Stefano & Liz Cheli

Founders of Cheli & Peacock Safaris in Kenya

Stefano & Liz Cheli

Recently knighted for his work in conservation and responsible for building some of Kenya’s most iconic camps and lodges, Stefano Cheli (together with his wife Liz), is a leading personality in the East African tourism industry.

Both being safari guides, and having grown up in Kenya, Liz (Peacock) & Stefano (Cheli) created a travel business to share their authentic safari experiences with others. From 1985 Cheli & Peacock operated lavish private tented safaris with professional guides, often Stefano or Liz themselves. Camps were sent ahead and pitched on virgin sites, so when clients arrived the fire was going and the gin and tonics ready. The camps became more elaborate over the years from a Landrover and trailer for 6 people in the early days, to two 6 ton lorries for 6 people! The company soon developed a reputation for professional service, outstanding food, attention to detail and that well worn phrase – “holidays of a lifetime”.

Liz & Stefano were operating “eco-tourism” before it was a buzzword; employing from the local communities and supporting both National Reserves and community conservation initiatives.

In 1994 Stefano designed and built Tortilis Camp in Amboseli, a unique concept at the time – beautifully designed, small, upmarket, gourmet fresh food, and of course outstanding guides. Offering walking, sundowners, bush breakfasts – all the added extras that Stefano and Liz consider essential to a complete safari experience. The project won the “BA Tourism for Tomorrow Award” a year after opening.

In 1999 Stefano designed and built Elsa’s Kopje lodge in Meru National Park – still considered a flagship in luxurious African safari accommodation. Following on came Joys Camp in Shaba National Reserve (2005) a stylish camp in the exquisite arid country bordering Samburu; and Elephant Pepper Camp in the Masai Mara. Elephant Pepper retains the Cheli & Peacock roots of private tented safari. Only 8 tents, it still operates in the old fashioned safari style of yester year.

In 2015, the Elewana Collection completed its acquisition of the Cheli & Peacock Group of Companies. The acquisition sees the Cheli & Peacock properties – Elsa’s Kopje, Elephant Pepper Camp, Joy’s Camp, Tortillis Camp, Kitich Camp and Lewa Safari Camp – merge under the banner of the Elewana Collection to form a group of 14 properties across northern Tanzania, Kenya and Zanzibar.

Today, Cheli & Peacock has grown to become one of the leading ground handlers in Kenya; continuing to operate upmarket bespoke safaris for clients that want a “real safari” experience.

AWARDED Cavaliere dell'Ordine della Stella d'Italia

On 2 June 2014, Ambassador Mauro Massoni, the Italian Ambassador to Kenya, awarded Stefano Cheli the honour "Cavaliere dell'Ordine della Stella d'Italia" (the Italian equivalent of Knighthood). The award represents the second highest civilian honour of the State, and is given to those who have achieved special merit in the “promotion of national prestige abroad”.

In Stefano Cheli’s case, the award commends his lifelong commitment towards conservation in Kenya and his outstanding achievements as a front-runner in Sustainable Tourism, together with his wife Liz, who together founded Cheli & Peacock Safaris in 1985!

Stefano commented: I am honoured to receive such recognition from the Italian Government, and I would like to add that without the great team work within Cheli & Peacock, we would not have achieved what we have been able to achieve since 1985. We started this adventure almost 30 years ago because we wanted to show people what an authentic safari is all about – and this remains our mantra!

Courtesey: Cheli & Peacock Safaris

OUR STORY - STEFANO & LIZ - Our Conservation Story (from their blog 2013)

Ever since we started this adventure in 1985, we have sought out ways to both support eco-systems and to ensure we ourselves make minimal environmental impact. We started our safari company because we loved the wilderness, and we enjoyed sharing it with others – so what could we do to preserve it and make sure our tourism enterprises partnered with conservation in a sustainable way?

It was clear that with 70% of Kenya’s wildlife outside National Parks – this was where we could make a difference. Community land surrounding parks and reserves is the major part of the eco-systems. In Kenya our parks and reserves do not have fences, the animals are oblivious of the boundaries, and they are free to roam and migrate within vast ecosystems that incorporate mostly private land. The landowners receive no income from the wildlife, and bear the brunt of lion raids on livestock and injury from rogue buffalo.

In the late 1980s we were one of the founding partners in Campfire Conservation Ltd. A small group of like minded operators that paid rent and viewing fees for mobile camps, and created employment for the community bordering the Masai Mara Reserve to the north, where Elephant Pepper Camp is situated (the same site we have used since those days). This is probably one of the most important and vital ecosystems in Kenya, always used for game drives, but with none of the revenue reaching the community. The land was community land, and Campfire was the first organization to give the Mara community, directly to the families on the ground in cash, any tourism revenue.

In 1992 we partnered with the community outside West Gate of Samburu National Reserve. We put our Samburu camp there, and the community received rent, viewing fees, employment etc. The first time this community had received sustainable tourism revenue.

In 1993 we took over a site belonging to a private landlord in Amboseli, bordering Amboseli National Park, and built Tortilis Camp. The site had been promised to a developer with plans for a 200 bed hotel – thank goodness we managed to take it over! Being one of the first “eco-lodges” of its kind in East Africa, Tortilis soon gained recognition and was awarded the UK “Tourism for Tomorrow” award in 1996. We are still the only lodge in Amboseli that trains and employs from the local community.

