Mongabay Series: Indigenous Peoples and Conservation

• Government-run parks cover too little of Kenya’s territory to sustain the country’s wide-ranging wildlife populations, nearly two-thirds of which depend on open rangeland that indigenous herders also use.

• Today, herders and wildlife must navigate pastures that are increasingly crowded, fragmented, and fragile. Livestock numbers have increased dramatically, while wildlife populations have declined precipitously.

• The South Rift Association of Landowners (SORALO), a collective of Maasai-owned group ranches spanning 10,000 square kilometers (3,800 square miles), formed to protect the free movement of both people and wildlife on its terrain.

• While SORALO’s monitoring suggests its efforts are yielding results, South Rift communities face an extraordinarily complex future, and the goal of coexistence between herders and wildlife does not come easily.

OLKIRIMATIAN, Kenya — As night falls on the Olkirimatian Group Ranch, in south-central Kenya, a cacophony of whistles and cowbells fills the air. Herders are hurrying cattle, sheep and goats home for the evening. By day, Maasai pastoralists and their livestock rule this stretch of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. But each night, people here still beat an age-old retreat, ceding the land to its other, wilder owners.

Many international tourists think of Kenya as a country defined by a few famous, people-free protected areas. In reality, Kenya’s government-run parks cover only 8 percent of its territory, an area too small to sustain the country’s wide-ranging wildlife populations. Nearly two-thirds of Kenya’s iconic animals depend on open rangeland areas like Olkirimatian, where mobile wildlife live alongside mobile herders.

In recent decades, however, a sweeping set of pressures, including human population growth, the breakdown of traditional pastoral practices, new fences, and development, have begun to transform Kenya’s open range. Herders and wildlife today must navigate pastures that are increasingly crowded, fragmented, and fragile. A 2016 paper found that livestock numbers had increased dramatically in Kenya’s rangelands since 1977. Meanwhile, wildlife suffered “relentless, pervasive and catastrophic” losses, with populations of counted species declining by an average of 68 percent over the same period.

The Lale’enok Resource Centre, on the Olkirimatian Group Ranch, is headquarters to an organization aiming to halt these trends. The South Rift Association of Landowners (SORALO) is a collective of 16 Maasai-owned group ranches that have come together to protect the free movement of both people and wildlife in southern Kenya. Though some SORALO-owned lands have been fenced, most are a relative holdout against the changes on other Kenyan rangelands. Spanning about 10,000 square kilometers (3,800 square miles) between Kenya’s Amboseli National Park and Maasai Mara National Reserve, the SORALO territory is home to a quarter of a million people and some of the planet’s most diverse and abundant populations of large mammals.

A map of southeastern Kenya shows the location of South Rift Association of Landowners (SORALO) lands, a collective of 16 Maasai-owned group ranches (click here to enlarge). Image courtesy of SORALO.

SORALO’s work faces serious obstacles, but, succeed or fail, its implications extend well beyond Kenya. Pastoralism is humanity’s most extensive form of land use, and pastoralists in many regions share landscapes with migratory or highly mobile wildlife. As conservationists around the world struggle to secure space for wild animals to roam, SORALO is out to prove that one solution may start with people who themselves survive through movement.

Lions rest on a termite mound in the SORALO landscape. Image by Guy Western.

Inside-out conservation

SORALO’s director, John Kamanga, comes naturally by a pastoral worldview. Sporting a trim blazer and speaking sometimes in the lingo of his education in organizational management, he fits in well with Kenya’s hustling community of social impact leaders. But Kamanga is also a Maasai who served as chair of the Olkirimatian Group Ranch for 16 years and still keeps cattle in the South Rift.

“I’m excited about my work because I grew up in this system,” says Kamanga. “Now I can see the whole thing and be a part of helping its future.”

In SORALO’s Nairobi office, four hours from its territory, Kamanga and the group’s research coordinator, Samantha du Toit, run me through the organization’s history. Founded in 2004, SORALO began as a way to scale wildlife tourism projects that Kamanga and others helped start on the Olkirimatian Group Ranch and the neighboring Shompole Group Ranch. The idea was to create a South Rift circuit for tourists transiting between southern Kenya’s national parks.

