The Chantecailles with Wilson and his family near the Mara

Places in the Heart

On their most recent trip to Kenya, the Chantecaille family found dear friends, lush landscapes, their beloved elephants and other fresh inspiration to feed their ongoing support for African wildlife.


“The first time I was in Kenya, I felt like I was home,” recalls Sylvie Chantecaille of the birth of her passion for East Africa nearly a decade ago. She has returned to the region several times, often with one or more family members, to visit projects supported by Chantecaille’s philanthropy collections, from forests in Rwanda to lion conservation in Kenya. But she hadn’t yet traveled with her entire family: her husband Olivier, son Philippe, and daughters Alex and Olivia—mom to six-year-old, Delphina, whom Sylvie dreamed of introducing to the African wilderness. So late last year, seven Chantecailles (including Olivia’s husband, Ren) embarked on a 13-hour flight from New York to Nairobi, with plans to visit a few favorite spots on the map—and a couple new ones, too.

Olivia and Delphina at Ithumba

A LOVING HOME
The family’s first stop was Tsavo East National Park, where the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust runs their private Ithumba Camp and Reintegration Unit. Founded by Sylvie’s friend, the late Dame Daphne Sheldrick, the Trust is now run by her daughter Angela. She has built on her mother’s pioneering work rescuing and rehabilitating orphaned elephants at the charity’s Nairobi nursery with three units that reintroduce elephants to the wild, along with anti-poaching and veterinary teams to protect animals on the ground—supported by Chantecaille’s philanthropy collections—and eco-lodges to generate income.

In a blooming, rainy-season landscape punctuated with giant leafy baobab trees, the family got a hands-on lesson in how orphaned adolescent elephants transition to life in the wilderness—freely roaming and frolicking in mud baths in a large protected area before being released into the park. Although the elephants are age 3 and up, they still receive three formula bottle feedings a day under the supervision of Benjamin Kyalo, their longtime head keeper. “He’s so passionate, he knows every elephant by name from very far away,” Sylvie says. Sometimes the rewilded elephants, who grow extremely attached to their keepers, return to the compound to show off their babies—“not only because it’s a place of safety, but to show the keeper what their care has enabled,” Philippe explains. “It’s such a pure and honest love between them.”

One treat: Delphina finally got to meet Kamok, the orphan she’d adopted through SWT’s Adopt an Orphan program, when they were both very little. “She was so excited and couldn’t wait to pet Kamok,” Olivia recalls—something that is possible to do with such young and habituated elephants. “Delphina was completely fearless around the elephants and was so fascinated by all the animals we encountered on our trip.”

African Grey Crowned Cranes; a lioness and her cubs

SAFARI TIME
The most impressive animal viewing would come next, in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Park, a short flight to the northwest past cloud-ringed Mount Kilimanjaro. The family rose at dawn for morning game drives ranging across the grassy rolling hills, eating breakfast in the bush. “Giraffes galloping amongst the acacias, shy hippos bathing in mud-thick rivers and elephants ambling up the distant hills as one large family—all of that in one gaze as the rains clear and the sky stretches to infinity. That is Kenya for me,” Alex says.

Although it was months before the annual Great Migration—in which thousands of wildebeests, zebras and other animals traverse the savannah and ford rivers—they spotted eyefuls of elephants, antelopes and lions on their drives, sometimes closer than expected. “One afternoon we found a pride of lions sleeping behind some bushes on top of a hill. There were maybe four lionesses and 12 cubs who were so sweet, curious and playful,” Olivia recalls. “I knew there must be males around—I could swear I heard a low rumble from the bushes—but our guide said no. When we pulled away, sure enough, there were two huge males with enormous manes napping behind the bush. Luckily they were pretty chill!”

There was another reason the family had come to the Mara: to visit Wilson Pere, a Maasai safari driver who had guided Sylvie on her first trip. The two had stayed in touch over the years, with Sylvie sponsoring his children’s school fees, but she had never been to his home. After a six-hour, muddy and rain-soaked drive through the park, they arrived at Wilson’s compound—traditional Maasai homes of mud, sticks and sheet metal plus a small livestock enclosure—where he lives with his wife, son and two daughters, plus his sisters and their families. The Chantecailles were warmly received with gifts of Maasai textiles and hand-sewn and beaded shirts and jewelry. “We always laugh so hard when we’re with Wilson, he has an incredible joy,” Sylvie says. “But it was especially nice to see Delphina with his girls, holding hands and playing together, even though they don’t share a language. Girls just being girls.”

