Father of 30 sons banking on conservancy to protect land for his lineage

The Maasai have a deep connection to their land and livestock; whether because, as Samau Ole Soit points out, for grazing cattle which provide their staple food -milk and meat or for cultural values and prestige amongst folks.

For these reasons, Ole Soit and his sons have for years kept hundreds heads of cattle on his 150 acre plot in Pardamat area of the Maasai Mara. “We have drastically reduced the number of livestock in the recent past,” states Ole Soit who explains that “grazing areas have shrunk and almost everyone has fenced their plots because there is less grass due to longer dry spells in recent years.”

Ole Soit regrets the fencing practise mainly meant to preserve grass for livestock and exclude wildlife is now threatening not just his livestock but contributing to increase in conflict with wildlife. “I used USD 3,000 to fence a 30 acre section of my land so that I have sufficient grass all year round for my cattle. Often, the fence is destroyed by Zebras and Giraffes trying to access the enclosed area while Elephants have been trapped posing danger to my grandchildren who herd my cattle. I have also found Gazelles and Wildebeests strangled to death. Over the last 2 years, we have repaired the fence on almost a daily basis using approximately USD 1,000”, narrates Ole Soit.

Confronted by challenges of dwindling prospects from livestock keeping, unpredictable weather patterns and increased human wildlife conflict, Ole Soit says he considered an initiative to establish a conservation area in Pardamat, a timely reprieve. “I unreservedly supported the idea when we were requested to consider leasing our land to establish a conservation area,” says Ole Soit, referring to a meeting convened by Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA), where he was among the 58 land owners that signed land leases. Jointly the land owners dedicated 5,000 acres which will see critical wildlife corridors opened, while they have a guaranteed a monthly income from their land leases.

The Pardamat Conservation Area now under formation with the support of USAID Kenya & East Africa, is premised on a conservation model that allows for mixed land use which prohibits cultivation of the land but only allows settlement and grazing by pastoralists. It also prohibits building of fences so as to allow pastoralists and wild animals move freely within the conservancy area. “If you are serious about keeping land in wildlife conservation and preserving the Maasai pastoral life, you have to be serious about keeping people involved in both,” asserts Ole Soit.

Conservationists have raised concerns over fencing of private land in Maasai Mara, saying it has interfered with wildlife corridors.  A recent research by means of a mapped series of multispectral satellite imagery (1985–2016), found that in the conservancies with the most fences, a real cover of fenced areas has increased with more than 20% since 2010. This has resulted in a situation where fencing is rapidly increasing across the Greater Mara, threatening to lead to the collapse of the entire ecosystem in the near future. Further, the research –Fencing bodes a rapid collapse of the unique Greater Mara ecosystem- suggest that fencing is currently instantiating itself as a new permanent self-reinforcing process and is about to reach a critical point after which it is likely to amplify at an even quicker pace, incompatible with the region’s role in the great wildebeest migration, wildlife generally, as well as traditional Maasai pastoralism.

In order to curb this trend, MMWCA is engaging conservancies and local communities to ensure that they don’t fence off their land and as well working with land owners to see conservation as a viable form of land use.  Supporting Mara conservancies to come up with management plans is one of the approaches MMWCA is using to curb the trend.

Pardamat is one of the conservancies MMWCA is working hard to set up and help formulate a management plan with the prospect of a properly organized area for wildlife conservation, people and livestock, exciting Ole Soit who says his motivation to support the establishment of Pardamat Conservation Area is beyond the present challenges that he attributes to fencing. He declares: “One of the most important, challenging, and rewarding things that we can do as the current generation of Maasai elders is to help secure land for the next generation. Whether you own or have inherited a piece of land you have a world of options available to choose from including selling but protecting it for your children is the best option.”

He explains that he informed and discussed with his family the option of leasing land for wildlife conservation instead of fragmenting it into smaller plots for his 30 sons. “I believe my land will remain suitable for my family and our pastoral lifestyle if we don’t fragment and fence it,” states Ole Soit who is glad all his sons supported the idea of leasing their land.

 

Conservancy Land Leases: No-One is Taking Away Our Land

On the 28th of March 2010 when several hundreds of local Maasai landowners were formerly signing a 15-year lease to create the Mara Naboisho Conservancy, 41 year old Kimemia Ole Taek was not one of them.

The development of Naboisho Conservancy is not something that just took place over night. Instead it was the result of extensive discussions between community leaders, conservationists and tourism investors. Yet, Ole Taek whose extended family owned several hundred acres of land in Naboisho was hesitant:

“My family members looked up to me for advice on where we would resettle and graze our cattle. I was worried about our land so I chose to resist. I didn’t understand the idea of leasing land and instead I believed it was a ploy to simply take over my family’s land.”