In 1999 we built Elsa’s Kopje in Meru National Park. Previously Meru’s only lodge (which was government owned) had closed some time before and the park was suffering with little or no income or visitors. There was talk in government of de-gazetting the park, and turning the fertile well watered land into rice plantations. Old hands in the industry told us we were mad, but Elsa’s Kopje has proved the sceptics wrong, has a worldwide reputation as one of the best lodges on the safari circuit, and its existence ensures that Meru National Park is a viable conservation area, with plentiful wildlife including 80 rhino.

By 2005 Campfire lost its effectiveness when the community lands surrounding the Masai Mara were divided up into individual parcels with title deeds. In response, we formed the Mara North Conservancy, and brought in all the stakeholders in the area. In previous years the area had earned park fees in excess of US$1.2m per year, but with the individual landowners seeing very little of it. MNC faced a politically difficult task, but vital for the sustainability of the Serengeti / Masai Mara eco-system. What could be more important?

Since then, we have jointly leased 900 parcels, 85% of the land (i.e. 77,000 acres) with a mandate to give each individual landowner a guaranteed income from tourism for his land, together with conservation management and transparent accountability.

2006 we built Joy’s Camp in Shaba National Reserve, part of the Samburu eco-system, another conservation backwater that had received little income and with a sceptical community around it. Joy’s Camp has opened up the eastern end of the reserve and has good community relations, providing training and employment; and once again, we are working towards putting a vital and very beautiful area on the map to ensure its sustained existence. In 2011, we partnered with Ian Craig and his Northern Rangelands Trust, who started the Nakupurat-Gotu Wildlife Trust which encompasses Shaba National Reserve, extending the protected eco-system and working with a community that needs support. We have also raised over US$13,000 to rehabilitate the Chaffa gate with facilities that both the Reserve and Conservancy rangers can use.

In 2009 we bought Kitich Camp, in the Mathews Mountain Range forest. An idyllic hideaway in primeval forest. Giulio Bertolli had already ensured that the community benefit directly from the lodge with bednight fees and employment, and we have brought Kitich Camp into the Namunyak Conservancy, partnering with Ian Craig and his excellent work with the Northern Rangelands Trust.

Namunyak Conservancy is supported by The Tusk Trust, and Kitich Camp pays the highest bednight fee to the Namunyak Conservancy. Bednights are slowly increasing as clients discover this little forest hideaway, and our conservancy payments to the Conservancy are starting to look more respectable.

In July 2009 we took over the management of Lewa Safari Camp on Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (LWC). LWC is a story of success in wildlife conservation, rhino breeding, community education and outreach. With our experience in building eco-lodges, we aim to ensure that Lewa Safari Camp is itself ecologically fit to represent one of the most successful conservation stories in Africa, as well as offer outstanding food, great guiding, and the opportunity for guests to participate in Lewa’s good work.

Working on the ground, we realized that we needed to participate on a national level to battle uncontrolled and often outright harmful development in fragile areas. To this end, Stefano has participated on the Kenya Association of Tour Operators board for over 15 years. He lobbied the tourism community to put in place a moratorium on development in the Mara with a KATO EGM in Oct 1998, and worked on the founding of the Kenya Tourism Board in 1997, and Kenya Tourism Federation in 1998.

“Small things” – In March 2011, we decided to formalize our fundraising and have registered the “Cheli & Peacock Community Trust”, also employing a fulltime manager to help our lodge managers source school books, desks, etc. etc.! This increased capacity has meant we have been able to increase our focus on the “small things” that help communities – Elsa’s Kopje has provided the Ura Gate Primary School with all of the teachers and student text books it needed, and reburbished three classrooms. Joy’s Camp has supplied blackboards and desks to two schools in the Shaba area. Tortilis Camp is maintaining the elephant enclosure that has rehabilitated the Olengaiya Spring; and Kitich Camp helped the Ngalai School choir take a bus to their choral competition! More details on these and other “small things” can be found on the website and on the Community Trust pages in this brochure.

Hand-in-hand with our community initiatives, we have always developed our safari camps to be the most ecologically sound – all have Ecotourism Society ‘Silver” eco-ratings, and Elephant Pepper Camp even has a ‘Gold’ eco-rating (one of only three camps in Kenya)! We started with mobile camps, and our motto was “take only pictures, leave only footprints”, and it was true. In the Mara, Elephant Pepper Camp remains very low key and completely removable. When we built our lodges, we kept them small, trained our guides well, gave the local community training and employment, support for schools, and right from the beginning worked out rubbish recycling / removal systems, solar and efficient energy, etc. By the time we built Joy’s Camp we put in state of the art LED and solar technology, and some years later we have been able to put almost space age LED and solar technology into Elephant Pepper Camp & Kitich Camp! All expensive equipment, but as the L’Oreal ads say: “because it’s worth it”!

We have discovered over the years that our clients feel the same way as us. They too fall in love with the untouched wilderness, and appreciate the fact that their presence has helped preserve what they experience.

Go back to: Leaders in tourism and conservation