Today, however, SORALO’s mission is more fundamental. While the organization continues to help member communities develop tourism projects, its focus is on sustaining the bedrock resource — a “healthy and intact landscape,” as the group’s promotional materials put it — upon which both herders and wildlife rely.


SORALO’s Guy Western and Loserem Pukare measure and record lion tracks outside a homestead in Olkiramatian, Kenya. Image by Guy Western.

To do so, SORALO takes a three-part approach. To keep lands open, SORALO helps communities deploy land-use planning and legal tools to strengthen their rights to their land. To help communities manage their natural resources more effectively, SORALO employs a large network of community game scouts, a rangeland monitoring team, and a lion-conflict mitigation team called Rebuilding the Pride. And to help communities benefit more from those resources, it builds their incomes by developing wildlife tourism ventures and supporting a livestock marketing and production program and a women’s enterprise program.

The point, SORALO staff emphasize, is to demonstrate that development doesn’t have to come at the cost of open landscapes, wildlife and an intact culture.

Uniting SORALO’s work are the challenges posed by communally held natural resources. Open rangelands allow wildlife and pastoralists the freedom of movement necessary to survive in the savanna. But they also represent a classic commons, prone to the “tragedy of the commons,” in which individual, self-interested decisions can add up to disaster for a community.

SORALO programs focused on introducing land-use planning and adaptive rangeland management concepts offer part of a solution. Importantly, SORALO isn’t starting from scratch: the South Rift Maasai maintain several traditional systems for managing communal resources. The Olkirimatian and Shompole communities, for instance, employ rules that determine when and where herders can graze, as well as reciprocal grazing arrangements with outside communities. The final plank of SORALO’s work focuses on documenting and helping communities sustain their traditional practices.

In fact, Kamanga says, SORALO’s “inside-out” approach to conservation is what most distinguishes it from other community-based conservation initiatives in Kenya. Rather than imposing outside conservation values on communities (an “outside-in” approach), SORALO uses traditional systems as the basis for its work.

A Maasai herder moves cattle across rangeland shared with zebras. Image by Guy Western.

From conflict to coexistence

In the 2012 book Savannas of Our Birth: People, Wildlife, and Change in East Africa, Colorado State University conservation scholar Robin Reid describes the relationships between East African pastoralists and wildlife as a spectrum stretching from conflict to coexistence. At one end, conflict occurs where pastoralists and wildlife compete for resources or harm one another. But coexistence, where pastoralists and wildlife benefit each other, is also possible. For instance, herders might play a role in keeping land open for wildlife, even as wildlife brings in tourism dollars or draws predators away from livestock.

Much of SORALO’s work centers on understanding this conflict-to-coexistence spectrum in the South Rift, and on finding solutions that tilt the scales toward coexistence.

“We’re very focused on the question of where does it go right and where does it wrong,” says du Toit.

A leopard on SORALO lands. Image by Guy Western.

One night I join SORALO’s Rebuilding the Pride team for an excursion through the Olkirimatian and Shompole group ranches. Guy Western, who coordinates a SORALO program called Coexistence for Conservation, is at the wheel, navigating a Land Cruiser through stands of acacia trees and across moonlit expanses of grassland.

Peter Meiponyi and Patrick Nkele stand on the back seat, their upper bodies sticking out of the sunroof, and use a spotlight to scan for flashes of eyes. The beam pauses only briefly on zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, gazelle.

Tonight, the team is after rarer quarry. We’re looking for eyes that stare forward and glow golden-orange, like small nuclear reactors: lion eyes.

The team’s search is part of a nationwide effort. Across Kenya, a coalition of NGOs is conducting the country’s first detailed lion census. I’m tagging along to learn how people share landscapes with animals like lions in the first place.

