Insight

Maasais Conserving Wildlife Outside Nairobi National Park

The Wildlife Foundation and the Maasai community have been conserving wildlife at Empakasi Community Ranch for the past 20 years. Their main goal is to keep the land unfenced for easy movement of wildlife in and out of Nairobi National Park. However, the dispersal area has come under a lot of pressure from the government and land owners. RoGGKenya visited the area and documented their work.

On August 1,2021, the Naretunoi Community Conservancy will be marking one year since it started a by-monthly identification and counting of wildlife that roam outside the Nairobi National Park (NNP).

The community conservancy which works closely with The Wildlife Foundation (TWF) is located in the Empakasi Group Ranch on the Southern side of the park that is not fenced.

The conservancy ensures that wildlife is protected and the community that lives around the park gains from the initiative.

In July 2020, the Minister for Tourism, Najib Balala announced his intentions to fence the southern side of the park. However, ecologists warn that the dispersal area to the south of the park towards the Swara Conservancy and Athi-Kapiti ecosystem is critical to maintain healthy wildlife populations within the park itself.

A meeting was called to discuss the matter, and representatives from the Naretunoi Community Conservancy demonstrated how important it is to keep the corridor open and protected to ensure the survival of the park.

As a challenge, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) asked the conservancy to collect data on the number of animals outside the park.

Unique wildlife behaviour

Marco Pruiksma, one of the organisers of the wildlife count, told RoGGKenya that they need to collect data to prove that the area is important for wildlife survival.

“We do the counting on dates that coincide with when KWS also counts animals in the park. We then share our data with them, so they can be synchronised.” This, he said, ensures that there is no double counting of animals.

The programme has gone through a lot of improvement since the counting started. “Apart from the forms provided by KWS, we have been using a Google app to record our sightings. That also came with its own technical challenges which we have overcome with time,” said Pruiksma. He added that he is in the process of developing a software that will make their work easier.

Some of the challenges included technical understanding of the app. There was a short time to take volunteers through the process.

Some volunteers could not identify animals that are similar. Weather also posed a challenge when it rained and got muddy. This made some parts of the ranch inaccessible.

Some of the volunteers who participated during the June 2021 wildlife count. Picture : Gabriel Grimsditch

The savannah grassland provides a dispersal area and extra grazing land for wildlife which mingles freely with livestock. The wildlife are so comfortable that they are not even scared of people.

This is also the land that was used by the Government of Kenya for the Sheep and Goat Development Project which was supposed to boost food security.

Although the project failed, the local Maasai community still uses it to graze their livestock. Wildlife and livestock grazing together is a very common sight.

Different types of wildlife from the park move around depending on different seasons. Pruiksma explained that wildlife mostly comes out of the park when there is fresh grass just after the rains.

“Since the land outside the park is grazed on by livestock, rains allow for fresh shoots unlike in the park which has longer grass because of less grazing,” Pruiksma explained.

Also, some animals, like the wildebeest mate in the park but calf outside the park.

The free movement also ensures that some animal species live longer away from predators like lions in the park.

The first game count was conducted in June 2020 and it is done every two months. The exercise also helps conservationists to understand how the wildlife is distributed, how many animals were born and learn more about their general behavior.

Land lease programme

The area is however coming under increased pressure from fencing.

Nkamunu Patita, Programmes Coordinator at The Wildlife Foundation told RoGGKenya that they have been supporting community based conservation for the past 20 years.

“The foundation is 20 years old and we have five main programmes. However, Conservation Lease Programme is the leading one. We lease their land so they can leave it open without fencing or selling it so that it can be used for both wildlife and livestock,” said Patita.

Nkamunu Patita, (standing in a white top), Programmes Coordinator at The Wildlife Foundation, during a past conservation training. Picture : Gabriel Grimsditch

It is also important that they don’t sell their land because the new owners might want to fence the land.

Currently, there are 31 families that are paid annually depending on the size of land that they have put on lease.

“We have a waiting list of around 200 families. When we tried to find out why the community sold their land, they said that they don’t see any benefits of conservation. All money raised from conservation goes to the government.” she said.

The first phase of the programme was large and covered the entire Athi Kapiti eco-system.

