James Christian Supports Conservation of Wildlife with Walking Safaris in Kenya
- By Shari Halik and James Christian
The childhood experiences that formed James Christian’s (WFB ’94) fascination for wildlife and drew him to the Rubenstein School were a little different than for most RSENR students. James grew up in Concord, Massachusetts. His mother owned a safari business, Anthea Christian Safaris, providing tours of Kenya. His father, who, with a law degree, had worked in the courts for the Kenyatta government, was an adventurer and traveler. As a child in the 1970s, James went on his first of many safaris in Kenya.
“We saw a Bongo, a very rare antelope, and later our Land Rover was nearly flipped by a charging Rhino,” he remembers of his first safari. After many more early experiences on safari, James was hooked on wildlife. During high school and college, he guided clients on Kenyan safaris and interpreted ecology and wildlife for visitors. James is currently co-owner of a walking safari company in Kenya.
In thinking back to his years in the Rubenstein School, James acknowledges two of his instructors: Associate Professor David Hirth, “who drummed into me some good behavioral ecology. I see gazelle and other game on a near daily basis exhibiting the kinds of behavior that we covered in his wildlife behavior class. The other teacher was John Shane who taught me dendrology. His enthusiasm for his subject rubbed off and to this day I’m using the techniques he taught to preserve and ID tree specimens.”
After graduating from UVM, he worked as a biological research assistant for an ecological firm in Concord; North Carolina State University; University of California; The Peregrine Fund in Idaho; and the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory in Colorado; among others. He took cinematography and videography classes at the Maine Photographic Workshops, and while working as a condor release technician in Arizona for The Peregrine Fund, James acted as liaison for the media. Because so many of the media channels had limited time to shoot, James was in the perfect position to sell his own footage to them, and he gathered many hours of footage of the first release of condors.
He then worked as a wildlife cinematographer for Sharpshin Productions of San Francisco and Orca Films of Nevada City and co-produced A Brother Returns, a documentary on the release of California Condors, which was a finalist at the International Film Festival. His footage has appeared on PBS’s Nature and CBS’s Sunday Morning.
After nearly 10 years, James decided to switch gears. “I had gotten to a point where I needed to pursue an advanced degree and continue working in biology or to change paths and jump totally into the world of wildlife cinematography,” he recalls.
He took some time off and headed to Kenya where he reconnected with an old family friend from their childhood safari days, now his wife, Kerry Glen. Kerry had been operating walking safaris with camels for 10 years and introduced James to the entire enterprise. They now co-own and operate Karisia Walking Safaris in Kenya. Their company is named after Karisia Hills which encompasses a beautiful old growth forest called the Loroghi.
A typical day on a walking safari might entail 12 kilometers, with arrival at the next camp before lunch. Camels carry the mobile camp from point to point, and James and Kerry do not depend on a vehicle for any support. Their safari area, Laikipia, two hours north of Mt. Kenya in the middle of the country, has the greatest diversity of large mammals in Kenya. They observe Lions, Leopards, Cheetahs, Caracals, Servals, and Wildcats, as well as Hyenas, Aardwolf, Wilddog, and countless other small predators. The plains game is equally diverse, ranging from the diminutive Dikdik to the imposing Eland. Endangered species include Grevy’s Zebra, Reticulated Giraffe, and Highland Hartebeest.
“Every day on a walking safari is different,” describes James. “On my last trip I came on an upset pair of Jackals barking at some rocks. Some Hyrax nearby, instead of looking at myself and my guests, were also staring at the same rocks. I knew there was a Leopard, and the marks where it had dragged an Impala kill confirmed my suspicion. Just as I was telling everyone to train their eyes on the rocks, the Leopard bolted from the rocks with a chilling grunt. There is no comparing what this feels like on foot with the same experience in a vehicle.”
On safari, guests and staff stay in mobile canvas tents with a toilet and shower tent behind. On most safaris, they have a team of about 14 camels and anywhere from 10 to 14 staff, including guides. All staff are local Masai and Samburu who have grown up in the bush and have firsthand knowledge of the wildlife with which they live.
Tourism allows James and Kerry to show others the beauty and complexity of the natural world, but it also helps to support their conservation work on the 10,000 acres they currently manage for wildlife. They live on a ranch in Laikipia on 3000 of those acres. They have young twins, Rufous and Daisy, who travel on safari with their parents and already share their parents’ passion for animals. When a very large baboon spider (tarantula) recently crawled into their tent, the twins asked to keep it as a pet!