It’s a question Western has spent his career considering. A Kenyan conservation scientist, Western recently completed his Ph.D. at Oxford University, where his dissertation asked how different contexts, from political situations to cultural traditions, affect the way people across Africa get along with lions.

“Here people’s views of wildlife are not negative,” Western says. “If a leader sees there’s no wildlife, fundamentally he views that as a problem.”

Wildebeest and livestock share the range on SORALO lands. Image by Guy Western.

A number of cultural factors help explain the trend toward coexistence in the South Rift. The most obvious is the Maasai’s cultural prohibition against eating wildlife in all but the most extreme circumstances; generally, the Maasai attitude toward wildlife is live and let live.

But there are also subtler dynamics at play. The South Rift region is among a few places in Kenya where pastoralists still employ a traditional seasonal movement system. SORALO’s research shows that the system creates a heterogeneous landscape with rotating areas of different kinds of pasture and habitat that reduces conflict between wildlife and livestock. On a finer scale, individual Maasai herders are adept at avoiding livestock predation and far more tolerant of it than, say, ranchers in the U.S.

SORALO’s efforts are also contributing. The community game scouts serve as a human-wildlife conflict rapid response team, helping to cool tempers and prevent retaliation when lions take a cow or an elephant hurts a person. And while young Maasai men have traditionally hunted lions as a rite of passage, the practice is ebbing in areas where Rebuilding the Pride works.

The Rebuilding the Pride team is zooming across the Shompole Group Ranch when Peter Meiponyi whispers: “Simba!” A young lioness lies in a patch of moonlight watching an upwind herd of wildebeest. Western knows this lioness, and the sighting elicits a story. Last year, a group of young Maasai warriors from another area came to Shompole to graze their livestock. Noting the number of lions in the area, the outsiders criticized the local warriors for not being man enough to control lion numbers. Eventually the goading resulted in a traditional hunt, in which the mother of the lioness we found was killed.

While the story suggests the difficulty of SORALO’s work, it’s also a story of progress. The outsiders visiting Shompole noticed the lions because there are more here than there once were — a sign, ultimately, of an expanding culture of coexistence.

SORALO staff members Loserem Pukare, left, Patrick Nkele, center, and Payakuoni Kitesho, right. Image by Guy Western.

A future for movement?

While SORALO’s monitoring suggests its efforts are yielding results, South Rift communities face an extraordinarily complex future. Human populations are projected to continue increasing across East Africa’s rangelands, even as traditional practices erode and fences proliferate. Of SORALO’s 16 member ranches, nine have subdivided, meaning community members voted to divide communal lands into individual parcels. The appeal of subdivision is that it gives families secure tenure to their own piece of land; the paradox is that no pastoral family can sustain itself on a single parcel of land.

Changes to Kenya’s rangelands add up to changes in peoples’ relationships with wildlife. As herders move more livestock through smaller, more degraded areas, more conflict with wildlife is inevitable.

“I see major problems in the future,” says Noolteyan Ntiyiongo, a pastoralist woman from the Shompole Group Ranch. “There’s not enough space.”

On a deeper level, some observers argue that SORALO’s pastoralist-led model is fundamentally flawed, destined to be overwhelmed by the changes coming to Kenya.

“To romanticize pastoralism is a fallacy. Pastoralism is driving much of our decline in wildlife,” says Dino Martins, executive director of the Mpala Research Centre in central Kenya. Martins says that exponential increases in livestock populations across Kenya are currently driving a range of ecological issues. He points out that multiple studies have shown that Kenya’s rangelands are already badly overgrazed and current conservation efforts are failing to slow losses to wildlife and plant diversity.

“Kenya is home to nearly 700 different grass species, yet in most of the rangelands our grass species are disappearing and being replaced by invasive and weedy plants that are able to withstand high levels of grazing pressure,” says Martins. “Grasslands and grazing animals co-exist in a delicate, co-evolved relationship that is currently collapsing as livestock numbers increase beyond the carrying capacity of the land.”

Lions near Shompole Hill on the Shompole Group Ranch. Image by Guy Western.

