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New Land Rover Defender off-roader goes on safari to prove its toughness

As the spiritual successor to the original Land Rover Series I, the next-generation Defender needs to prove its off-road chops. Land Rover has already subjected the new SUV to some tough tests, but the Defender’s latest adventure also helped a worthy cause. Land Rover gave a prototype Defender to wildlife conservation group Tusk, which used the vehicle for lion-conservation operations at the 35,000-acre Borana Conservancy in Kenya.

Automakers often wrap prototype vehicles in camouflage to disguise them from prying eyes, but this Defender needed it more than ever. The camouflage was specially designed for the environment, according to Land Rover, helping the vehicle blend into its surroundings. This even allowed wildlife managers to tranquilize a male lion from the SUV, so they could replace the animal’s tracking collar. Other, less dramatic jobs for the Defender included hauling supplies and tracking prides of lions.

“The new Defender took everything in its stride, from deep river wading to climbing rocky trails,” Charles Mayhew, chief executive of Tusk, said in a statement.

Land Rover has been working with Tusk for 15 years. The group has declared 2019 to be its “Year of the Lion” to highlight the precarious situation the animals face. Fewer than 20,000 lions survive in the wild globally, compared to about 200,000 over the course of the 20th century, according to Land Rover. Nonetheless, it’s unusual for an automaker to let any outsiders near its prototype vehicles, let alone drive them across tough African terrain. But for Land Rover, it’s just one more part of the development process.

“Working with our partners at Tusk in Kenya enabled use to gather valuable performance data,” Nick Collins, Jaguar Land Rover vehicle line director, said in a statement. “The Borana reserve features a wide range of challenging environments, making it a perfect place to test to the extreme the all-terrain attributes of the new Defender.”

While other Land Rover models grew more luxurious, the original Defender stayed true to the brand’s rugged roots right up until it went out of production in 2016. That made the old Defender popular with off-road enthusiasts (so popular that Land Rover built a limited run of V8-powered versions after production officially ended), and that will make it a tough act to follow. Land Rover’s challenge with the new Defender will be incorporating modern creature comforts and tech without diluting the simplicity and capability that made the original popular.

The new Land Rover Defender will lose its camouflage and be revealed to the public later this year. For the first time in two decades, the Defender will be sold in the United States, hitting showrooms in 2020. The Mercedes-Benz G-Class has proven that old SUVs can learn new tricks, but will Land Rover be able to pull off a similar feat of modernization?

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