How community conservation is silencing gunfire in northern Kenya

beading, conservation, samburu women

Women weaving beads at Kalama Conservancy in Archers post, Samburu County on May 10, 2022. 

Photo credit: EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • The north of Kenya is a toxic, dangerous and lawless territory with many illegal guns that fuel cattle rustling, intercommunity raids and general violence. For years, this has complicated the matrix of conservation as poachers capitalised on the anarchy to kill wildlife.
  • Signing up for conservation work in this territory has always been akin to signing up for death, and few people in Kenya typify the precarious nature of the job quite like Laikipia rancher and conservationist Kuki Gallman, a survivor of multiple gun attacks.

A heavy fire cracked followed by a deadening hailstorm of bullets sprayed on Ian Craig and his wife. It was in April last year and the two were strolling the wild of Samburu County.

From their hideout in the bushes, Craig whispered to his terrified wife: ‘‘Today, we will die.’’  It was not the first time the veteran conservationist was coming under bandit fire. Samburu is a haven for gunslingers who roam the county’s expanse with abandoned impunity. Except this ambush had been jolting, the fire more horrendous.

In his long career protecting elephants and rhinos in Samburu, Laikipia and Isiolo counties, the director of Lewa Conservancy had made a long list of enemies. He needed not rack his brain to understand why anyone would want to kill him in the jungle like a wild dog. He had stopped poachers long enough. Now they were going to stop him, forever.

The bandits were swallowed into the belly of the forest after ‘‘accomplishing’’ their mission. The shell-shaken couple, though, was unscathed – quite bizarrely. In May, Craig celebrated his 70th birthday in a life blotted with bandit attacks. 

The north of Kenya is a toxic, dangerous and lawless territory with many illegal guns that fuel cattle rustling, intercommunity raids and general violence. For years, this has complicated the matrix of conservation as poachers capitalised on the anarchy to kill wildlife.

Signing up for conservation work in this territory has always been akin to signing up for death, and few people in Kenya typify the precarious nature of the job quite like Laikipia rancher and conservationist Kuki Gallman, a survivor of multiple gun attacks.

Sera Conservancy Sanctuary , conservation,Salome Lemalasia, ranger

Salome Lemalasia, a ranger working with the Northern Rangelands Trust, takes care of a six-year-old black Rhino named Loijipu at Sera Conservancy Sanctuary in Samburu County on May 11, 2022.

Photo credit: EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

It is because of this sensitivity that the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), of which Lewa Conservancy is a member, has had to employ a different method: community involvement. NRT works with 43 conservancies in the northern belt of the country to enhance livelihoods, build peace and conserve nature.

Community members are trained on different crafts as they protect wildlife in return. Before, women such as Bariti Learto and Miriam Legambayo had little to do when their husbands and sons took animals out to graze. These days, the duo and a group of other women spend the day under a tree, humming to traditional songs and creating artworks from beads. They are members of Kalama Conservancy, located just outside Archers Post in the border between Isiolo and Samburu counties.

Beatrice Lempaira, a director at NRT Trading, says conservation is about establishing governance structures that allow members of the community to manage wildlife and livelihoods together where every party benefits.

She adds: ‘‘Treating the conservancies as their own has been the biggest transformation. These are managed by locals – elected by the community – as opposed to external parties.’’

But away from traditional methods, there is a new entrant into the conservation fray: establishment of carbon projects and sale of carbon credits.

In carbon projects, climate-conscious governments, companies and industries buy and trade credits to supplement their emission-reduction actions. This revenue goes to local communities as an incentive to leave their forests untouched, and sometimes to increase the forest cover.

In this model, buyers of the credits are able neutralise some of their emissions, and as prices for credits rise over time, market forces reduce future emissions. In the long run, forests are protected – to absorb carbon emissions – as communities’ livelihoods are supported.

Craig says carbon credits will be the ultimate game-changer in protection of biodiversity that will also raise the stakes in conservation, with communities in these counties standing to benefit enormously. He explains: ‘‘This will help to make the interconnection between land planning, land use, wildlife and consumer economy on a scale that will transform everything.”

For many years, conservation in Kenya has almost always taken a linear approach — Establish and fence off conservancies. Recruit and arm rangers. Guard wildlife.