As for the authors of the 2016 paper charting Kenya’s wildlife declines, they note that the country is switching from an “empty world” with enough space for wildlife and people to a “full world” of increasing conflict. The authors see pastoralists-led conservation efforts like SORALO’s as a necessary, but insufficient, response to Kenya’s conservation challenge. Ultimately, they say, stronger government policies are needed to support local management of wildlife.

For their part, SORALO staff say they are advocating for and helping herders navigate new government policies that support coexistence. SORALO staff also acknowledge that their strategy involves trade-offs between the needs of wildlife and the needs of people.

“Obviously if you are trying only to maximize wildlife, this is not the right approach,” says Guy Western.

One morning I join Western and Steiner Sempeta, SORALO’s data manager, for a trip to the Loita Hills. Just west of Olkirimatian and Shompole, the Loitas are known as a stronghold of traditional Maasai culture, and for the old-growth Loita Forest, which remains intact largely because of cultural rules.

As we travel across the plains leading to the Loita Hills, Sempeta and Western narrate the landscape. To the right is the past of Kenya’s rangelands, an open expanse of whistling thorn and grass stretching away to the horizon. To the left is one possible future: a sub-divided, fenced-in landscape. Sempeta and Western note that the fence posts are cedar — trees taken from the Loita Forest — and that a major wildebeest migration through the area has recently all but stopped.

We camp in the shadow of the Loitas, in the company of a number of SORALO community game scouts and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers. Over dinner, a young KWS ranger shares tales of life in Kenya’s wilds. His favorite post was Tsavo East National Park, because it was simple; there, poaching was his only problem. Now that he works in community lands, he has to attend to the thornier issue of human-wildlife conflict. A 14-year-old girl was just killed by an elephant, he says; not long ago, it was a 42-year-old man.

Coexistence doesn’t come easy. SORALO’s work in the South Rift is messier than conservation in protected areas, where human activity is largely excluded. But in Kenya, as in other parts of the world, it will be the shared spaces beyond parks that determine the future of wildlife, and of people’s relationship to wildlife.

Earlier in the evening at our camp with the KWS rangers, the familiar sounds of whistles and bells — herders driving their animals home — came floating down Loita Hills. Now, as the Milky Way arcs across the sky, hyenas take over. They’re somewhere not far off, whooping in the dark.

A lioness named Ngiso. Image by Guy Western.

Banner image: Loserem Pukare, who works for SORALO’s Rebuilding the Pride lion conservation program, looks for lions on the Shompole Group Ranch in southeastern Kenya. Image by Guy Western. 

Editor’s note 3/1/19: At Dino Martins’s request, this story was updated after publication to clarify the explanation of his views.


Ogutu, J. et al. (2016). Extreme Wildlife Declines and Concurrent Increase in Livestock Numbers in Kenya: What are the Causes? PLoS ONE 11(9): e0163249. 

Russell, S., et al. (2018). Seasonal interactions of pastoralists and wildlife in relation to pasture in an African savanna ecosystem. Journal of Arid Environments 154:70-81.

Western, D., et al. (2009). The Status of Wildlife in Protected Areas Compared to Non-Protected Areas of Kenya. PLoS ONE 4(7): e6140.

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Article published by Rebecca Kessler

Agriculture, Animals, Archive, Biodiversity, Cattle, Cattle Pasture, Community-based Conservation, Conservation, Development, Environment, Featured, Governance, Green, Happy-upbeat Environmental, Indigenous Communities, Indigenous Groups, Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous Rights, Land Rights, Mammals, Migration, Wildlife

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‘Relict’ but also, potentially, a ‘refugee’ species, confined to habitat that is not necessarily optimum. Given its historical, wide distribution, Javan rhino presumably occupied a far wider range of habitats than that to which it is now confined? There must be at least a few large, safe sites within its historical range within which a second population could, in theory, be established?