“For me, this experience really epitomized how important it is to save wild places. It is their inherent magic and intelligence that we all come from and benefit from.”
—Alex Chantecaille

Diani Beach

FROM BUSH TO BEACH
Before their final destination, the family flew from the Mara to dust off at Diani Beach on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast. Here they enjoyed a few days at Kinondo Kwetu, a barefoot-chic resort run by a Swedish couple who bought the spot from a relative of Out of Africa author Karen Blixen (and a one-time favorite hideaway of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt). Here, from an elegant traditional Somali-style wood-and-thatch villa, they were treated to the sight of sunrises over the shallow turquoise water, while fishermen set off daily in small wooden vessels and camels led by ride hawkers came strolling down the golden sand. “The beach is always a great thing to do after a safari, and the Kenyan coast is such a unique place,” Sylvie says.

One day Alex and her father, Olivier, took an outing to the sacred Kinondo Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the Digo people. Here they learned how the Digo subsisted in the forest, “using every element of the bark, leaves and flowers for clothing—even a type of leaf called ubongo whose pungent aroma helps with headaches and madness!” Alex recalls. Under a thick tree canopy that dissipated the coastal heat, the two followed hundreds of butterflies through a grove and napped on a natural “hammock” of branches. “There was such a reverence and gratitude for the abundance of the forest, which is still used for sacred meetings and medical ceremonies,” Alex says. “For me, this experience really epitomized how important it is to save wild places. It is their inherent magic and intelligence that we all come from, benefit from and gain protection from. It is our home and we must honor it as such.”

At Enasoit, clockwise from top left: giraffes; the rescued cheetah; Alex; Sylvie with Space for Giants’ Max Graham

ROOM TO ROAM
The group flew on to Laikipia, a plateau in the central highlands of northern Kenya, known for its density of giraffes and elephants crossing land concessions anchored by old family lodges. The lodge at Enasoit Camp, where the family stayed in stretched-canvas tents with Persian carpets, overlooks a salt lick and watering hole that attract a Noah’s Ark of animals in daily rotation—elephant, giraffe, buffalo, lion, “each knowing their place in the hierarchy and when to cede to the next group,” Olivia recalls. There was even a cheetah on property who had been rescued as a baby and rehabilitated—unfortunately, they cannot be reintroduced to the wild.

The family was joined by Max Graham, founder of Space for Giants, Chantecaille’s Lip Veil charity partner, whose headquarters are in nearby Nanyuki. The region is where SFG first employed its game-changing approach to conserving elephants and their migratory corridors, laying down miles of electric “smart fence” around farms to prevent human-wildlife conflict, deploying antipoaching units, and creating jobs and income for local communities to deter the killing of wild animals to trade or consume. In Laikipia, this approach has helped cut the number of poached elephants by 97 percent from 2012 peaks. Sitting around a crackling fire sipping sundowners as lions claimed the watering hole, Max, Sylvie and the family discussed Space for Giants’ latest achievements—they have just finished the 50-mile Laikipia fence—and how to continue scaling up its model across Africa: last year, they doubled the number of countries they work in to eight. It was early January and the pandemic had not yet hopped the borders of China—little did they know what challenges lay ahead, when a fall-off in tourism revenue would intensify the illegal wildlife trade.

The trip galvanized the family on many fronts, not least inspiring the lustrous palette of fall 2020’s Safari Chic Collection, whose copper and gold hues recall the glimmering African earth and savannah while the taupe conjures an elephant’s hide. But even more, it instilled in each of them a fresh view on the urgency to conserve the continent’s last wild spaces. Flying in a tiny plane back to Nairobi, they remarked on the patchwork of farms, roads, and towns unfolding below them. “On the ground it still feels so wild and open,” Olivia says. “But flying over endless highways, towns and other developments, you can really see how the land is shrinking and the pathways of migratory animals are blocked. It was completely eye opening.” Adds Sylvie, “Seeing how much space has been taken already and knowing how quickly human populations are expanding, you feel the animals’ incredible race for survival and how imperative it is that people pull together to preserve these lands. Or the animals won’t stand a chance.”

In the meantime, while international travel is restricted, the family are savoring their memories and dreaming of their next return. “When I’m in Kenya, I feel abundant and alive,” Alex says. “I’m so lucky to be connected to this land through a deep love of the animals, the landscape, and a true passion for the people.”

Elephants in the Masai Mara; Delphina with Wilson’s children

 

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