But even for Craig, a jungle-hardened and hard-nosed conservationist, using fire to combat fire in conservation is hopeless. ‘‘There are way too many guns here. That conservation approach is impractical and ineffective,’’ he says.

Arming rangers could not stop the annihilation of rhinos in the 1980s, for instance. From an enviable population of about 20,000 rhinos in the 1960s, poachers decimated more than 97 per cent of them for ivory, with only about 500 surviving. Elsewhere, Kenya had only 20,000 elephants in 1989, down from 250,000 in earlier years as poachers had a field day in one of the bloodiest periods in the history of Kenyan conservation. In seven years alone between 1970 and 1977, the country lost half of its elephant population despite the 1973 ban on ivory.

After more than 20 years in rhino conservation at Sera Conservancy in Samburu Charles Muthamia, a ranger,  understands the importance of community involvement. ‘‘This conservancy is vast. The rangers cannot cover it by themselves. It would be difficult to protect the wildlife.’’

But if insecurity has complicated conversation efforts, it is climate change that has made protection of biodiversity a slippery ground to walk. The situation is so dire that for four months up to December last year, Kenya lost a herd of 62 elephants to starvation in various parks as effects of climate change bite.

Threatened by loss of their livelihood, communities that live with wildlife are now aggressively protecting their grazing fields, sometimes at whatever cost: force, arms and violence. Consequently, intercommunity conflicts over grazing lands have recently become more frequent, heavier and bloodier.

A new report by the Commission on Revenue Allocation (CRA) shows that more than half of residents in Kenya’s northern counties are food-insecure. Pastoral counties of Samburu (60 per cent), Marsabit (55 per cent) and Baringo (41 per cent) feature in the top 12 most food-insecure counties in the country.

The modelling of conservation in Kenya relies heavily on communal land to establish conservancies that integrate humans, wildlife and their livestock, who coexist in the conservancies.

The wildlife attracts tourists, who bring in revenue for community development. Meanwhile, locals protect the biodiversity in a delicate equation that is premised on mutual benefit.

Nashulai Conservancy in Narok County, a 5000-acre sanctuary in the fringes of Maasai Mara Game Reserve, is an example. Nalson Ole Reiya, its founder, says: “Eighty per cent of households in this area depend solely on proceeds from tourism as a source of their livelihoods. They work as drivers, tour guides and hotel staff. Others sell curios to tourists.’’

Occasionally, this arrangement is unhinged when wildlife attacks and kills the community’s livestock. The Maasai, for instance, have raided conservancies, hunting down and killing lions after losing their livestock to the carnivores.

This, though, is only half the problem.

Asking a community to surrender their land for a conservancy is not an easy conversation to have, especially after loss of grazing fields due to poor weather. 

“We give out Sh6.8 million annually to our members as leases to their land.’’ To make these pay-outs, there has to be a consistent stream of income,” says Reiya.

Brian Heath, a career conservationist and chief executive of the Mara Triangle , proposes the conversion of the Mara ecosystem into a premium tour destination with fewer players to boost conservation and eliminate what he calls a ‘‘feeding frenzy’’ during peak months.

‘‘The Mara is over-marketed, which destroys the park. For sustainability, we need to promote culturally and ecologically-oriented attractions,’’ Heath says and argues that there are few incentives to conserve in Kenya.  ‘‘On the one hand, tourism is well-resourced with funding and personnel. Conservation is regarded as a donor-driven endeavour. We need incentives to promote conservation. Otherwise communities will continue to convert their land into more profitable use such as farming,’’ he warns.

Simon Leparmarai is a beneficiary of training on welding and motorcycle repair as part of the incentives to conserve facilitated through an initiative of the Northern Rangelands Trust.  At his workshop in Naisunyai, a small township near Wamba in Samburu County, Leparmarai makes up to Sh2500 daily to support his family and two others.  For a generation, the government has applied force to enforce order in the northern counties, only for violence to return a few months later in a vicious cycle that grows worse by the year. This is now changing. Attitudes to livelihoods and conservation are shifting. Guns are going silent and wildlife thriving. For once, there is some semblance of peace. Peace that locals hope will last longer this time.

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