Looking down on a small family of elephants drinking from a water hole, the chattering of weaver birds fills the hot, still air of the acacia-filled basin surrounded by hills in Northern Kenya. Seventeen-year-old Resin stands beside me dressed in a red shuka blanket and armfuls of beaded ornaments, describing a recent cattle-rustling raid on the neighbouring Pokot tribe. ‘The Samburu believe that all cattle are given to us by God’ he says flashing a smile, ‘therefore it is not stealing, we are just bringing them home.’ His dusty toes poke out of recycled ‘treads’, sandals made from old car tyres and by far the hardiest footwear for traversing the thorny terrain. Although cattle-rustling has decreased in recent years, it remains the largest source of conflict between the different communities living in this un-policed, dry area where cows and goats are the main source of income and sustenance. ‘Everyone is equally guilty,’ laughs Resin, ‘but these days people are starting to change their focus. Nowadays the emphasis is more on increased sustainability and conservation of the land rather than the number of cattle you own.’
Resin is unable to afford secondary school fees and has started working in a small, exclusive tented camp that caters for tourists wanting to experience the many wonders of Africa’s wildlife and landscape. Surrounded by natural bush land, we are in the middle of a community-run wildlife conservancy called Namunyak, meaning ‘blessed’ in Samburu. Namunyak covers 394,000 hectares, is home to 13,200 people and is one of 33 community conservancies under the umbrella of the Northern Rangelands Trust. The NRT has been operating in Kenya’s northern regions since 1995, after conservationist Ian Craig witnessed a mass elephant slaughter by Somali bandits. The nomadic communities that live in these arid areas have been grazing their herds alongside animals like lions and elephants for as long as anyone can remember. But with an ever-increasing human population and a desire for fertile grazing land, wildlife has been increasingly marginalised, with huge areas of land affected by over-grazing and subsequent desertification.
The NRT exists to try and preserve what remains of the wildlife and habitat whilst helping to develop and manage local communities. Good governance lies at the heart of its work, meaning that conservancy institutions are endorsed by local meetings, usually consisting of a group of elders under a shady fig tree, and are legally registered. In the last fifty years, wildlife across Africa has suffered enormously due to increasing human pressure, loss of habitat and poaching, in particular for elephant ivory and rhino horn. Over 350 conservancy rangers have been supported to attend training courses run by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), enabling them to better understand and protect the wildlife. NRT’s Conflict Resolution Team has also put considerable effort into creating peaceful conditions and mediating between different ethnic groups. Animal species that have benefitted especially include giraffe, cheetah, Grevy’s zebra (a particularly vulnerable species), oryx and elephants, which have started re-using old migration routes between areas that they know are now ‘safe’. There are two anti-poaching teams dedicated to protecting the elephants in particular as the demand for ivory continues to endanger the population further.
For the Samburu people of northern Kenya, along with their neighbours the Rendille, Pokot, Turkana, Meru and Borana, livestock are their way of life and means of survival. However, overgrazing and loss of pasture is now threatening their traditional lifestyle, along with unpredictable weather and inefficient markets. The NRT is aiming to tackle these issues through planned grazing and linking livestock markets to conservation. By selling cattle directly to the NRT, pastoralists are able to get better and more reliable prices, and the grazing programme gives people the skills and incentives to restore rangeland health. Alternative investment opportunities are also being explored to diversify livelihoods and reduce dependence on cattle and rains. This in turn improves conservation, reduces conflict, and builds more sustainable incomes.
The NRT has focused heavily on setting up tourism partnerships in each conservancy as these are the best chance of providing protection for the remaining wildlife. Tourism development ensures equal fund distribution between the conservancies and enables employment opportunities for young men and women like Resin. It has the potential to be a major source of revenue, and generated over US$425,000 in 2012. This income is managed by elected committees and split 40:60 between conservation (staff costs, security, infrastructure maintenance etc.) and community development (education, healthcare, water development, compensation for wildlife conflict etc.). Most of the employees are local, and there has been a push to empower women, through micro-enterprises, who are traditionally totally dependent on their male family members. Between 2008 and 2011, the number of women selling bead jewellery to NRT trading rose from 315 to 848, providing them with a significant source of income and improving family welfare drastically. Improved communication including a reliable radio-network has helped subdue tribal conflict as there are fewer stock-theft and poaching incidents, increasing wildlife and human security.
The success of these conservancies depends on training and awareness and the NRT is ultimately aiming for communities to be able to manage their conservancies and businesses independently. Resin says that it is people’s way of thinking that must first be altered. The Samburu used to believe that land used for conservation was wasted and fought strongly against it. However, now that they are enjoying the revenue and development it has brought, they are beginning to become more aware of the value of wildlife. Namunyak has been negotiating with the KWS in the hope of hosting black rhinos back in their natural habitat since they were poached out of the area in 2000. Despite notable patrons including Prince William, there is much work to be done, including the leveraging of long-term financial support. This reintroduction would have to be preceded by major investment into anti-poaching through training, increased staffing levels and equipment and infrastructure development. But the community remains hopeful. Noel Simon, a pioneer of conservation in East Africa and founder of the Kenya Wildlife Society in 1955, stated in 1963:
“However nebulous the future, it is conditional upon the degree of support derived from the local people; to attempt to conserve wildlife without the cooperation of the African people is merely to fight a delaying action and as short-sighted as allowing it to be exterminated.”