Kenya’s pastoral communities have shown resistance to Covid – and that’s good news for African wildlife
When Covid hit Africa, the alarm bells started ringing among tourism professionals and conservationists. What would be the impact of the sudden loss of tourism on the communities that depend on tourism? Would poaching increase as they struggled to feed their families? Would international wildlife criminals have an easier time enticing local populations to poach for the illegal wildlife trade? The debate around the resilience of these communities to sudden “shocks”, particularly in areas critical for wildlife, has intensified. Obviously, they would need to develop sustainable livelihoods that do not depend solely on tourism.
As the pandemic evolves, however, a more complex and encouraging picture emerges of the resilience of rural communities in times of crisis. Three community conservatories that I visited in Kenya during COVID – arguably the ones expected to suffer the devastating consequences of the tourism collapse – offer fascinating insight and a case in point.
The first – Ol Malo in northern Kenya – is a private wildlife conservatory owned and operated by the Francombe family, who established the Samburu Trust with the local Samburu Moran to preserve the land for both Samburu and wildlife. local. The second – ll Ngwesi – is an upscale eco-lodge well known for being fully owned and operated by the local Maasai community. Located in a designated wildlife conservation area, it borders on both Lewa Wildlife Conservation and Borana Ranch, and it’s a place I know well, having served on the board for several years.
Finally, the 1920s Cottar camp in the southeast corner of the Maasai Mara is perhaps the The ultimate exclusive premium safari camping experience on community land, in this case the Olderkesi Conservancy. Led by the Cottars Wildlife Conservation Trust (CWCT) and supported by the African Wildlife Foundation (of which I am the UK director), a four-step plan with the Olderkesi Maasai is underway to expand land under conservation and reopen historic south-eastern wildlife migration routes while supporting the livelihoods of communities.
The good news is that in all three countries – and contrary to the general narrative about Covid and communities dependent on tourism – there have been no reports of an upsurge in poaching. The incidence of human-wildlife conflict remained an issue, but the wildlife was in good condition, with key indicator species, including top predators, all very well highlighted. In Ol Malo, we saw elephants moving around the reserve comfortably and we came close on horseback to giraffes with new calves. At Il Ngwesi, camera traps had captured images of resident leopards and lions, as well as rarely seen striped hyenas and vararchs. And at Olderkesi in the Mara, we had daily observations of great pride lions. All three lodges and camps remained open, operating with fewer staff with reduced salaries, and partnerships with local communities persisted, albeit in survival mode. As one Il Ngwesi community member put it: “It’s just about food for now. We sell a goat or a sheep and if necessary a cow to obtain food and to wait for better times. In this crisis at least, these communities did not resort to poaching.
These community conservation partnerships work because they benefit all parties. In Ol Malo, the Samburu Trust helps the local community manage their livestock by providing water and grazing, as well as providing support in case of human-wildlife conflict, and providing health care and employment. to women through the exchange of pearls for food. In Il Ngwesi, the eco-lodge provides local jobs, visiting tourists have renovated schools and clinics, and associated partnerships have supported livelihood projects and enhanced community safety. And in Olderkesi, Cottars 1920 and the CWCT provide jobs and, with support from the African Wildlife Foundation, have plans to support livestock management and other livelihood initiatives alongside wildlife conservation.
These tourism-based partnerships survive, even with minimal benefits to communities now, because they have been around for a long time and because all parties are mutually invested in a long-term vision. Along with other community conservation partnerships – such as Ewaso Lions in Kenya and the Ruaha Lion Project in Tanzania – they teach important lessons about what can stand the test of time. There is now no doubt that true community ownership, trust between parties, transparent communication and benefit sharing (not always in cash) and effective leadership by those with sufficient gravity in the community (not necessarily by the most educated) are all the engines of success.
But there is another important reason why these partnerships hold. The three communities that I visited are pastoral. Livestock are the foundation of the communities’ way of life and a safety net in times of crisis. Pastoral areas are often important for wildlife conservation as well as people as they make productive lands that are often not suitable for agriculture, while also allowing biodiversity. In Africa, the survival of many species depends on this type of community land which acts as a buffer between wildlife areas and human settlements, as well as a corridor for wildlife from one protected area to another.
Ensuring that these lands support biodiversity is key to the long-term future of people and wildlife. But pastoral lands can be environmentally fragile, prone to drought, and vulnerable to degradation from overgrazing. Thus, in these areas, wildlife conservation is as much a matter of livestock management as it is of direct species protection. Build dams at different locations to provide seasonal water for livestock, as the Samburu Trust has done. Improve livestock health and encourage small herds like in Olderkesi and other conservancies like Enonkishu in the Maasai Mara. Or zoning the land to ensure the protection of wildlife conservation areas, such as Il Ngwesi. And when drought hits, flexibility is built in.
The situation is very different from other places in Africa, and even in Kenya like Tsavo, where paved roads crisscross the country, ethnic groups mingle with traders, and hunting is still a way of life. Within the Lumo Conservancy of Tsavo, AWF encourages local communities to protect wildlife through salaries and conservation operations. But elsewhere in the region, bushmeat seizures by the Kenya Wildlife Service show an upsurge in hunting, with cross-border cartels selling bushmeat on both sides of the border. So here AWF is supporting the Kenya Wildlife Service to lead a more targeted anti-poaching campaign by providing detection dogs and dog handlers, and helping bring wildlife criminals to justice.
Kenya offers a fascinating insight into local resilience in times of crisis and the associated impacts on wildlife. Certainly, the minimal loss of iconic species such as the elephant and rhino to the illegal wildlife trade is laudable, and in part a testament to the Kenyan government’s strong law enforcement and strict legal penalties. But while hunting for bushmeat is still prevalent in specific areas, the much-feared widespread increase in poaching has not materialized, largely thanks to the presence of livelihood safety nets, in the form of long-term conservation partnerships based on mutual trust. , community ownership and the resilience of old pastoral lifestyles. The Independent’s Stop the Illegal Wildlife campaign is commendable in recognizing that protecting endangered wildlife from the illegal wildlife trade is as much about these types of safety nets and livelihood resilience as it is about condemning the criminals of the wildlife. wildlife. And as global awareness of the value of biodiversity and wildlife to our own survival grows and the world takes greater steps to protect them, understanding these unique dynamics has never been more essential. to the sites.
Dr Kirstin Johnson is the UK director of the African Wildlife Foundation