The management and conservation of wildlife has always been a contentious issue throughout the continent. In recent years, failure in the sector has been fueled by a rapid wildlife decline in both the inside and outside protected areas. This has been attributed to several factors: rapid growth in the human population, land use and cover changes, land fragmentation, infrastructural development, poaching for trophy and bushmeat, climate change and variability, outbreaks of infectious diseases, proliferation of firearms, weak law enforcement, poor governance, competition with livestock for space, water and pasture, as well as poverty and inequality. Although several measures have been put in place over time to check on the challenges, they don’t seem to go away.
As a result, several organisations and communities have been employing different methods of wildlife conservation and community well-being in the hopes of cracking the sweet spot. An excellent case study is the Maasai-Mara ecosystem in Kenya, which is famed for its diverse wildlife and the annual wildebeest crossing. The last 30 or so years have seen rapid and unequal socio-economic development in the area; partially due to a history of land grabbing, poor governance, corruption, and lack of transparency in management. A series of failed land management and ownership regimes, including communal land managed as group ranches, has left a legacy of distrust and a lack of community cohesion. The area was subdivided among members after the failure of group ranches; unfortunately, only a few influential individuals gained extensive benefits, so the majority of landowners remained disempowered and disenfranchised. Broken trust and weak regulatory frameworks have led to unplanned development and exploitation of the resources of the Mara, leaving stakeholders without a vision of what sustainable management of the Mara could or should be.
In 2016, the Public Library of Science published a study showing that many of the nation’s most treasured species — including giraffe, wildebeest, and Grevy’s zebra — have fallen to less than one-third of their population count from just 40 years ago. The number of lions has plummeted as well: in 1998, the nation was home to over 15,000, but only an estimated 2,000 remain today. Several experts have predicted that they could completely vanish from Kenya within the next two decades.
Kenyan parliament passed an act in 2o13 that devolved wildlife conservation and management rights, as well as opportunities and responsibilities to county governments, land owners, and land managers where wildlife occurs outside public conservation areas/sanctuaries. The Wildlife Conservation and Management Act’s aim is to rectify long-standing legal, policy, administrative, and law enforcement deficiencies that had hitherto undermined the effectiveness of conservation and management of wildlife on public, community, and private lands in Kenya. While it is in good faith, the goal is compromised by several factors. Human growth is estimated to be at 10.5%, with the youth population hovering at the estimate of 65% – a significant number of them being unemployed. Not only does this statistic create a continuously growing demand for land and resources, but it also calls for an increase in agricultural cultivation and stimulates unplanned development of infrastructure and urban centres.
The Maasai-Mara ecosystem is occupied by the Maasai. Their livelihoods are hinged on livestock raised on communal rangelands, which maintains habitats for wildlife. However, a number of socio-economic shifts, including increasing needs for cash for school and medical fees, are threatening the viability of traditional rangeland management practices. A weak cash economy and limited job market has contributed to ongoing land subdivision, resulting in land being sold to outsiders who have little interest in the sustainable management of natural resources. This subdivision is also driving a rampant increase in fencing and conversion to land uses other than traditional grazing. Land is becoming increasingly fragmented, which negatively impacts contiguous landscapes for wildlife migrations and makes areas under cultivation inaccessible to wildlife. Fragmentation increases the risks from climate change, and has caused shifts in weather patterns in erratic and unpredictable seasons.
Olderkesi Conservancy lies in the southeast of Maasai-Mara National Reserve and borders Tanzania. The conservancy, which is part of the Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem, is widely known for its abundance of wildlife and great wildebeest migration. It is also home to the Maasai people – as is the rest of the ecosystem.
In addition, it is also host to three tourism facilities. However, only one is still functional: Cottar’s 1920s Camp. Compared to other group ranches in Mara, Olderkesi has not seen too much development in tourism. Currently 3,080 ha of the group ranch are managed for conservation under the ownership of Olderkesi Community Wildlife Trust. All members of the group ranch are also members and beneficiaries of the Trust. The conservation area is currently managed by Cottars Wildlife Trust (C.W.C.T).
It is Calvin Cottar, the director of Cottars 1920s Camp and Cottars Wildlife Trust, who I met to shed light on what they are doing to better the lives of the people of Olderkesi, and greater Mara in general.
It was early in our interview and Calvin received a phone-call; it was followed by a short, animated conversation in Swahili. “These guys are my best friends and my worst enemies”, he says afterwards. It turns out, he was on a call with one of the members of the Olderkesi Community Wildlife Trust. Here, they employ a rather unique way of conservation, as well as ensure that the community is fully satisfied – a very thin balance.
Unlike the rest of the conservancies in the Mara, CWCT land is not subdivided. It is actually used as a single block, and it pays a lease to the residents in order to use the land for tourism purposes. This promotes natural biodiversity so that it has a viable use to the thousands of local residents, offering them an alternative to the need of creating fenced farms.
The community members, in turn, make sure grazing and poaching are non-existent in the land; they do this by acting as their own gatekeepers. If a community member sneaks their heard into the conservancy, they are reported to the elders and fined. As a result, this money goes to the conservancy kitty, which is used for development and regular pay-outs. The same strategy is used to curb poaching. The rates at which CWCT pays out the landowners are competitive enough to enable them to lead a life without using the conservancy for grazing or farming. Calvin describes this as a universal basic income, but with biodiversity conservation attached to it as a condition.
Pastoral communities now detest being locked out of land. Completely keeping them and the herds out of the conservancy is a major source of conflict. To avoid this, CWCT plans to introduce high quality breeds for their stock. Additionally, they will be able to use various tracts of land for grazing areas in different times of the year, ensuring there is a cycle that encourages vegetation growth and reduces human-wildlife conflict.
There are also plans of a collaboration with ‘Mara Beef’ to create a market channel that will act as another line of income. The organization will cater to education on holistic grazing as well, steering the community away from their current method of grazing through goats.
In addition, CWCT invests in building schools and health centres. CWCT is investing in Solar micro-grid financing as well, ensuring that access to power is cheaper and readily available in the community.