Thursday, 3 August 2017

KENYA: Wildlife Versus Pastoralism

Wildlife conservation is big business in Kenya. The tourism sector, which is mostly wildlife-based, is regularly among the top three contributors to the country's GDP. As a result, the Kenyan government and the Western media are more than eager to focus on the positive aspects of conservation. But, unfortunately, the real story is not that straightforward.

In Kenya, there is an ongoing battle between white settler conservationists from the Laikipia plains and pastoralist communities occupying the neighbouring northern rangelands.

Wildlife conservationists perceive pastoralism as a poor land use method with little economic value, which is detrimental to wildlife. Pastoralists, on the other hand, see wildlife conservation as a large-scale pastoral "land grab". And as conservationists claim more and more land for "wildlife protection", Kenyan pastoralists, who had been the true protectors of wildlife for centuries, are swiftly losing their livelihoods.

In the past year, dozens of people have been killed or injured as a ravaging drought hit the pastoral communities and increased tensions between the two groups.

Discussions on wildlife conservation and pastoralism in Kenya are always cast in Manichean terms; wildlife conservancy is "good" and pastoralism is "bad". This framing is rooted in Kenya's colonial legacy, which the post-colonial African government not only inherited, but also enhanced.

Kenya's first post-independence development plan, published in 1965, shaped the country's negative perception of pastoralism. The plan divided the country into low and high potential regions, stating that high potential regions - regions expected to contribute significantly to the country's GDP - would receive more investment.

Since Kenya's northern rangelands and, by extension, pastoralism do not contribute considerably to the country's GDP, the state limited its investments in this region and sector. By doing so, it placed itself on the side of conservationists against local communities who depend on pastoralism to survive.

Unsurprisingly, the conflict between white settlers and the neighbouring pastoralist communities has attracted a lot of foreign media attention.

Most of the white conservationists are of British descent. However, the media coverage failed to communicate the reality of the problem, as it was mostly shaped by the views of the well-heeled intergenerational wildlife conservation clique. These untouchable royals framed the discussion for their own benefit, using a well-choreographed, sleek PR machine.

The conflict between the ranchers and pastoralist communities is presented in a simplistic and paternalistic way. The article, which is peppered with manifestations of a messiah complex, casts pastoralists as the barbarians at the gate of civilisation, and Kuki Gallmann, whose life was immortalised in the movie I Dreamed of Africa, as a noble white saviour who is keeping the wildlife safe from, by implication, the neighbouring pastoralist communities.

In general, Western media frame this conflict in racial terms, as a battle between the white rancher and the black pastoralist, and blatantly ignores the historical and colonial arrangement that sustains the present private wildlife management system and displaces native communities from their communal land holdings.

Currently, the Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT) is the main driver for the establishment of wildlife conservancies in Kenya.

By some estimates, the NRT controls about 7.5 percent of Kenyan land mass in the name of wildlife conservation, that is, 44,000sq km (or 10.8m acres) of land.

These lands are found in the Rift Valley, and the Northern part of the country, formerly known as the Northern Frontier District.

Presently, there are 140 conservancies spread across 22 counties.

The conflict between conservationists and pastoralists is not restricted to the plains of Laikipia. For example, the neighbouring Isiolo County is having an even larger problem as a result of the friction between these two groups.

The situation in Isiolo is compounded by two factors. First, Isiolo is the home to several mega infrastructure projects that are part of Kenya's Vision 2030 national development agenda. To complete these projects, the state acquired huge chunks of land, some of which were historically used by the pastoralists for pasture during the dry seasons.

Second, the NRT has established several large conservation parks in Isiolo, bringing the area under conservancy to more than half a million hectares, massively reducing the land that can be used by pastoralists.

According to the NRT, conservancies in this county are community-led initiatives that help pastoral communities work productively towards Kenya's conservation and development goals. As some locals manage to secure jobs as security guards and cooks in these conservancies, they argue that it is a win-win situation for pastoralist communities and wildlife conservationists.

Those opposed to the conservancies, on the other hand, see them as a massive land grab from pastoralist communities by wealthy foreigners with local connections. They also argue that these conservancies prioritise wildlife welfare over the welfare of humans and livestock.

The lack of transparency and adequate information about the manner in which new conservancies are established in Kenya adds to the anxiety of the pastoralist communities that already feel dispossessed as result of past "land grabs". They view these new conservancy projects as Trojan horses for further annexation of pastoral rangelands.

Conservationists argue that the broader economic gain from wildlife conservancies will eventually trickle down to the pastoralist communities living nearby. Yet, in most cases, there is not enough solid evidence supporting this argument. The overall consensus among the local populations is that conservancies cannot possibly give pastoralist communities the same kind of return that they can get from livestock.

For instance, establishment of a conservancy in Oldo Nyiro in Laikipia led to the loss of community lands. The Massais in the neighbouring Nanyuki, the headquarters of Laikipia County, were forced to graze their livestock by the roadside because all of the formerly common lands that they had been using for grazing had been fenced off.

After decades of neglect from previous regimes, many believe that change is finally coming to Kenya through the new devolution model that decentralises power to the county level. There is now hope that newly empowered counties will take action to protect the pastoralist communities against wildlife conservancy.

