What you need to know:
- Wildlife conservation has been an integral part of traditional pastoralist societies.
- Very large chunks of this land are located in the northern rangelands, including Laikipia.
Imagine if security forces or poachers invaded a wildlife conservancy in Laikipia and killed all the owner’s pet dogs and cats and a few elephants and rhinos.
Imagine the national and international uproar this would generate.
There would be calls for the immediate arrest and prosecution of the killers, who would most likely be given long jail sentences.
Many articles, particularly in the Western media, would be written about the cruel and barbaric acts of the perpetrators and why they deserve the harshest of sentences.
Yet the killing of about 300 cattle belonging to locals during a security operation in three Laikipia ranches/conservancies last week generated hardly any outrage.
Was this because the pasture-seeking herders were “trespassing” on the ranches? Or was it because the land belonging to the owners of the conservancies is considered more valuable than the livestock belonging to the pastoralists?
What conflict resolution manual were the security forces following? The commanders of this operation should have known that the worst thing you can do to impoverished pastoralist communities is to kill their livestock.
These forms of “collective punishment” are taken very seriously by these communities whose livelihoods depend on their animals, and have resulted in bloody inter-clan feuds and wars that last for decades.
The ill-advised actions by the security forces are likely to raise political tensions and escalate hostilities against the authorities and the ranch/conservancy owners.
The argument put forward by the conservationists is that the “illegal” herders threaten precious wildlife on conservancies and should, therefore, be repelled with brute force, if necessary.
Yet wildlife conservation has been an integral part of traditional pastoralist societies, so it is unlikely that these herders were harming wild animals.
If they did not value and respect wildlife and their habitats, few of these animals would be alive today and many might have become extinct a long time ago.
In their book The Big Conservation Lie, John Mbaria and Mordecai Ogada show how wildlife conservation – an activity that most indigenous African communities have been engaging in effortlessly for centuries – has been appropriated by a few, often at the expense of local communities, who have been largely excluded from benefitting from conservation efforts.
At most, these communities benefit from small-scale cottage industries that revolve around the bigger conservation effort, but they are not the drivers of the project, even though some of their leaders have been co-opted as board members or owners of ranches/conservancies.
One of the main reasons why conservation efforts have been “privatised” in this way is because they attract a lot of donor funding.
Mbaria and Ogada claim that donor funds for conservation in have now surpassed the revenue from tourism.
The government’s apparent abdication of its responsibility to protect the natural heritage by handing this job over to private ranches has led to a situation where conservation has been relegated to a few individuals, who appear to be accountable to no one except their foreign donors.
Indigenous communities, which have centuries of knowledge in wildlife conservation, are viewed as easily dispensable props at best, or barbaric invaders, at worst, in this business that benefits a small group of people, including a few members of the local political elite who, instead of safeguarding the interests of local communities, have turned against their own people.
In order to camouflage the real ownership of the land and lend a veneer of legality to the thousands of acres that should, ideally, be registered as “community land” (according to Article 63 of the Constitution), the ranch/conservancy owners operate under the umbrella of non-profit “trusts” – even though the land is privately owned.
Unfortunately, very large chunks of this land are located in the northern rangelands, including Laikipia, where pastoralist communities also have claims to ancestral land.
The conflicting interests of land owners and pastoralists have thus resulted in actual conflicts on the ground, especially during droughts.
I think everyone, including the pastoralists, would agree that wildlife conservation is a desirable goal.
What gets lost in the discussion is why the property rights of ranch owners are respected more than those of the pastoralists.
And why indigenous communities that have played a vital role in sustaining wild animals are now being demonised, dispossessed and punished by the government.