This is a well written and vert informative story..Thank you…



22 Feb

The flower in the picture is a species of Clerodendrum confined to a few forest patches in Madagascar, it is a species new to science (as yet undescribed). It belongs to a group of plants I am actively working on.




A couple things to remember and not mentioned in this article is that the UNDP will implement the program and that much of the money will go to local communities, indigenous groups, and others FIGHTING TO STOP DEFORESTATION – why wouldn’t you want them to have $96,000,000.This is a non-issue for a couple of reasons… 1. they’re paying out for 2% of the reductions, not 100% or the equivalent of letting Brazil double its deforestation. If they were paying for all of them, that argument might work, but their not… The GCF’s result based scheme was designed on purpose to ensure such game of the reference or crediting level would not be possible. 2. The smoking analogy, but it does not work either… total amount of GHG in the atmosphere is what is important. If the smoker stopped smoking and less GHG went to the atmosphere, than the atmosphere is better off even if the smoker goes back. If the smoker also never saw a reason to keep on not smoking he is more likely to return to smoking. However, if he receives an incentive to not smoke, he is more likely to not continue smoking? Please also understand these are non-market payments… they’re not going to be traded or used as offsets.Finally, there are dozens of accredited experts registered with the UNFCCC to review the exact thing Krill thinks is an issue. They would be a good place to start for more commentary on whether this really is an issue or not. Dirk Nemowitz at the UNFCCC Secretariat can connect you with them.




Important science but a problematic headline conclusion. The comparison between intact and regrowing forests makes for a nice intriguing story but its almost meaningless, and arguably even misleading, for guiding action. The sink values of both intact forests and recovering forests are enormously important as brakes on the accumulation of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, and any sensible policy for the world’s forests would aim to maximize both in parallel (with intact forests perhaps an especially good investment, because there is less competition with other land uses and they have higher resilience to climate change). Great to see part of that story further quantified here. But the framing is misleading because a naive reader might assume that the sensible course of action would be to turn old growth forests into vigorously growing young forests, and so maximize the rate at which carbon was being drawn down. The obvious fallacy is that to do so you first have to release a large amount of carbon into the atmosphere by logging or clearing, where it will sit for decades, accelerating warming – the recovering forest would take many years of eager growth just to get back to where it had started (and may never catch up with where the still-growing intact forests have got to in the interim). There is no climate upside to turning old forests into young forests! Despite this fallacy, such an argument is sometimes put forwards by advocates of logging primary and intact forests.


Michelle Desilets


Really speaks the need to insure inclusion of smallholders in sustainable palm oil supply chains. It is reassuring to know that Jane Goodall supports sustainable palm oil as new frontiers for oil palm appear in Africa, putting African great apes at risk.




Fearnside understands the ecological impacts of mega hydropower projects. His commentary is clear, concise, and well-documented in the literature. Hydropower is not clean or green.


Yanina Olegovna


in Siberia there was a forest. do not worry




If there are really a few left, the term brachyura should not apply. Neofelis nebulosa only.



21 Feb

Thank you for this article .




If all eco freaks listed on this article are so smart, why don’t they send a presidential candidate to sell what they preach to the 200 million Indonesian voters?You should have realized by now that Indonesian voters do not consist of orangutans and their white European funders.




Hmmm. Not sure what I think of this piece. I drive by/through San Felipe/Puertocitos more than a few times a year (most recently 10 days ago). You can easily see gill nets on pangas (a small fiberglass fishing boat) being towed behind pick-ups if you drive around town or on the coast road even a little bit. If gill nets are illegal, all you’d have to do is follow the panga or put a tracker on the boat and vio-la – you’d catch the illegal fisherman. I think law enforcement is so terrible in Mexico that any uptick is seen as great news but any expat will tell you; there is no rule of law in Mexico. My feeling is that the pressure from groups like the US Gov and Sea Shepherd are finally starting to pay off.




Is this the area where the Swiss attempted reforestation of the indigenous trees and found out it would take about 100 years to do this?




Use camera motion sensor sets to monitor the wildlife and poachers with a face


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