When I walked into the compound last Thursday, it was peaceful and quiet, save for the chirping birds.
The last time I visited Kwa Kyelu Ranch was early last year when the farm owner, Senator Mutula Kilonzo, died. But this time, I was here to marvel at the former lawyer-politician’s lasting legacy — his wild animals.
I was eager to finally see his famed lions, the ones that roam freely, well, at least in an enclosure near the main house. The ranch attendant, Mr Joseph Mwendwa Mbithi, was equally eager to show me around the expansive ranch and how well they have cared for and guarded the late minister’s passion.
And despite the misfortune of being orphaned twice, I find the lions — Mutula, Nduku and Sis — resting peacefully, perhaps thankful of the pampered treatment they are used to. The three live in one cage while the fourth, Lydia, lives in a separate enclosure.
A sign that reads “We are friendly but only from a distance,” stands near the cages.
The big cats first made headlines four years ago when Mr Kilonzo, then Justice minister, talked about his other big love besides law and politics: wildlife conservation.
The lions lost their mother when they were hardly two months old and Mr Kilonzo brought them into the 1,500-acre Kwa Kyelu Ranch that borders Maanzoni Lodge.
When we got closer to the cage that is secured by a heavy gauge chain link, Mutula, Nduku and Sis started pacing up and down restlessly, perhaps aware of the presence of strangers. But Lydia was unperturbed.
According to the minders, Lydia is scared of visitors and even when they bring her meat, unlike the others who grab the pieces with gusto, she waits until everyone leaves before eating.
Mr Mbithi offered an explanation for this unusual behaviour.
“If you observe her closely, you will notice that Lydia’s hind legs are weak and her spinal cord is also deformed. Just as Mutula, Nduku and Sis are close, Lydia and her sister Elizabeth were very close until an unfortunate incident separated them forever,” says Mr Mbithi.
He said Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) officers came and took Elizabeth away because she had a disorder with her umbilical cord. Unfortunately she died during treatment.
“Since then, Lydia is wary of visitors and likes keeping to herself, perhaps afraid that she might be taken away like her sister,” says Mr Mbithi.
The five cubs that are seven years old now had been rescued from the Maasai Mara by KWS personnel. As KWS officials searched for a home for the cubs, Mr Kilonzo offered to take them in. He would later say the adoption was testimony of his love for wildlife conservation, a passion he had pursued for two decades.
In an interview in 2011, KWS chief licensing officer Ibrahim Lubia had said that Mr Kilonzo was allowed to take the cubs in because he agreed to keep those lions that could not make it in the wild.
And, by the time he died in April last year, Mr Kilonzo had been appointed an honorary game warden.
It was a sacrificial commitment because in two years he had spent close to Sh4 million feeding the cats.
Mr Kilonzo loved to watch the lions feed. “Until you watch a lion eat from this close, you can never understand the meaning of passion,” he told Lifestyle two years ago.
Mr Mbithi says nothing has changed about the way the lions are looked after.
“We slaughter a cow every week to feed the four lions, two cheetahs and a rare eagle species that Mr Kilonzo imported from Ethiopia,” says Mr Mbithi.
They are fed once every 24 hours. “Mutula gets the largest share — five kilos of meat every day — while the others get four kilos each. The cheetahs get three kilos,” says Mr Mbithi.
The signpost leading to the cheetahs’ cage reads “Hague, Mutula, Ocampo”.
Asked about the choice of the name two years ago, Mr Kilonzo said: “My children suggested that the cage be called The Hague because everyone is afraid of it.”
Kwa Kyelu is also home to buffalos which have become used to human presence. They were adopted while young. They were brought in from Nakuru, Meru and Magadi.
The ranch also hosts 120 leopard tortoises that were rescued in Baringo, Rift Valley.
There is also a lone ostrich. “We had three of them but two died last year. One was eaten by a stray lion while the other was killed by a buffalo. Wild animals guard their territory and the ostriches strayed into their path and they were killed,” says Mbithi.
Workers at the expansive ranch say life has not been the same since the death of their employer.
“Mutula (Mr Kilonzo) was like a father to us, and to all the animals in this ranch. He had his way that touched us in one way or the other,” says Mr James Muasa, a worker at the ranch.
He says the politician had a dominant trait that would make his presence felt whether he was in the ranch or miles away.
After walking around the expansive ranch where Mr Kilonzo loved to retreat to at the weekend, it was clear that things would not be as they used to be. One cottage which was popular with guests is not used much these days. Visitors to the ranch have also declined.
According to Mr Mbithi, children pay Sh200 while adults part with Sh500 to see the animals. Visitors also pay Sh2,500 per night to rent a cottage.
The management has not been without challenges. On the day we visited the farm, ranch manager Jackson Ngui had testified at a Machakos court in a case in which two employees were accused of stealing and slaughtering goats they were employed to look after. The case comes up for hearing next month.
But, despite the setbacks, Mr Ngui is confident that the ranch will be there many years to come.
“There are many good things happening as you have seen. Our relationship with Mutula’s widow Nduku and son Mutula Kilonzo Junior is good,” says Mr Ngui, adding “we recently increased the salaries of our 27 workers.”
“We are very much involved in the running of the ranch,” Senator Kilonzo Jnr told Lifestyle on the phone.
The workers said Mr Mutula Jnr and Nduku visit the ranch alternately every week.
A short walk from the animals’ enclosure leads us to the one-storey ranch house where Mutula died. A grass-thatched office – modelled on the lines of traditional huts – stands next to the ranch house.
Towering trees, which are home to hundreds of birds, surround the house. As a lover of nature, Mr Kilonzo had built a fountain for birds and, from the balcony of his house, he loved to watch the birds play outside.
According to the workers, other animals found at the ranch include Thomson’s gazelles, zebra, giraffes, deer and monkeys.
Other than wild animals, the ranch is also home to cows, goats, sheep, donkeys and camels.
KWS veterinarians regularly visit Kwa Kyelu to inspect the animals’ living environment and to treat them if sick.