Thick forest covers and harsh terrain are some of the factors said to be hindering security officers from flushing out criminals from the vast Laikipia Nature Conservancy in Laikipia County.
Estimated at 385 square kilometres, the conservancy’s territory sweeps from the arid bushland of Baringo to the hills of West Pokot.
Armed raiders operate from gorges in the vast conservancy, with their hideouts being Ng’elecha, Jala Nungu and Maji Nyoka in the great Mukutan Gorge and the Kamwenje Valley on the Baringo-Laikipia.
With an elevation of 1,295 metres, the Mukutan Gorge lies in the middle of true wilderness, with its magnificent scenery varying from low thickets and bushes to converging valleys and steep mountains to the Eng’elesha forest.
Officials say bandits take strategic positions in the gorge, from where they ambush security officers.
For instance, on November 10, 2021 an unknown number of armed bandits attempted to raid the Kamwenje General Service Unit (GSU) command centre but they were repulsed.
A team of officers was dispatched to pursue the attackers, who had returned to their hideout in the gorge in the Laikipia Nature Conservancy.
Two GSU junior officers were ambushed and killed. A senior GSU inspector also suffered serious gunshot wounds to his leg in the ambush.
As the bandits were fleeing, they launched another attack in Ng’elecha against a team of Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) who were digging a trench along the conservancy road from Wangwachi to Kamwenje. Two KDF officers were killed on the spot.
The trench is meant to serve as a barrier as bandits normally use the road that links Ol Moran, Kinamba and Kamwenje locations as a route in and out to steal animals from locals.
This was the second time armed bandits had tried to raid the GSU command centre on the border of Laikipia and Baringo counties.
On August 30 last year, more than 20 armed bandits attacked the command centre in broad daylight and started shooting indiscriminately. One GSU officer was shot and injured. He succumbed to his injuries two weeks later.
On February 9 this year an unknown number of suspected armed bandits attacked the Mlima Jangili Operation Camp, killing a police officer and injuring his colleague.
Locals say that gangs of gun-slinging raiders usually storm villages in the daytime, shooting people on sight before driving away entire herds of cattle, sheep and goats to the valley in the conservancy.
"We are told that if our animals enter these four hideouts, they are lost forever, we only watch helplessly as they drive the herds away towards Baringo,” said Mr Joseph Kairie, who lives near the Laikipia-Baringo border.
Mr Ezekiel Maina, a resident of Wangwaci whose father was shot dead by cattle raiders at their home a few years ago, said the gorge is the bandits’ hideout after they steal livestock or kill police officers and other innocent people.
“We have lost many lives, especially security officers, because the gorge is very strategic for bandits to operate from and they have adapted well to the terrain,” he said, adding that security forces and locals have nicknamed the gorge the “Valley of Death”.
“They normally come out of the valley anytime they want and strike before returning there.”
Residents say a road needs to be built to connect the neighbouring counties of Baringo and Samburu to the vast conservancy.
"We understand the gorge is a no-go zone for officers on foot as they need to crawl to get to the bottom of the valley. But we are recommending that a security road be constructed at the gorge,” a police reservist told the Nation.
Villagers, especially in Kamwenje, Miteta, Wangwachi and Village 18, have borne the brunt of deadly attacks and raids, with a sharp rise in the number of people killed during attacks.
Last year, herders from Isiolo, Samburu and Baringo counties descended on the lush savannahs of Laikipia North and Laikipia West constituencies and invaded ranches and private farms, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction.
What first started as invasions of private ranches and conservancies in Laikipia North in mid-June last year quickly mutated into a series of bandit attacks that quickly spread to Laikipia West.
Two months later, more than 15 people were killed, an estimated 400 families displaced from their homes, homes torched and hundreds of livestock in Ol Moran and Githiga wards stolen.
In September 2021, the government declared the Laikipia Nature Conservancy a disturbed area, prompting a security operation to flush out bandits and illegal herders.
A dusk-to-dawn curfew was also declared in the conservancy, which is owned by conservationist Kuki Gallmann, to pave the way for the operation.
A major security operation with military support would later be launched to permanently end the Laikipia violence and rid the vast conservancy of bandits.
However, seven months later, the conservancy is still a thorn in the government’s flesh in its efforts to tame insecurity in the region.
Despite the heavy presence of security personnel in the region, bandits continued staging attacks that left dozens, including at least 25 security officers, dead and many more injured.
The recurrent attacks have prompted the government to change tack as it combats cattle rustling and banditry.
Last month, officials restricted the airspace above the conservancy and its surrounding areas for 30 days.
Interior CS Fred Matiang’i said this would help facilitate the security operation, cut off supply lines for bandits and flush out criminals.
“No aircraft or any airborne transportation equipment will be allowed into the airspace around Laikipia Nature Conservancy and surrounding environs without the express authority of the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) and the Interior ministry,” Dr Matiang’i said in a statement.
He said the decision was reached following a National Security Council meeting that reviewed the security situation in parts of troubled Laikipia County.
“The NSC noted that the ongoing security operation has been successful in stopping banditry incursions and in restoring normalcy in the majority of the areas of the County,” the statement continued.
“However, bandits lurking within the environs of the Laikipia Nature Conservancy and surrounding areas continue to wage armed attacks and other criminal activities on innocent Kenyans.”
In a past interview with the Nation, Ms Sveva Gullmann said that violence rose every election season.
"We have witnessed a spike of violence every pre-election year that seems, for a number of months, we live in fear as a number of people move in from Rift Valley only to storm here killing people and stealing livestock," she said.
She said livelihoods had been disrupted as bandits used the conservancy as a transit and escape route for raids.
"We have lost a lot of infrastructure to these bandits and it's our wish to work with the government to ensure more lives are not lost and security is restored,” she added.
Armed bandits from Baringo County who usually engage mainly in livestock theft are a constant threat to life and property in the area, she said.
The criminals hide in the conservancy and destroy everything that they had tried hard to conserve.
"The violence element here is not just about grass, it is more than that as the destruction is massive and lives have been lost. The boundary of the massive conservancy and Baringo's Tiaty constituency has been worsening the situation,” she added.
This year alone about five security officers have been killed in the conservancy and at least three civilians died in neighbouring villages and at least 10 were maimed in separate bandit attacks.
During a recent visit to the region, Rift Valley Regional Commissioner Maalim Mohamed said the government was investigating the source of weaponry fuelling banditry and cattle rustling in troubled Rift Valley counties.
Mr Mohamed said it was a matter of concern how the bandits got their firepower.
“We are investigating concerns that have been raised. Our officers have been engaged by these criminals time and again but the kind of sustained engagement with our well-trained and armed officers has raised eyebrows and the question we are asking is, where do these criminals get this kind of firepower, armed training and ammunition?” he said.