Since the arrival of Kitili Mbathi as Director General of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), a shift in reaction to the perennial invasion of the Tsavo ecosytem by cattle herders has taken hold.
Where previously KWS staff stood by almost helplessly as thousands of cattle were driven into the open boundaries park in search of water and pasture, under the new regime, a harder stand has emerged.
According to reports received, over a thousand heads of cattle and several hundred goats were confiscated – now arguably set for auction to bring much-needed cash into the KWS coffers – and several individuals were successfully prosecuted, setting a new trend for the future.
Questions are often asked why for instance the invasions of this kind in the past into the Masai Mara have by and large been brought under control, while in other parts of the country, for instance in the Samburu area, the trends continued until more recently.
Could the answer be found in the string of conservancies which have now created a solid buffer zone between commercial farmers and herders and the Masai Mara? To a good part the answer to that must be yes.
Masai clans, the principle landowners, have set aside huge tracts of their land for conservation, and as regularly pointed out by one of Kenya’s conservancy pioneers, Jake Grieves Cook, a previously overgrazed and deteriorated land has quickly found its way back into pristine wilderness conditions, where wildlife thrives and from which the landowners earn income through multiple means, offsetting the loss of cash from cattle sales.
Royalties, annual concession fees, and most important, jobs in the tented camps which were set up on the conservancies, plus Corporate Social Responsibility programs supporting schools, health centers and other social amenities, have vastly improved the lives in many villages, which continue to dot the periphery of these private game sanctuaries.
The herdsmen, while now arguably having less in terms of livestock numbers, have seen the quality of their livestock improve, also bringing a better yield when eventually sold.
Another model worth looking at is the mixed conservation/livestock conservancy, which is particularly successful on the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where after years of sole use for conservation the owners and managers decided to once again mix both activities, with little detrimental effect on the wilderness experience of visiting tourists but a huge impact on the financial bottom line.
Could any of these models be used in the Tsavo area to reduce the constant conflict between the livestock industry and conservation? As was the case in the early days of conservancies, when Jake Grieves Cook and a handful of others had a major task ahead of them to convince the Masai of the Masai Mara and the adjoining lands around Amboseli that they had indeed found a way forward by having tourism pay for the potential loss of income from larger but often equally poor-quality cattle so a case can be made for a similar engagement of the herders in the Tsavo area.
It will no doubt be a major challenge to engage and sit down the herders which in the past with near impunity violated the park boundaries and rules and by and large got away with it.
The Tsavo Conservancy, formed in 2013 by 7 major ranches, has at least made a start of bringing the two different camps together and with some 100,000 hectares under their control, looks after a major piece of wilderness and ranchland real estate.
A map, however, also shows how many other ranches remain outside this arrangement and how great the challenges are to bring those into a regulated conservation system and reduce their desire to infiltrate the park at will as done in the past.
Strict enforcement of the law must go hand in hand with community engagement and education, if these magnificent wildlife areas are to survive long term alongside the game found on them.
Wildlife-based tourism remains Kenya’s highest earning component in per capita terms and has the potential to make KWS a self-sustained body in terms of income. At the same time, those living along the boundaries of the parks must also see benefits percolate down to their grassroots, if they are to be convinced that conservation as opposed to livestock overpopulation is the way forward.
The examples of the conservancies along the Masai Mara boundaries, those aligned under the Northern Rangelands Trust, Selenkay outside Amboseli, and of course the conservancies in Central Kenya on the Laikipia plains like Ol Pejeta, should serve as prime examples of how wildlife and livestock can in a broad context co-exist and benefit each other.
Throwing the book of the law at offenders alone will not do the trick medium and long term, unless those involved have fully understood the impact of their action and what alternatives they have to make money and feed their families. It has to be a mix of enforcement, community engagement, and education, if these laws can stand the test of time.
That, and the more controversial issue of capping population growth and subsequently incessant hunger for land to farm, no matter how poor the soil quality may be, will hold the key to the long-term survival of the parks and the wildlife within and outside.