The Lewa Conservation Way

In East Africa,meat and tusk are livelihood for many. In this milieu, Lewa, Kenya shows how community involvement aids conservation

By Jyotsna Puri
Published: Tuesday 31 January 2006

The Lewa Conservation Way

-- In the last week of December, 2005, the beleaguered Indian tiger was again in the news. Tiger killing in north Indian sanctuaries made it to the front pages of many national dailies. The developments justifiably raised the hackles of environmentalists and conservationists. The ongoing debate on building incentives within sanctuaries to check species poaching and conserve wildlife species, acquired even greater urgency. It's a sharply polarised debate. Not surprisingly so: there are stakeholders whose objectives don't necessarily coincide -- and wildlife conservationists on the one hand; tribals and villages located inside, and near the boundaries of protected areas, on the other.

This difficulty is not particular to India. Africa has the same problem. In fact, the continent's predicament is heightened because people have few livelihood alternatives other than selling meat, skin and tusk. African wildlife services have to contend with the problem of building incentives within protected areas that can guarantee livelihood to people living within protected boundaries and those immediately outside. But East Africans seem to have found some answers. The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy located 250 km north of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, has become an apt example for conserving wildlife species with community support.

Located at the foothills of Mount Kenya with the Mathews Range brooding in its north, Lewa till the early 1970s, was a 40,000 hectare (ha) private cattle ranch, called Lewa Downs. Unlike many other ranchers in the area, Lewa's owners, the Craig family valued wildlife and shared land with cattle, and developed wildlife tourism as an additional activity. Reticulated giraffes, elephants, zebras, white and black rhinos, tigers and cheetahs roamed freely in Lewa. But population pressures, poaching and the pressure to develop land for agriculture became wildlife's bugbear. In 1983, Anna Merz a uk citizen living in Kenya approached the then owner of Lewa Downs, Ian Craig, to build and finance a rhino sanctuary in the area. Ian agreed to conserve some land and the Lewa Conservancy was born.

But in 1988, many elephants in sanctuary were massacred for their tusks by wayside Somali shiftas (poachers). These raiders had the help of the local population. This made Craig realise that unless local communities participated, cordoning off wildlife would not be enough to protect them. It was also hard to contain elephants within the conservancy: elephants used Lewa as a migratory corridor between Mount Kenya and the Matthews Range. While moving in herds, the animals frequently marauded fields of hapless villagers who then used it as an excuse to kill them and sell tusks.

Overturning a problem Lewa turned into experimental grounds for an arrangement that is now being used throughout East Africa. Masaai tribes living with Lewa and around them have been made residual claimants to tourism revenue coming to Lewa. Ian Craig converted the tourism revenue to a fund. Monies from tourism -- which include day trips, a wonderful camp-site, personalised trips with Ian -- are received by Lewa Conservancy which is managed and run by local people, located in and around the sanctuary. The money also goes to finance schools and scholarships for children of these families, and -- very importantly for this part of the world -- for managing a well organised security system. The security force, managed by the Conservancy, is disciplined and well-armed. In a land that was constantly raided by gun-wielding, horse-backed Somali shiftas, the round-the-clock security system tracks rhinos and elephants and also guards local communities living within and around Lewa.

Noah's Ark
As tourism developed in the area, Ian Craig also decided to undertake a decidedly arduous task "that might bear fruit 50 years from now, if at all". Instead of making Lewa a zoo by another name, and sequestering wildlife within a small area, his vision is to transform this part of Northern Kenya with its grassy sparse tan broccoli landscape, into a veritable Noah's ark. Capitalising on his relationship built over years with neighbouring pastoralist Samburu and Masaai communities (despite his European origins, Craig is not called 'White colonial settler' -- an appellate local communities often use to deride the White settler), Craig has convinced them that their long-held beliefs about wildlife being a nuisance and only a means to earn money, are obsolete.

Lewa has now helped these adjacent communities to build their own group ranches, contiguous with the protected area. Thus the Ill Ngwesi Group Ranch with a commanding view of 9,000 ha, the Tassia Group lodge and the Sarara Group Lodge in Namunyak have come into being.

All these tourism ranches, with beautiful pools, 'natural' bedrooms and solar heating, are managed by local tribals, trained by Lewa. Revenue from group eco-lodges benefit these 'owner communities'. Communities also benefit from tourism revenues and education, health services and transportation. Lewa also aids them in preparing, marketing and managing a group lodge (literacy rates are abysmally low in the region). Lewa and other organisations have succeceded in advising inhabitants on profitable agricultural land use.

An indicator of the success of these lodges, is the extent of out-migration. In the past, educated young people, mostly men, migrated to cities, exacerbating over-crowding there. This trend is being reversed since group ranches are proving successful. At the same time, wildlife is less threatened because group lodge owning communities realise that only by building the stock of visible wildlife in the region, will the group ranch attract revenue generating tourists.

But there remain potential and real pitfalls with the arrangement, especially relevant to India. Transparency of the arrangement, and a fair devolution of powers to owner communities and managing expectations amongst them (with respect to financing and foreign donors) has been especially critical in building trust within group lodges. Communication and regular meetings between group lodge communities is also important to remove mistrust about a tit-for-tat sub-optimal wringing dry of the wildlife commons that can be triggered by small incident.

In a land that is increasingly peppered by violence, where female mutilation is de rigueur, where the price of women is measured by the number of cows, and where hunting is otherwise just seen as selective reduction and condoned in many circles, Lewa represents a difference -- one that protected areas in India will do well to learn from.

Jyotsana Puri, an environmental economist, is currently with the undp

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