A few years later, Ole Taek remained opposed to the conservancy, at times even clashing with conservancy management over cattle grazing and fencing of land. His friends couldn’t understand his position. Ole Taek was a seasoned tour guide in the Mara, and thus should be a champion of wildlife conservation, not fighting against it.

Eventually, it was for the betterment of his community that turned Ole Taek around. “I never went to school but because of wildlife in this area I learnt to speak English through interacting with tourists. Today my children are going to school with others who would not be in school if there was no income from the conservancy. The lease payments are transparent, timely and used to pay for our children to have an education – the benefits of leasing land to conservancies are clear,” he explains.

According to a study by Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda (STTA) in May 2016, conservancy rent is the main source and most regular income for the people of Mara Naboisho. Further, education, healthcare and livestock treatment are the key areas of expenditure from this income.

Ole Taek now foresees a great future. But he is quick to caution that for conservancies to thrive “Maasai children and youth must be sensitized to appreciate their heritage and the conservancies must continue to allow the Maasai to graze their cattle within them.”

Like Ole Taek, many local Maasai land owners need reassurance about their land, heritage and culture being honoured, to participate and support wildlife conservation. The conservancy model by Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA) combines conservation of nature and cultural heritage, eco-tourism, and the enhancement of livelihoods for the local communities.

Land is an emotive issue in Kenya and so land transactions tend to be complex. Supporting conservancies to register land leases is a key component of the MMWCA program supported by USAID-Kenya and East Africa. The goal is to protect land for wildlife while also promoting joint partnerships with the communities that own the land. The Mara Conservancies protect over 330,000 acres belonging to more than 11,000 landowners in the Maasai Mara ecosystem.

 

USAID Supported Conservation Project Unleashes Teacher’s Passion

For 5 years, Johnson Soit has been teaching at a local primary school in the Maasai Mara relishing his role in a career he has cherished since his childhood.

Then in November 2015, he was elected to Chair the Pardmat Conservation Area Committee, a responsibility that would see him become the head of 850 community land owners who have come together to conserve a critical area in the central greater Maasai Mara.

“We are here because of our commitment to work together to protect this vital piece of land,” stated Johnson in late December 2016 as he led 58 land owners in the signing of land leases totaling 5,000 acres; an event he describes as a milestone in the history of the Pardamat area. He added: “we believe Pardamat will become suitable for wildlife and our pastoral lifestyle living together. By stopping the fragmentation and fencing, opening up migration routes which, will in turn, reduce human wildlife conflict that has been rampant in the recent past.”

Pardamat area is important to the wellbeing of the greater Mara ecosystem. It has critical wildlife corridors, serves as a migration route from the Loita plains and connects the Mara Triangle and Maasai Mara National Reserve to four other established conservancies. Importantly, it is a key area in the Mara landscape with saltlicks in addition to its hilly forested terrain cherished by elephants for the vegetation.

As a resident and a teacher of science, Johnson comprehends the reality of reducing wildlife numbers and how the Pardamat area, like most parts of the Maasai Mara, has been altered by changes in land use practices and weather patterns. He is excited that beyond his dream teaching career, the USAID Kenya & East Africa supported Pardamat Conservation Area project, has presented him an opportunity to contribute to efforts to tackle the changing and escalating land-use practices, which seriously threaten the long-term viability of the greater Maasai Mara.

“My passion is to champion community conservation initiatives and inspire and nurture the younger generation I teach to protect their natural surroundings and be tolerant of the wildlife and the space we have shared for hundreds of years,” Johnson says in a silvery tone.

Securing the Pardamat area is a key priority for the USAID supported project being implemented by the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA). The project seeks to help landowners and community members establish a wildlife conservation area through identifying and opening critical wildlife corridors and migration routes. Moreover, the project will see a cattle rangeland established for a community cattle enterprise to supplement income from direct land leases in addition to other benefits such as provision of predator proof bomas to reduce loss of livestock to predators.

With threats to conservation and tourism sector, will Kenya’s Vision 2030 be realized?

