In Summary
  • Less than 50 individuals own 45 per cent of Laikipia’s land, mostly wildlife ranchers.
  • Kuki suffered her first loss in Kenya when Paolo died from an accident in 1980 when she was pregnant.

On Monday last week, conservationist Kuki Gallmann wrote a poem on the joys and pain she was going through as attackers rummaged through her 100,000 acres Ol Ari Nyiro farm in Laikipia.

“Arson on the hills. Orange tongues frame the horizon. Smoke lifts in the wind. Deja vue(sic)…but we are veterans,” the award-winning author wrote on her Facebook page.

Her words captured the life and times of one of the biggest land owners, her battles with invaders and the personal price she has had to pay for the last 45-years she has stayed in Laikipia. That includes losing her husband and son.

In Laikipia, poverty and wealth sit next to each other.

In one corner, rich aristocrats sip European champagne in cottages that are hired for Sh1 million a week yet in another corner, half-naked weary women trek for kilometres in search of water.

A New York Times article named Laikipia one of six top tourist destinations in Africa with 90,000 visitors a year generating Sh1.5 billion.

But it is also very unequal. The county is Kenya’s 15th largest county and 26th poorest.

Less than 50 individuals own 45 per cent of Laikipia’s land, mostly wildlife ranchers.

And this is the region Kuki made her home in 1972 and using her five books and a movie, has put the county on the world map.

It all started in the 1970s in Venice, Italy.

After a debilitating accident in Italy, Kuki, who is a poster girl for conservationists, was looking for a new start.

And she found it with husband Paolo Gallmann, an adventurer who had constantly confessed his love for Africa.

Her second act was when Paulo convinced her and son Emanuele to settle and start a new life in Africa.

And in 1972, they acquired Ol Ari Nyiro, a 90,000-acre estate on the edge of the Great Rift Valley.

As portrayed in her book, I Dreamed of Africa, and a movie by the same title, life on the expansive ranch was bittersweet.

The steep, pristine flat land surrounded by green hills that awed the eyes and calmed the soul was just what the couple needed to bond.

It helped that she was practising what she loved, wildlife conservancy.

But the paradise was occasionally interrupted with bouts of raids by poachers and tribal warriors either killing elephants for ivory or stealing her cattle.

“We have been battling poachers and other invaders since 80s,” she told the BBC in the 80s.

In the movie, Paolo is portrayed as a happy-go lucky adventurer who loved life on the fast wilderness lane.

His love for wildlife and family was however unquestionable.

Kuki suffered her first loss in Kenya when Paolo died from an accident in 1980 when she was pregnant with daughter Sveva, who confirmed the shooting of her mother.

Three years after Paolo’s death, her son Emanuele also died after being bitten by a snake in the ranch.

Emanuele was studying herpetology (study of amphibians and reptiles) and was bitten by a puff adder as he was extracting venom to make anti-venom.

It was a painful loss. “To remember them and what they stood for, we started the Gallmann Memorial Foundation: an organisation that promotes the delicate coexistence between humans and nature, with an environmental, creative and sustainable approach,” she said.

While the early 80s were tragic for Kuki, the 90’s brought a renaissance in tourism and her fortunes.


Ol Ari Nyiro ranch became a go-to site for high end tourists with places like Mukutan Retreat and Centre Bandas.

Business was booming, not just in her ranch but also Laikipia.

But currently, Kuki and other ranchers are facing hungry and thirsty herders who have been driven from their land by lack of pasture and water.

Last month, her Mukutan retreat was torched.

Herders argue that they cannot watch their animals die due to lack of water and pasture yet conservancies have both.

Ranchers are also entitled to their land as enshrined in the law and have been willing to share the pasture but in a structured way.

Blood has flowed since the first invasions late last year.

More than 100 animals have been killed, dozens of herders have also died and British rancher Tristan Voorspuy killed.

An MP and three people have already been charged with the violence. Both sides are standing their ground.