The sound of chirping birds and trumpeting elephants welcome us to the 29,000-acre Ol Maisor conservancy in Laikipia North, a richly biodiverse tourism hotspot.
A cloud of dust threatens to envelope us as we navigate the dusty road to the ranch, owned by the Martin Evans family.
Our eyes are drawn to a herd of about 20 elephants strolling towards a water hole in the ranch. It is a scene to behold.
The elephants and their calves splash and spray water about, then step away from the water and freeze as if posing for a group photo.
The serenity and tranquillity capture the region’s renewed hope for better days ahead after a series of invasions by armed from Samburu, Baringo, West Pokot and Isiolo counties threatened wildlife, tourism and farming activities in 2017 and 2018.
The conflict spilt over to Laikipia East and West.
Ol Maisor ranch was among many others that bore the brunt of the invasions that left many dead, others maimed, livestock stolen and wildlife killed.
Poachers took advantage of the invasions and the soft underbelly of the security personnel in conservancies to kill wild animals.
Although pastoralists claimed they had migrated to the county in search of water and pasture, they invaded ranches, conservancies and private farms.
Duncan Murimi, a worker at Ol Maisor, was ambushed and shot dead on April 13, 2017.
One of the high-profile killing was that of 24,000-acre Sosian Ranch co-owner Tristan Voorspuy, a former British soldier. He was shot dead on March 7, 2017.
Herders invaded conservationist Kuki Gallman’s Laikipia Nature Conservancy on April 27, 2019 and shot her in the stomach, seriously injuring her.
Mrs Gallmann says she has forgiven them. “I thank God for protecting me, and life continues. Yes, there is calm. Right now I am enjoying watching hippos. However, there are still pockets of invasions in the region,” says the 73-year-old Italian-born author.
Calm has now returned to most of the ranches and conservancies here.
Both local and international tourists have started trickling back to the animal sanctuaries and lodges that the ranchers have rebuilt. “Generally, we now have peace and calm,” says Mr Mohamed Abkul, the security manager at Ol Maisor.
“Laikipia used to be like Kismayu. Herders invaded ranches and conservancies without fear. They shot, looted and poached at will. This is a thing of the past.”
He adds that it has been calm since January this year, with minimal incidents of invasion or cattle rustling.
“There is renewed hope for better days away from the tension and insecurity that characterised this region. We were always alert and living in fear of attacks, but this has changed.”
Powerful individuals, security agents and senior government employees were not spared in the attacks.
In Laikipia West, the 20,000-acre Lombara Ranch — owned by former President Mwai Kibaki’s family and located on the outskirts of Rumuruti — was raided.
A relative of the former President, Mr John Mwai, was injured in one of the attacks.
He suffered serious injuries on the right shoulder and left thigh and now uses a wheelchair.
The family has since abandoned part of the expansive farm. Mr Mwai is also the first cousin of Laikipia Governor Ndiritu Muriithi.
Senator GG Kariuki’s farm, and the government-owned ADC Mutara Ranch, were also attacked.
Former Laikipia West police boss Moherai Merengo Kibwabwa was shot and seriously injured on February 7, 2017 while driving out herders from Kifuku Ranch in Rumuruti.
He uses a wheelchair and has since retired. Early last year armed grazers invaded former National Cohesion and Integration Commission boss Francis ole Kaparo’s 20,000-acre ranch.
Marmar Ranch, owned by the family of former Kenya Army Commander James Lenges, was also invaded.
Today, the section of the Lombara Ranch that was hit has been abandoned but the damaged fence and abandoned structures remain.
Things are looking up on the 8,000-acre Kifuku Ranch. However, activity on the initially busy ranch, owned by Maria Dodds, have been scaled down.
A worker on the ranch says the owner has moved most of the cattle from the farm to Nakuru and other parts of the country for safety.
Other ranches that were invaded include the Mugie Conservancy, one of the largest in Laikipia North, covering 49,000 acres; Loisaba Ranch; and the 24,000-acre Sosian Ranch.
Six cottages were reduced to ashes on the 44,000-acre Suyian Ranch in Laikipia North, forcing the owner, Mr Gilfred Powys, to close down the property.
An elephant trampled Mr Powys to death on December 27, 2017. Smallholder farms in the Ol Moran area were also affected.
Mr John Wahome, who lost property worth millions of shillings when herders drove their animals onto his 300-acre farm in at Ol Moran, is slowly picking up the pieces.
The invaders destroyed a lodge that he was putting up and vehicles.
“The armed herders devastated my farm, but I am slowly rebuilding it. They uprooted and carted away my fence poles and barbed wire,” Mr Wahome tells the Saturday Nation.
Another farmer, Ms Alice Wanjiru, is slowly rebuilding after her Rumuruti farm was invaded and property, including crops, valued at millions of shillings destroyed.
The attackers also stole animals. “I had big plans for my farm before the invasions,” she says. “They sent me back to the drawing board. All the same, I thank God for protecting me. The raiders struck one night and terrorised my employees but no one was seriously injured.”
The invasions were said to be a result of a potent mix of politics, drought, land grievances and the proliferation of illegal firearms.
While touring the region last month, Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i urged leaders to foster peace.
Dr Matiang’i, who addressed a peace meeting of elders from Laikipia, Marsabit, Isiolo and Samburu, said the government will not condone leaders who incite residents to violence.
Security forces have been monitoring grazing activities to ensure that there are no conflicts.
Last week, Laikipia West Assistant County Commissioner Wilfred Odhiambo urged pastoralists migrating into Laikipia in search of pasture and water to seek consent from village elders as the government moves in to minimise resource-based conflicts.
In an interview with the Saturday Nation, the administrator warned migrating herders that they will no longer be allowed into the county unless they seek permission from locals.
“We want to employ traditional peace-making mechanisms to address conflicts caused by migrating herders who have been grazing on private farms without the consent of owners,” said Mr Odhiambo.
He announced that a mop-up of illegal firearms will start early next month and urged locals to take advantage of an amnesty to hand over the weapons to the government by September 30.
Mr George Natembeya, the Rift Valley regional coordinator, said the government is keen on ensuring lasting peace in the county.