year-old son was killed by a poisonous snake as he tried to extract venom from it.

At one time, Ol Ari Nyiro Ranch used to have the largest available number of wildlife, including the endangered species of black rhino and the rare beautiful Grevy Zebra. Out of the 100,000 acres, 2,000 have been set aside for leasing to sedentary individuals who use the land for cultivation.

After Kuki’s "little country", the other huge chunk of land is the Ol-Pejeta Ranch, a 92,000-acre private concern that was formerly owned by the LONRHO Group. Last year, the ranch was in the news when former President Moi’s family put out a press advert warning that some unknown people were selling parts of it. Located between Mt Kenya and the Aberdare Ranges, the Ol-Pejeta also straddles the Equator. The largest chunk of the land – 63,000 acres — has been left to rearing of cattle and sheep. There are 8,000 head of cattle that have been split into 86 huge paddocks and 4,000 sheep.

Game sanctuary

Another 24,000 acres have been preserved as a game sanctuary called the Sweet Waters Game Reserve. In essence, the ranch just leaves a paltry "3,590" acres to be leased (with agreement) for wheat farming. Originally part of the Maasai homeland, it was acquired by Lord Delamere in the early part of the 20th century and his partner Marcus Wickham Byanton.

Ol-Pejeta has interesting and chequered history. After Lord Delamere’s ownership, the ranch was acquired by Christina Onassis’ father-in-law, Henri Roussel. The Roussel family comes from the French bourgeoisie class that has huge investments in the pharmaceutical industry. His son, Thierry, was married to Christina, until she died in 1988. The late Christina was the only daughter of the late Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis, one time the richest man in the world.

But it is Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi-born international "playboy" and former billionaire arms dealer, who transformed the ranch into an entertainment arena, giving it notorious prominence. In his heyday, Khashoggi used the ranch as his hideaway and getaway from international business deals.

Ol Pejeta ranch is registered as nine pieces — possibly because of changing ownership and because of gradually growing in size over the years. They are Nos. 10323, 10068 (whose original number was 5116/2), 6301/2, 5160/2, 2618/2, 2582, 2564, 6367 and 2561.

Ol Jogi Ranch

Away from Ol-Pejeta, there is Ol Jogi Ranch – 67,000 acres of prime land – which is another of the famous getaway "playgrounds" for its super rich owners. Owned by a famous New York, French-American family – the Wildensteins – it is often used to unwind and escape from the fast-paced life and the hustle and bustle of the largest cities of the world. According to the former wife of Alec Wildenstein, billionaire owner of the Ol Jogi, Jocelyne, "the operating costs of the ranch alone (at one time) ran up to a whopping $150,000 a month."

Ol Jogi has 200 buildings spread over an area that is five times the size of Manhattan. The ranch employs more than 400 workers, whose main work is to look after and cater for domestic and wild animals. Thirteen thousand acres of the ranch are just reserved for the threatened species of black and white rhinos. The ranch is also home to 2,000 indigenous Borana cattle and 250 camels.

Ol Jogi ranch was thrown into the international limelight in 1997 when its owners, Alec and Jocelyne Wildenstein, were embroiled in a steamy and acrimonious divorce that lasted two years. Alec 64, heir to his father’s – Donald wildenstein – 100 year old multi-billion dollar international art business, was caught, literally speaking, with his pants down by his wife in their aristocratic Manhattan home. Jocelyne, 60, had just arrived from Ol Jogi ranch in Laikipia, when on September 3, 1997, she found Alec in bed with a 19-year-old blonde.

The Wildenstein family originates from France and controls billions of shillings that have been made from owning private art collections and galleries located in New York, Tokyo and Buenos Aires. So rich are the Wildensteins that a Nanyuki lawyer, who used to work for them, said they do not know the extent of their land, "what road leads where, because many times, when they visit the ranch, they fly in and out."

As one of the ranches that have an unparalled breathtaking and panoramic landscape, the ranch has the only bear that lives on African soil. Among its scenic beauty are numerous rocky mountains, acacia bush, undulating rolling plateau and highland grassland. The ranch is used for filming by movie makers, as well as multinational corporations like Pepsi Coca and Coca Cola who shoot commercials and films.

Lewa Downs

The other big and famous landowner in Laikipia is the Craig family. The Craigs are famously known internationally and locally also for hosting Prince William, the charming son of the late Princess Diana of Wales, three times between 2000-2003. The family owns approximately 45,000 acres of land, which has been in the family since 1918. It is believed that Ian Craig’s great grandmother was awarded the land by the British Government for her services during the First World War. Ian’s father was called David and his mother was Delin. Delin happened to be the step-daughter of Will Powys, another great pioneer landowner in Laikipia after the First World War.

Also known as the Lewa Downs (a private conservancy), the Craigs’ expansive land also incorporates Anna Mertz’s Ngare Sergoi Rhino sanctuary and one of Laikipia’s indigenous forests, the Ngare Ndare. It has been home to three generations of the Craig family. About 22,250 hectares of this expansive land is under the nature reserve. Craig has some few livestock on his land, although a good chunk is used by the British Army for training.

A British, Craig is known for vigorously advocating the legitimisation of game hunting. Currently, he is believed to be managing the Solio ranch which has been for sale since last year. The ranch has purportedly interested Craig, who, it is alleged, has sent his security personnel to guard the ranch. The ranch, whose L/R No. is 11571, and estimated to be 59,000 acres, is believed to be on sale and the asking price is about $21 million (Sh1.6 billiuon) The ranch has two divisions namely, a cattle ranch, which is on a 41,500-acre land and the game park, which sits on 17,500 acres. The private ranch is also used by the British Army or "Johnnies" for training.