Pastoralist communities have lived harmoniously with the wildlife for centuries. They are the true but unsung custodians for the wildlife. For as long as they are not placed at the centre of wildlife conservation, Kenya's human-wildlife conflict will persist, to the detriment of all.

Few thought it would work. Even the experts said no chance. But 24 hours after the road underpass opened, the bull elephant slowly stepped through and re-established safe passage on an ancient trail.

Reaching high into the clouds, Mount Kenya is a waypoint on the elephant's inbuilt GPS. For centuries herds in this part of Africa have trodden the route back and forth across the equator to Mount Marsabit in the north.

Then came agricultural fields. And a road network. The old elephant paths were blocked by either cash crops of flowers and tomatoes, or by lorries thundering on tarmac through the foothills.

The elephants took the easy route and fed themselves along the way. Entire crops were destroyed overnight and livelihoods ruined. Elephants were sometimes killed in retaliation.

"The situation was bad," said Mike Watson of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. "So we negotiated an elephant corridor, a fenced route, which passes through the agricultural lands. We built the underpass under a busy freeway and now hundreds of elephants travel up and down every year."

The corridor fully opened in 2011 and has locally eased an intense conflict between man and beast, familiar across Africa. But it is also part of a wider effort that has brought farmers and villagers more onside in the fight against poaching.

The horrifying slaughter of the African elephant is headline news: Tens of thousands are killed each year, their tusks hacked out, their bodies left to rot. Herds have been devastated by sophisticated criminal gangs feeding high demand for ivory, especially in China.

Rhino, too, are being targeted with calamitous effect with nearly 1,400 slaughtered across the continent last year.

Trying to protect these species is deadly. It's estimated on average that 100 rangers are killed each year in the line of duty.

Winnie Kiiru is from the group Stop Ivory, who recently helped organise the burning of more than 105 tonnes of confiscated elephant tusks and rhino horn in Nairobi.

"When you consider the criminal resources behind this illegal trade," she said, "you would not want to be the ranger who stands between the gun and the endgame. The syndicates are ruthless."

The elephant corridor leads north from the slopes of Mount Kenya on to the wide, open ranges of Lewa Downs and beyond. Here the story bucks the trend, demonstrating just what it takes to beat the criminals.

The vehicle jolts along the dusty earth track from the airfield. Alongside are grazing herds of impala and zebra. In the distance, small groups of elephant slowly move under the boundless African sky.

Suddenly an abrupt halt, the engine is cut as the driver whispers urgently: "There, rhino!" And 300 metres away, the rhinoceros was lying down, its curved, pointed horn - so valued by the poachers - poking through the high grass.

Formerly a cattle ranch, these lands are now a thriving wildlife conservancy with about 72 critically endangered black rhino living wild, but protected on 93,000 rolling acres.

Together with the hundreds of elephant that pass through Lewa every year, one would think the conservancy would be a prime target for poachers.

But the last rhino killed by poachers' guns was three years ago in 2013. Elephant poaching in the region is down, too, now at its lowest level in the last six years.

The success is in part because of the level of protection provided for the black rhino, which represent 12 percent of the remaining population in Kenya.

There are rangers with armed patrols, plus a helicopter that can reach remote parts fast. All wildlife security operations are controlled from a central office where TV screens monitor the live movements of tagged rhinos and elephants.

There are sniffer dogs, too. A handler and his bloodhound engaged in an exercise as they tracked down a man to his hideout in a ravine, simply from sniffing the imprint of his shoe in the dust.

But these days, the patrols deal more with cattle rustlers than poachers. Confrontations with the latter are rare.

"Actually I'd say when it comes to poaching, our security effort represents just 20 percent of our success," said Watson. "The rest comes through the community.

"There's a saying: 'If it pays, it stays', and it's an adage that's worked here. The point being, if the community get the benefit of wildlife surviving, then they'll want to protect that source of income. So for example, if they see people planning to poach, they'll tell the authorities and they know action will be taken."

Suddenly there are thousands of eyes and ears on the ground ready to report illegal activities because it's in the community interest.

The equation is simple: Manage your land, look after your wildlife, and bank the tourist dollar. Easier said than done in areas of conflict such as the DRC and Congo, but it's working here.

Livestock sales at helpfully cranked-up prices and micro-credit schemes also help the cause. New schools have been built and educational bursaries provided.

Chief ranger John Palmeri has been patrolling Lewa lands for more than 20 years.

"The conservancy changes the way people live," he said. "There used to be a lot of inter-tribal fighting, but now it's more peaceful. Local people benefit and they have become the first line of defence against poachers."

Lewa is undoubtedly expensive to run. Security costs in 2015 ran at $1.23m and the conservancy itself spent nearly $1.5m on logistics and wildlife activities. The flip side is the income generated by luxury tourist lodges plus donations and grants to ongoing projects.

There are few parks or reserves on the continent that have the resources, stability or government support to counter the powerful criminal syndicates. These organisations especially thrive in the chaos of unstable governance, with corruption endemic among military, government and judicial officials, and where armed militias wreak havoc.

But the Lewa experience does demonstrate that a coupling of conservation and community, together with careful financial management, will go far in this bloody war against wildlife crime.

Tourism Observer
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