The key to saving the world’s wildlife

From poaching to habitat loss, local communities and indigenous people are vital in the fight to save wildlife
By Dickson Kaelo, CEO of Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association

Indigenous people and local communities have co-evolved with wildlife. Their creation stories put wildlife at the centre of their lives. In Africa and elsewhere, the belief in a supernatural being that created man and wildlife as companions is still strongly held. People’s interest in wildlife is driven by an awareness of the link between our own existence and nature.

Historically, conservation in Africa has been top down. Governments make conservation policy from the cities. International conservation funders and NGOs might design their projects with grants teams in city headquarters. A quick visit to the field often informs their decisions on what the priorities are. The outcome is a massive decline in wildlife, as those with the power to create change are neglected or not well-involved. This is what has to change if the current loss of wildlife is to be stemmed.

Investing in local conservation initiatives has the highest untapped potential. And the benefits generated from conservation are often either retained by the tourism value chain or by state agencies. If decision-making and sharing benefits was made more equitable and supported local communities who live with wildlife, those communities would be incentivized to become local stewards of wildlife. They’d also be disincentivized to participate in illegal wildlife crime and motivated to manage land with conservation as a key objective.

Photo from KWCA

National parks and reserves are the main ways of conserving wildlife, but given the migratory nature of majority of wildlife, parks are, by themselves, inadequate. Wildlife need space, pasture, water, and other resources located outside parks and reserves. Local communities and indigenous people live amongst wildlife. In Kenya, more than half of the large-bodied wildlife are not inside the parks and reserves, but occur in community and private land where landowners are making daily decisions on how best to use the land for their benefit.

It’s an established fact that wildlife declines are happening in community areas. Local landowners either exclude wildlife, by adopting cultivation and fencing, or, if wildlife is seen as a nuisance, they remove it, or tolerate it when they lack the means to remove it. That can mean that when poachers or loggers come to extract wildlife or trees, they’re welcomed or tolerated. When communities see wildlife as an asset, rather than a cost, conservation efforts begin yielding fruits.

Photo by Andrea Moreno

It’s not financially or physically possible to police all the community areas with wildlife using state officers. The ‘gun and boots’ approach will only work to the extent it’s supported by the many eyes and ears of local communities sharing land with wildlife. This is why effectively engaging local communities is a smart move.

Historically, communities have had traditional and cultural reasons to support conservation. This was dented by the creation of parks, which in some cases violently evicted them from their land or used force to conserve areas. Today’s community members still hold their traditional attachment to wildlife, plants and natural areas. We have to take advantage of this, as future generations might be devoid of such cultural tolerance to wildlife.

Most African countries today can’t create parks and reserves without infringing on the land rights of local people. The only route to expand conservation areas to the proposed 30 per cent of the country’s land area by 2030, as is being proposed, is by enlisting communities to manage their land in ways that include wildlife.

Photo by Andrea Moreno

In Kenya, this experiment’s been ongoing for two or three decades. The result is a growing number of communities that adopt a livestock-wildlife, land-use model. The results are out: some endangered species, such as the rare Hirola antelope, wild dog, Grevy’s zebra, black and white rhino and warthog, among others, are on an upward curve.

By employing over 3,200 community rangers, community and private conservancies have made an important link: the law enforcement capacity by Kenya Wildlife Service (the state agency responsible for wildlife) meets the willing eyes and ears of community members. Some areas have achieved zero or the lowest levels of poaching known in recent times.

The war on wildlife crime and wildlife loss will be won at the grassroots. Poachers are often local community members, taking advantage of weak law enforcement and community negative attitude to wildlife to put food on the table. If the community attitude changes and food is on the table from conservation-related land uses, the supply of labour for illegal activity is curtailed and the illegal wildlife crime value chain loses a critical component. This is the cheapest and most effective route, as once the wildlife is in the value chain, massive investigation costs will be needed to track it.

Photo by Andrea Moreno

When communities welcome wildlife to their land, pressure on parks is eased and the animals are able to track food, water and safety in an environment where they’re welcomed, not eaten, snared, poisoned or fenced off.

In Kenya, there are many examples of how local communities have become stewards. In southern Kenya, families evicted from the Maasai Mara in the late 1950s and early 1960s engaged in an never-ending battle to illegally graze in the reserve. They subdivided their land into an average 100-acre units and often fenced it off to exclude wildebeest from infecting their livestock with Malignant Catarrhal Fever (MCF), a fatal disease. Others fenced off water sources. There was a massive wildlife decline. Narok county, where the Mara’s located, lost an average 70 per cent of its wild ungulates in four decades.

The community were passive observers of the vibrant tourism industry that saw massive amounts of money flowing to airlines, hotel chains, tour operators and hotel owners. Dissent begun to creep in, including the poisoning of lions, leopards, hyenas and vultures, conversion of land to wheat and maize farms, and spearing of elephants.

Photo by Andrea Moreno

But in 1992 and 2004, communities established community associations and wildlife conservancies. Two decades later, the conservancies have doubled the land under conservation by adding 1,405km sq. under 15 conservancies into the already existing 1,500km sq. of the reserve area. This is a big sacrifice from the 14,000 landowners who opted to forego other potentially financially rewarding land uses to voluntarily move onto some areas, leaving the land open for livestock, wildlife and tourism.