Loisaba ranch

Loisaba wilderness ranch, estimated to be close to 61,000 is yet another land mass that has been leased to three young enterprising white Kenyans. Peter Sylvester, Tom Sylvester and Giles Davies formed an organisation called the The Wilderness Guardian Company. Peter Sylvester is the CEO of Royal African Safaris Ltd.

Loisaba ranch was formerly known as Colcheccio and used to be run under a company called Oryx Ltd that was established in 1997. Colcheccio is an Italian word that loosely translates as "mind your own business". According to the history of the ranch, Count Ancelotto’s Italian friends tried to dissuade him from buying the land, saying it was a waste of resources. The Count is reported to have told them "colcheccio." Just about the size of the famous Ngorongoro Crater in Arusha Tanzania, Loisaba is a private wildlife conservancy cum cattle ranch. Loisaba ranch, registered as L/R No 8035/R, has two permanent rivers and several permanent springs.

Then there is Mpala Ranch, which incorporates the Mpala Research/Centre Foundation and Mpala Farm — yet another massive ranchland totalling 47,000 acres — which is owned by American, George Small. The ranch, three times the size of Manhattan, is today run by a New York lawyer, Howard Ende, who used to work until recently at Princeton University. Small, who is now close to 80 years old, has dedicated the land to the Smithsonian Institution, because he has no apparent heir to bequeath the land to.

The original Mpala ranch was bought by George’s brother, Sam, in 1952. The land was left to George after Sam’s death in 1969. In 1989, George started the Mpala Research Foundation intended to fund all activities of the ranch and farm. Small, who is ailing – lives in Ontario, Canada, and travels to Mpala several times a year. The ranch is registered in pieces, and its several L/R Nos. include 10549/1, 2400, 2399, 2397, 7621, 7829 and 2401.

Samburu-buru ranch

Samburu-buru ranch (L/R No is 8033/325) is another of the famous private ranches in Laikipia. Situated in the middle of the Laikipia Plateau, it is a 24,000-acre magnificent wildlife sanctuary that enjoys one of the best climates in the vast plateau.

It used to be called Sosian, which means palm tree in Samburu, and was owned by the late famous Nyeri businessman, politician and former MP for Kieni and President Mwai Kibaki’s trusted aide, Munene Kairo. Today, it is run by a consortium of friends among them Tristan and Lucinda Voorspuy and possibly Mark Lawrence, a business partner of the duo. The three business partners own a Safari company called Offbeat Safaris.

There is also the Borana Ranch, a 35,000-acre land that is located on the foothills of Mt Kenya. Owned by the British family of Gilfrid Powys since the 1920s, it has a small lake and an airstrip. Gilfrid’s father, Will Powys was a First World War veteran. Before the break out of the war, Will used to work as a rancher for the Cole family that was one of Kenya’s earliest settler pioneers and owned land in Laikipia. Borana ranch is today run by Powys’ nephew, Michael Dyer, who rears Borana cattle and has also reserved a great deal of land for wildlife and tourism lodges.

Powys, who is one of the largest landowners in Laikipia, has two other huge ranches in the district: Kisima and Il-Penguin ranches. Kisima ranch borders Meru on one side and Nanyuki on the other. Il-Penguin in Maasai means a valley. It is believed Il-Penguin is so big, it is criss-crossed by valleys and gulleys. Kisima ranch is estimated to be more than 70,000 acres. It is registered in eight different pieces and hosts North Kenya Polo Club. Some of its L/R Nos. are 2788, 2789 and 2795.

Chololo ranch

Apart from Powys’ family, which happens to be one of the oldest in Laikipia, the other better known family in the area is the Jessel family. The Jessel family owns a total of four ranches, the most famous one being the Chololo ranch, which is between Ol-Jogi Marley ranch. It is owned by Sammy Jessel, one of the sons of the elder, John Jessel. His brother, Martin Jessel, also owns a huge ranch in Laikipia. Though we could not establish the acreages of the Jessel ranches, the L/R Nos. of their land are 2402 and 2988.

A member of the famous Block family who had invested heavily in the hotel business, Jeremy Block, recently acquired a huge ranch in Laikipia, which he bought in 2000. The ranch, which is today called Ole Naisho – Maasai for honey – for a long time was called Kamwaki. It is about 30,000 acres and it has approximately 7,000 head of beef cattle. Block who is Kenyan, is spotted almost every Sunday flying into his ranch, is currently building a tourist lodge. Block is the Managing Director of Dorman Limited, a coffee selling concern. Dorman was founded in the 50s as part of Starbucks Coffee.

Block’s ranch, registered as L/R Nos. 9000 and 2884, also has the British Army training grounds. Yet, recently, it is Mogwooni ranch, which is about 40,000 acres that has been attracting attention among the Laikipia Maasai community. Mogwooni, which is owned by an old man called Kenyon, has the best breed of sheep and cattle. His ranch registered under L/R Nos. 4704 and 2764.

Ole Malo Ranch is another of the better known Laikipia game sanctuaries. Estimated to be 5,000 acres, it is owned by the couple Colin and Rocky Francombe, who once worked for Kuki for two decades.

Other big time ranching schemes in Laikipia include, the 47,000 acres Mugie Ranch. Mugie ranch L/R No. 8051, used to be called Suguta Mugie –– a Maasai name for salt lake. According to the local Maasai, it is believed that the ranch used to belong to Kitili Mwendwa in the 80’s. Kitili was the first African Chief Justice and later on, the MP for Kitui West constituency. Today, the ranch is run by Claus Mortensen, who is also the vice-chairman of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum. We could not establish his nationality, but it could be Danish, American or Norwegian.