In January 2017, a paper published in Scientific reports titled ‘Fencing bodes a rapid collapse of the unique Greater Mara ecosystem’ send cold shivers across the world and spells doom about the future of wildlife in the world famous Mara – Serengeti tourism destination. The deafening rustle of the fencing white paper, obviously, will start a very different debate, how serious the  government is in achieving Vision 2030, where tourism is one of the three key pillars for economic development. Of concern, seemingly, Vision 2030 went with the Kibaki regime since it is hardly referred to by the present Jubilee government. But for all my arguments over the Kenyan behemoth, that quieter session matters immensely at the detriment of wildlife and future tourism as well as community livelihoods. The wildlife corridors and dispersal areas are deep in trouble, and conservationists want both national and county governments to join the efforts to secure these areas for tourism development. The national strategy for securing wildlife corridors is now ready to be unveiled by the government after gathering dust on the shelves for over 10 years. The silence, however, is because the fences are silent killers of wildlife unlike poaching which is usually noticed and attracts sympathy and donor support. The paper and other previous publications, then, clearly highlights and justifies why Mara wildlife population has declined by over 68%. Notably, wildlife in fences cannot access important resources throughout the year especially pasture, water and natural salts.

Conservation organizations as well as tourism business entrepreneurs are working round the clock to ensure wildlife security. However, some organizations have no idea where the secured and increasing wildlife populations will roam especially outside the national parks and game reserves, which only supports about 30% of the county’s wildlife population. The survival of this wildlife population is depended on dispersing outside protected areas where rapid uncontrolled development is happening.

Apart from fencing, the other emerging wildlife deadliest threat, nonetheless, is livestock incursion in conservation areas especially during drought as reported in Laikipia and the Tsavo region. The national and international news coverage this week on violent conflict in Laikipia between livestock herders and ranchers portrayed a bad picture about Kenya as a tourist destination. This is not just about white ranchers who combine limited farming with game conservation but large ranches owned by black Kenyans and many smallholders have also been targeted. Increasing human and livestock populations over static land resources coupled with frequent and prolonged drought are recipe for competition and conflict over the limited resources. As a result, heavily armed herders are killing wildlife with impunity, poaching elephants and burning down tourism properties as well as the negative image shown by international news is not good for our tourism. Tourism is Kenya’s most important industry, after agriculture. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), it is responsible for 14% of GDP and 12% of total employment and generates a static Ksh 100 billion. This sector is predicted to continue to grow at 3.7% per annum for the next decade. The target to double the level of tourism in the country to 3 million tourists by 2017 is likely not to be achieved with a possibility of numbers dropping because of the emerging threats that make it hard to sell the country. It is, therefore, the government responsibility to protect people and property and the already witnessed luke warm reaction by the government shows lack of goodwill and more so where a shadow of a political hand is suspect. The government is shooting itself in the foot having allocated over Ksh 450 million to market Kenya as a tourist destination and yet even with all the necessary machinery, insecurity has been allowed to thrive.
Kenya will not achieve Vision 2030 without addressing illegal grazing insecurity and fence expansions. This is achievable but, inexplicably, a distracted Kenya government has slipped from leading to lagging in the fight especially during this election year. Why won’t the government end the seemingly perpetual “livestock incursions” and secure Laikipia and other parts for conservation and tourism? Tourism investors and conservation organization have teamed up with landowners turning private and community land into conservancies, to win space for wildlife. In the Mara ecosystem, for instance, the Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA), an umbrella organization for community conservancies is working with tourist investors and other conservation organizations including WWF, KWT, TNC, MEP, etc to secure space for wildlife through a lease program and ensure wildlife security with support from USAID, BAND Foundation, Basecamp Foundation, among others and also diversify income streams to benefit the landowners. About 1,400 km2 of land adjacent to the Masai Mara National Reserve has been secured as community conservation areas, an equivalent of Mara and benefiting over 30,000 families through employment, business, lease fees etc. Another 10,000 km2 of land is also earmarked for conservation in future.
Three campaigns to address this fencing threat include: at local-level the anti-fencing drive; internationally the crackdown on fencing since it will affect Mara -Serengeti wildebeest migration; and, the reduction in the sale and demand for land. We must dull the communities’ appetite for fencing and selling land without knowing the future implications. This should be guided by the land use policy and EMCA regulations on large scale fencing among other legal frameworks including the county spatial planning process. The government should disarm the herders, which is a huge step, but doubts, of course, must be confronted since this plan has been there since the previous regimes. Northern Kenya has remained ungovernable and a no go zone even by state security agents. With goodwill, it is possible to bring this to a stop. While the country is in the general elections campaign mood, nonetheless, this should not reverse the gains made in the tourism sector. Allowing the rule of law to prevail would raise big cheers from citizens, win their support and propel Kenya as a tourist destination to greater heights.

Dr. Noah Sitati is the Chief Executive Officer, Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association.

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