This sacrifice was met by expanded economic opportunities, jobs and income from tourism, including $4.9 million (£3.99 million) earned in land-lease fees from tourism, reduced livestock losses from drought, and improved local governance as conservancy institutions became democratic spaces where community issues were discussed.

Wildlife has benefitted immensely. Adjacent areas that couldn’t be converted to conservancies are now under high tensile fences, with wildlife excluded or tangled in wires. But within conservancies, lion density is at the highest, herbivores are plentiful, and the tourism activities are compelling.

Photo by Andrea Moreno

Today, one of the Mara conservancies, Olare Motogi Conservancy, has the highest density of lions in Kenya and perhaps Africa. Of the top 20 zones nationally with the highest density of hoofed animals, 18 are in conservancies.

In northern Kenya, where tourism potential is outmatched by the Mara, communities have established over 30 conservancies with the support of the Northern Rangelands Trust. Over 1,000 new jobs have been created and, in 2018, over $860,000 ($700,000) in tourism income was realized by the communities.

Conservancies have become a centre for community-based decision-making, strengthening local governance, peace and social cohesion in an area where cattle-rustling and armed ethnic conflict were common in the recent past.

Photo by Andrea Moreno

In Ilngwesi conservancy, for example, the community are able to hold annual general meetings and elect their leaders, and they’ve managed to secures legal land rights for the members. This conservancy approach has gone beyond a conservation strategy to a sustainable development approach, bringing hope to marginalized communities.

The impacts and progress, as well as challenges, were what inspired the establishment of Kenya Wildlife Conservation Association (KWCA) to grow a Kenya-wide network of communities and landowners supporting government efforts to conserve the diverse fauna and flora that Kenya and Africa are known for. Since KWCA was established, a network of 160 conservancies coalesced into a network of people protecting our natural environment. This model offers promise for Africa and beyond when scaled and re-engineered.  

It is a fallacy that money must always drive conservation, or that wildlife must ‘pay to stay’. These are foreign concepts. In communities, such as the Maasai, nature and God share a common bond. The belief that destroying nature is punishable by God is the reason why most wildlife in East Africa is on Maasai land. Parks such as Mara, Serengeti, Amboseli, Tarangire and Samburu are there because local communities have a cultural connection and pride in the existence of wildlife. There’s an emotional connection to land and natural resources as a source of food, cultural materials, fresh water and air. Benefits from wildlife and natural areas are linked to community well-being.

Photo by KWCA

Even in the Mara where wildlife bring more benefits from tourism to communities than elsewhere in Africa, communities reported that the pride in taking care of the land ranked beyond economic benefits. Conservation must therefore understand community non-monetary and monetary needs attached to conservation.

The biggest threat to wildlife in Africa and perhaps globally is space, or lack of it, far ahead of poaching, illegal wildlife trade and disease. Any conservation effort that doesn’t address habitat loss is treating symptoms and not the root cause of wildlife decline.

Photo by Andrea Moreno

Land for wildlife is critical. The majority of wildlife habitat is on community or private land. While privately owned land is secured by title and has legal protection, community land has the weakest protection. Governments aren’t often incentivized to strengthen land rights due to commercial interests on those lands.

Weak community land rights weaken the communities’ abilities to make long-term decisions and reduces their interest in managing the land better. Fear of losing the land creates fertile grounds for suspicion, where even conservation efforts are seen as a threat, or short-term decisions to use resources are promoted. Often contrary to the traditional beliefs of indigenous people and local communities, wildlife has come to be perceived as a state asset. This is dangerous, as they then have no interest to protect it, contrary to past where nature and people were intertwined.

Recognizing community land rights is vital. Creating effective governance structures to manage community land is a prerequisite for successful conservation efforts.

Historically, the eviction of communities from parks and law enforcement that prohibited access to salt licks, water, cultural resources and historical sites led to perceptions that wildlife conservation was a bad thing. This is what conservation in Africa struggles with.

Photo by Andrea Moreno

When I worked with others to establish the Olare Orok Conservancy in 2005, the community would only agree to a one-year period. They were convinced that this might be a hidden effort to expand the park. They cited evictions of Maasai from Loliondo and Ngorongoro as examples. It took a decade for the elders to appreciate that a conservancy strengthened their land rights, rather than the opposite. When this trust was built in 2019, they opted for a 25-year renewable lease.

When communities and their indigenous knowledge and respect for their land rights are brought into conservancies, success becomes achievable. Africa is better off with its local communities as stewards of nature, rather than conservation bodies and governments seeing them as a threat to nature. Recognizing local and indigenous communities as primary stakeholders, respecting and strengthening their land rights, and engaging them in decision-making at local-to-international levels is the key route for Africa to protect its wildlife.

Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association work with landowners and communities to sustainably conserve and manage wildlife and habitat outside state-protected areas. For more on their work, see:

Lead photo by Angela Scott:

Wildlife photos by Andrea Moreno:

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NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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