Bring back the herder conservationists

Written by Dr Hussein Tadicha Wario, PhD in Socio-ecology and Executive Director at Center for Research and Development in Drylands, Kenya.

With the world’s biological diversity in an accelerated decline, the need to conserve the flora and fauna has never been greater. While conservation efforts in response have equally stepped up, the outcomes are varied. One area of concern has been the sustainability question beyond the current trends of donor driven conservation efforts. These concerns are particularly pronounced in wildlife conservation in the African Savannah.

Conceptually, wildlife conservation was of preserving nature in its pristine state, void of human interference – commonly referred to us “fortress” approach that used fences, boots, and guns to keep human disturbance off the conservation areas.  In sub-Saharan Africa, this made the conservation areas to be a preserve for white foreign tourists, while the communities on whose lands these parks were established were viewed as a threat to their existence. They neither had any role in the management of the parks or share in the accrued benefits. Thus, a significant task of the conservation agents was to guard against the community’s interference to keep the conservation areas pristine.

Following various challenges associated with the approach, a paradigm shift was made with the advent of the community-based conservation approach. In principle, the new approach placed communities central to decision-making and enjoined them in benefit sharing to incentivize communities and promote ownership. It was based on this idea that the establishment of conservancies in communally managed areas gained roots. 

In the last decade, there has been an accelerated expansion of community wildlife conservancies across northern Kenya, mainly facilitated by a non-governmental entity – the Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT).

According to the Kenya Wildlife Conservancy Association, 160 conservancies cover approximately 15 million acres of mainly communal rangelands. The main selling point of conservancy is to provide supplemental income to livestock. The community’s realization of this benefit is regarded as a panacea to poaching, human-wildlife conflict and land degradation.

Income from wildlife conservation is heavily dependent on tourism dollars. Disruption of tourist’s flow due to persisting COVID-19 pandemic results in unprecedented financial constraints to the operation of conservancies. According to the Kenya Wildlife Conservancy Association (KWCA), “The collapse of the tourism industry has left parks, reserves, and wildlife conservancies stripped off the vital funding needed to manage land and reward communities”. 

This is particularly challenging because of how the management of the conservancies has been modelled by NRT. For instance, the operational costs of the NRT-initiated and supported conservancies run to a minimum of KSh4 to 6 million per year. According to the NRT’s 2019 annual report, only a few conservancies can raise their own operational costs, let alone generate additional income for the communities.

In 2019, the conservancies under NRT had a combined running costs deficit of KSh129 million, a gap currently bridged through donor funding. To cover for the shortfall, the NRT has been lobbying County governments to support the conservancies through the enactment of laws. Due to financial constraints faced by the counties in provision of its basic function, there is limited guarantee that finances for the expensive conservancy outfit can be attained.  Thus it is argued here for the need for a shift in the current conservation model.

The case for ‘Herder conservationist model’

For conservation to be sustainable within the pastoral livestock production system, an alternative herder-driven approach is more adaptive. The method enables the reconciliation of conservation objectives that of livestock production and land management of the pastoral communities.

It is premised here that, instead of the armed ranger model, which is expensive and a colonial relic, active herders who are in any case out in the rangelands can take up the role of “herder conservationist”. Experienced active herders are identified from various settlements across the rangelands to cover the area, beyond where the conservancy rangers can cover. The proposed model will extend wildlife protection to areas beyond the current conservancy precincts at minimal cost because the herders traverse the grazing landscapes in their normal herding duties. With limited road infrastructure, the herders can cover the areas that are not accessible even by the four-wheel-drive vehicles currently used by the ranger scouts. This capacity, if facilitated with provision of essential communication and surveillance equipment, is crucial in wildlife conservation.

The herders do not need to be armed but should be properly incentivized and supervised, reporting to a central command which will in turn work with the Kenya Wildlife Service, the body that is mandated with the protection and conservation of Kenya’s wildlife, to resolve any wildlife related challenges.

The basics of this approach mimic the wildlife protection methods that pastoralist communities used well before the emergence of the current conservation approach. It also presents another advantage in that it is based on the values that the communities themselves attach to wildlife. Moreover, the use of boots and guns is reminiscent of the largely failed fortress approach to wildlife conservation.

These suggestions are not the ultimate silver bullet for solving the challenges faced by community-based conservation. However, if these and other views are given consideration in the ongoing legal and policy conversations, sustainable conservation approaches are attainable. 

In Kenya, the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act of 2013, currently under review, provides an opportunity to embrace alternative views. Also, the county level legislations on conservancies need to consider strengthening the community structures that are already mandated with the management of land and other natural resources on communal lands rather than establishing additional institutional layers, which might be counterproductive. Either way, the community’s decision needs to be considered and respected to arrive at a sustainable community conservation model.

This article was originally published in The Elephant on the 7th of June and can be found here:

This blog is part of our series on climate change, biodiversity and livestock.

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