Before bloody conflicts hit Laikipia County last year, thousands of animals owned by local pastoralists used to graze under a structured grazing scheme.
Some of the 24 private conservancies were slowly turning into a haven of peace and hope for pastoralists as they came to the rescue of desperate pastoralists moving their animals in search of pasture due to drought.
Many conservancies accommodated pastoralists and shared their pastures, particularly during dry seasons and thus reducing cases of conflict over pasture between herders and owners of conservancies.
"For several years I have grazed my animals in this conservancy and saved many from dying due to lack of pasture and water. The conservancy has provided structured grazing for hundreds of pastoralists free of charge but this arrangement was disrupted in March 2021 when violence erupted in Laikipia," said a herder.
He added: "The conservancy was providing us with high-quality pasture to fatten our livestock for sale but this scheme has been suspended due to insecurity."
Many conservancies in the region have developed several projects to support the community and improve their welfare in a bid to end the bloody conflicts that threaten wildlife and human survival. Others host multiple tourism, education facilities and provide water for locals.
These initiatives by the conservancies are part of their commitment to assist pastoralists to save their animals from death during dry seasons.
For decades the relationship between the owners of conservancies and herders in the expansive county has been shrouded with suspicion that have led to bloody conflicts.
However, if the latest data from a survey conducted in 18 out of the 24 conservancies by Laikipia Conservation Association between 2019 and 2020, is any guide to go by, the conservancies are driving economic and environmental agenda and are slowly turning the curse of Laikipia conflicts into a blessing by reducing insecurity.
The association was established in 2019 with many goals among them bringing together conservancies in Laikipia to address common challenges and amplify individual impacts that support people and wildlife.
The conservancies also aim at developing new business mechanisms to help locals fight poverty.
The establishment of conservancies is the most beneficial land-use option for both human and wildlife co-existence. It has provided benefits such as guaranteed payments from conservancy fees, legal and controlled grazing of cattle, employment, infrastructural development, conservation of Kenya's wildlife habitat among others.
Human-wildlife conflict has remained a big threat to natural heritage and the survival of the conservancies, reducing biodiversity loss and curbing poaching.
According to Laikipia Conservancies Association, the area under the conservancies is 350,000 hectares serving nearly 12,000 households.
The active conservancies include Borana Conservancy, El Karama Conservancy, Il Mamusi (Mukogodo), Il Ngwesi Conservancy, Kuri Kuri Group Ranch, Laikipia Nature Conservancy (Ol Ari Nyiro), Lekurruki, Loisaba, Lolldaiga, Makurian Group Ranch, Mpala Research Centre, Mugie Conservancy, Naibunga Central, Naibunga Lower, Naibunga Upper, Ol Jogi ltd, Ol Maisor, Ol Pejeta, Ol-Lentile, Ole Naishu, Sangare Ranch, Segera, Sosian Samburumburu, and Suyian.
The Chief executive officer of Borana Conservancy, Michael Dyer revealed that the conservancies have a great social impact on the lives of locals. Between 2019 and 2020, the conservancies spent more than Sh2.6 billion.
At least more than Sh153 million went to supporting 39 schools which included 68 university students and 2,351 students in secondary and primary schools.
The conservancies also paid Sh284 million in taxes and fees to the county and national government.
On health at least eight community health facilities and four conservancy clinics were up and running under the same year of review.
"The business impact has been huge as the conservancies have spent more than Sh1.2 billion on procurement out of which 66 percent of purchases have been made in Laikipia and 32 per cent in other parts of Kenya while only two per cent purchases outside Kenya," said Mr Dyer.
According to Mr Dyer, 49 per cent of the livestock which translates to 29,663 out of the 60,000 head in 2021 on conservancies are owned by the communities while the earning to communities through the livestock programme in 2019 was more than Sh136 million.
The conservancies are perhaps some of the biggest employers in the county and have employed 3,500 people sustaining more than 35,000 residents who earned nearly Sh900 million between 2019-2021.
Even as the government continues to carry out a security operation to flush out bandits who have wreaked havoc in parts of Laikipia, the conservancies have boosted community security by employing 616, rangers, 232 armed rangers and purchased 27 patrol cars which conducted 455 support patrols to local communities in 2019 which helped in resolving 85 crime incidents.
Mr Moses Muthoki, chief operating officer and head of community development at Ol Pejeta Conservancy said to address the perennial conflict in the region brought about by drought or invasion, the government must strictly enforce the legislation in place.
"A survey conducted by Laikipia Forum indicated that more than half of the migratory livestock that invaded Lakikipia during the severe drought that hit the area in 2017/2018 half of the livestock didn't come from Laikipia. Many came from Isiolo, Baringo, Samburu and other parts of Northern Kenya. This calls for a regional integration to address these issues that affect the entire landscape including invasion and violence," said Mr Muthoki.
"There is a livestock tracking mechanism which the government can use to establish where the migratory livestock is coming from and the motive whether it is politics or any other motive. We have very vibrant legislation in place, unfortunately there is enforcement from the authorities to address these recurrent and pertinent issues and the national government must step in to help the conservancies and the communities," added Mr Muthoki.
Mr Kip ole Polos, the chairperson of Ngwesi Conservancy said that with global warming, the region will continue to experience drought and his conservancy was planning to engage the herders to prevent invasion.
"The way out is to engage the herders ahead of the crisis grazing in Laikipia, Baringo and Samburu among other areas and we shall talk with members of the Laikipia Conservation Association to open the corridors that go through their ranches as one way of mitigating against the invasion," said Mr Ole Polos.
"The future of the pastoralists is in our hands as owners of these conservancies. We must create jobs, awareness of the importance of education for our people, and make them think about business and how we can have cattle and wildlife in the same conservancies. We need to educate our people that a huge herd is not a sign of wealth. We must educate them that one can keep 10 cows and still become rich," said Mr Ole Polos.
MR Dyer said there are huge opportunities for pastoralism in the Laikipia landscape if there is a deliberate effort to rehabilitate degraded areas by planting grass as it prevents soil erosion and holds moisture.
"We must accept as a society that the trajectory we're on could lead to increased conflict and desperation. However, all is not lost as it can be resolved by working in partnership with all stakeholders," said Mr Dyer.
Ms Nelly Palmeris, the chief operating officer of Mpala Research centre said that communities are key to conservation efforts and must actively be engaged to reduce cases of mistrust.
"We’re interconnected. No one is better than another. We must share. We need to evolve, involve, engage, discuss, and have ambassadors for conservation. We need the youth to grow up knowing conservation is important and key to our survival as mankind. We need youth to be part of this conservation journey," said Ms Palmeris.