Contested conservancies: livestock, wildlife and people in Laikipia, Kenya

by Ian Scoones, PASTRES principal investigator

How can biodiversity conservation be done alongside mobile pastoralism? One proposed solution is common property arrangements known as ‘conservancies’, which are transforming vast areas of arid and semi-arid lands in Kenya.  In March, the PASTRES team visited Laikipia in northern Kenya to explore the contested debates around conservancies there, kindly facilitated by the Laikipia Forum.

Across vast areas of relatively high potential rangeland, advocates for conservancies proclaim the advantages of combining livestock and wildlife in integrated, conservation-oriented land uses, linked to tourism. This, it is claimed, has benefits both for biodiversity and wildlife protection, as well as for the local economy, with ‘community conservancies’ being the latest effort to expand the model out from the core private land of Laikipia into pastoral areas beyond.

Giraffe in savanna landscape

Conservancies have emerged in Kenya as a new form of registered land use in this area over the last decade or so, now formalised through the 2013 Wildlife Conservation and Management Act. Building on successful experiments in combining livestock and wildlife land uses over many decades, the conservancy model is now central to a high-profile and well-funded push towards conservation in these areas, notably through the controversial Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT).

Certainly, the Laikipia area is not only beautiful, but also has fantastic natural resources, and during drought periods huge numbers of wildlife move down from further north in search of pasture and water.

Conservancies: mixing wildlife, livestock and tourism

Our short visit to just one conservancy was of course insufficient to get a full picture, but a number of themes emerged.

Our hosts were one of the (now relatively few) white Kenyans who run a farm as a family business, first established in the 1963, immediately after Independence, when the current owner’s father took over. The original farm was settled after World War I, when the northern Maasai pastoral populations were removed from this area and solider settlers given land. However, it was only into the 1940s when a white settler rancher took over the land, assisted by Italian prisoners of war who helped build the infrastructure.

Most ranches across Laikipia were established in a similar way, with white Kenyan settlers running cattle operations. However, over time, many such original settlers or their families have sold up and moved away.

Those who run conservancies these days are a mixed bunch. They range from rich tycoons from the Middle East to eccentric, passionate conservationists from the US and Europe, to families, such as our hosts, who have lived in these areas for generations. For some, the fantasies of living in ‘wild’ Africa, conserving endangered animals and enjoying sundowners around an infinity pool, loom large.

For some conservancies that don’t need to turn a profit, Laikipia is the playground of a super-rich, but conservation-oriented and eco-passionate, Western elite. Our hosts however were not of this type, and were much more grounded in the local context. They had to make a living from the ranch, although they supplemented it with other income sources, as the ranch income alone does not cover all costs.

The ranch covers a total of 15,600 acres (this is small by Laikipia standards: nearby Ol Pejeta covers over 90,000 acres), with most devoted to open rangeland, and 600 acres currently allocated to arable farming. The core business remains livestock production, focusing on producing high-quality breeds for live sale, both cattle and sheep.

The land is ideal, with good grass and relatively high (on average) rainfall at 800mm per annum; although due to extraction of groundwater by upstream farming operations on the edge of Mount Kenya (mostly flowers and export vegetables), the rivers are not flowing as often as before.

Breeding animals is a skilled, niche business developed over years through careful breeding and management. This offers greater returns than beef production, although they do lease land to NRT beef herds; currently only 150 head, but at times up to a thousand. These animals are bought up by the Trust in pastoral areas and fattened on conservancy land for later sale. Presented as a ‘development’ effort by NRT, it is essentially a commercial venture making use of plentiful land and cheap grazing leases in the ranches.  

The other activity on the ranch is a high-end tourism facility, run by another branch of the same family. With a limited number of exclusive chalets, with riverside game viewing, a pool and restaurant (which prepares dishes now featured in a beautiful, illustrated book), the lodge can attract tourists able to pay high daily rates (the ‘local’ rate was beyond our budget, so we stayed in Nanyuki!) This type of tourism, very much framed around sustainability and conservation efforts, is common across the conservancies.

With hunting banned in Kenya, non-consumptive wildlife uses are the only way to make money from the plentiful wildlife populating the conservancies, including all the ‘big five’ charismatic animals – with large herds of elephants trashing the trees. Yoga retreats, corporate meetings, wildlife safaris, bird watching and so on are all part of the packages offered. And the place was indeed amazing! While COVID had dramatically hit the international tourist market, ‘local’ tourists filled the gap (including Nairobi businesspeople, UN types and so on, all clearly with more cash than us researchers).

Relations with neighbours

The ranch we visited was not far from Nanyuki, so had neighbours on ‘community land’ nearby. The contrast across the fence line was dramatic.

On one side was plentiful grazing, open savanna and along the fence line expansive wheat fields, all beautifully laid out. On the other side was a barren, dusty selection of dwellings, with a few goats and some scrawny looking cattle around, and the odd irrigated garden for vegetables. It is no wonder that those living outside look over the fence enviously.

In this particular conservancy, the relations with the local community seem relatively good. While not many people are employed on the ranch (around 50 on the livestock operation, and 25 at the lodge), some do come from the villages around, especially for temporary piece jobs (about 25-30 are employed on short-term contracts through the year). The local chiefs and other key people important in local politics are regularly invited for discussions on the ranch.

Nevertheless, the area has to be guarded. A big fence has been put up, a buffer zone of wheat fields has been planted and regular arrests take place as people break in to graze animals. Given the serious drought over the past few years, the ranch owners have allowed some people to bring their animals in on an informal lease grazing arrangement, but this is very selective, targeted at those who matter and can keep the peace.

Conflict and controversy

Peaceful relations with neighbours is not always the case in the Laikipia conservancies. The shooting in 2017 of Kuki Gallmann, owner of the vast Laikipia Nature Conservancy, is a recent example of where poach grazing and land invasions turned to violence. Many stories surround this incident, including accusations of political interference in encouraging pastoralists to enter the area. But there also a view that longer-term conflictual relations with neighbours did not help.

Land incursions in Laikipia are a common event, especially during extreme drought periods, like the one currently being experienced in the region. They are also part of a cycle of populist electioneering tactics, where politicians can point to the vast lands and encourage armed pastoralists to take ‘their’ land, but without any real intention of following up. 

In the next post, we’ll explore how conservancies attempt to manage public perceptions around their activities, the debates around ‘community conservancies’, and what the future might hold.  

This is the first of two blog posts on conservancies in Kenya and Zimbabwe. The second post follows next week.

All photos: Ian Scoones / PASTRES project

One thought

  1. Upon reading the article, a question immediately sprang to my mind: how will the danger of zoonotic diseases be handled, and how will they spread faster than in the past?
    Do you have any thoughts on the abovementioned issues regarding the above model?


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