The area is covered with short savanna grass. It is dusty and windy during the day and very cold at night. It however gets very muddy during the rainy season,

Just like at the park, you can see Nairobi Central District from some raised parts. The image of livestock, wildlife and a clear skyline is breath taking.

Ostriches are very common birds at the Naretunoi Community Conservancy . Picture: Gabriel Grimsditch

The lease programme received funding from some organisations which was exhausted after some time.

“We had funding from the World Bank, Africa Wildlife Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, Global Environment Facility and others. It lasted for three years. But when the funding was over, we were not able to continue with the large number. So we had to strategise and concentrate on the areas next to the park as they are the hotspots with a lot of human wildlife conflict,” said Patita.

The foundation does not pay land market rates, because they don’t buy the land. It remains under the owner’s care and they continue with their normal activities without selling or fencing.

The lease money is paid three times a year. The payments coincide with the school opening period to ensure that most of the money goes to school fees. The Wildlife Foundation also grants bursaries from the conservation programme.

After the pilot project ended, they are now forced to use money from other programmes within the project. Some of the money comes from fee paid by volunteers who attend annual wildlife count.

Part of the fee also caters for food and one night accommodation.

The Wildlife Foundation also has a Rangers programme which monitors wildlife. This helps KWS to survey animal movement outside the park.

Keeping lions away

TWF also has nature conservation education programmes where it hosts schools and families and teach them about nature. Some students come from as far as Mombasa because TWF has accommodation facilities.

When COVID-19 hit and they could not host people at the facility, they started a programme called ‘Adopt an Acre’ recalled Patita. “We had virtual classes telling people what we do. Through that, we were able to convince 100 people who donated money to sustain the lease programme for a year,” she recalled with a smile smile.

The conservationists also pull out Parthenium and plants trees. Parthenium is an invasive and poisonous plant. It causes dermatitis and respiratory malfunction in humans, and dermatitis in cattle and domestic animals as well as causing liver damage.

Another effective programme is ‘Lion Lights’, which reduces the predation of livestock by predators such as lions, hyenas and leopards. Predators sometimes attack and eat livestock outside the park, so reducing the predation is critical in order to stop retaliatory attacks on predators by the local community. “Solar lights are connected to livestock enclosures and the lights go on and off so lions believe that there could be someone walking throughout the night,” said Patita.

These simple lights at night are very effective in keeping the predators away from the livestock, and reduce the conflict.

She added that the programme is successful because when they began in 2007, there were about 7 lions in the park and the entire Athi Kapiti. Now there are more than 50 lions because retaliation attacks have gone down.

Frustration by government

Although the government has been frustrating their conservation efforts, by subdividing the land and ignoring court orders, their rangers benefitted from the COVID-19 Stimulus Package.

Nkamunu Patita, Programmes Coordinator at The Wildlife Foundation. Picture: Courtesy

“When we were hit by COVID-19, our rangers were put on salary for one year,” said Patita.

The Wildlife Foundation is the bridge between the government and the community. Their rangers help the community to fill compensation forms when they lose their livestock or crops. Sometimes they file for compensation when someone has been killed by animals.

Patita is worried that the government is trying to take the sheep and goat land, especially because the government officials don’t guarantee that it will remain under conservation.

She is not happy that the Standard Gauge Railway is situated inside the park and, so is KWS headquarters. Southern bypass was also carved off from the park and grain bulk handlers have their silos in the park.

Patita is frustrated that more conservation land is used for what it was not intended for. “KWS has not taken care of the land donated by the Maasais for the park. I wondered why they would still be interested in what the Maasais have put under conservation.”

She calls on more people to participate in the wildlife count so that they can create awareness and raise funds to support their projects.

 

What journalists should do:

  1. Find out about conservation work in other parts of the country and write about them.
  1. Join the wildlife counts with TWF and learn about the conservation activities of the Maasai community.
  1. Follow up on the Land Lease Programme and document its progress in order to create awareness on conservation.
  1. Follow closely on the court cases involving the Empakasi Group Ranch and the Kenyan government.
  1. Do research on other environmental stories that might be unknown to the general public.

 

 

 

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