It Takes a Village to Save an Elephant. It Takes a Community to Protect 500 of Them

Stopping the illegal trade in wildlife is at the center of discussions at the second session of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi this week where #WildforLife – a campaign aimed at to mobilizing millions of people to make commitments and take action to end the illegal trade – was launched.

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, in Kenya’s arid north, represents an iconic example of the benefits of cooperation in protecting wildlife. Initially a gift from an old settler family, the land that now comprises Lewa hosts a variety of wildlife including elephants, black rhinos, leopards, buffaloes, giraffes, lions, oryxes, gazelles and numerous bird species.

However, just having the land itself is not enough to ensure Lewa remains home to some of Kenya’s most beautiful and most endangered animals.

“We do not believe you can do conservation behind locked doors,” said John Kinoti, Lewa’s Community Development Manager. “We have to move and engage our local communities. To do this, we ask ‘What do we need to do to make life better? What do we need to make people feel engaged? What do we need to do to improve economies?”

When the former cattle ranch was converted into a wildlife sanctuary, it changed the dynamics of the region. Eventually 62,000 acres were devoted to conservation and the nature of the economy turned into an economy of nature. Tourism expanded as a source for a livelihood, one that benefitted some local residents.

However, it soon became clear that a lack of buy-in by the local community would put the future of the project at risk. Neighbors had to see the wildlife conservation next door as something that could change their lives in positive ways. By making them partners, they would be more likely to assist in the protection of the conservancy.

To accomplish this, the conservancy offered much needed education and health care services and ensured that they saw some of the economic benefits like protection of their livestock by the anti-poaching teams. 

Inspired by conservation benefits reaped by their neighbours bordering private conservancies, local communities offered their land for settling up of community conservancies with support from the Northern Rangelands Trust – founded by Lewa. Their socio-economic status has improved, with previously unavailable social services like water, security and healthcare now available. The community conservancies have also created many employment opportunities for the locals.

This approach has paid dividends, with a decline in poaching cases as community members, who view wildlife as a source of livelihood, provide intelligence to the conservancy’s rangers, the Kenya Wildlife Service and Kenya police regarding suspected poachers.

“Lewa is the only conservancy in Kenya to have not lost a rhino to poaching since 2013,”said John Pameri, Head of Security at the conservancy. “Community members have helped identify people involved in poaching including two of our former rangers resulting in arrests.”