The success of conservation efforts is inextricably linked to local communities. After all, if humans present the single greatest threat to wildlife, we can also be part of the solution.
That is why we work so hard to support the people who live and work alongside Kenya's wild spaces, finding mutually beneficial solutions and engaging them in our work through outreach and employment. This month, I delve into the vital role local citizens play in conservation work here in Kenya.
– Angela Sheldrick
Conservation is a Community Effort
If we are to create a future for elephants and other wild animals, we must also support the people who live alongside them. Nearly half of Kenya’s 45 million people live below the poverty line, and for families struggling to make ends meet, conservation efforts fall low on the list of priorities. Communities bordering national parks often view wildlife — particularly creatures as large and potentially destructive as elephants —as threats to their livelihood and very survival.
We are working to change that. Undoubtedly, the greatest conservation champions are our staff. We hire local Kenyans, and for many of our team, their work is much more than a job — it is a calling. Just look at someone like Benjamin, our Head Keeper in Ithumba. He grew up believing that elephants were dangerous animals. A chance visit to our Nursery more than two decades ago changed that perception, and he has made it his life’s work to rehabilitate orphaned elephants. Benjamin’s commitment is echoed in all our staff, from Keepers to mechanics, anti-poaching rangers to Eco Lodge staff. Everyone knows that they are an integral part of something important, and they put their heart and soul into their work.
Many forms of community support comes through tangible solutions. Human-wildlife conflict has become one of the gravest threats to conservation, so over the years, we have erected more than 300 kilometers of electric fencelines along key habitats. Not only do these “wild borders” on the vulnerable boundaries keep elephants from marauding into communities and raiding crops, but they also inhibit trespassers and livestock from entering protected land. And now, when so many Kenyans are struggling immensely due to the pandemic, we have bolstered food donations to communities living on the boundaries of Tsavo. Meals are a lifeline for local families as they navigate this challenging period. It’s good for conservation, too: When our communities aren't struggling, illegal activity declines.
While we are cognisant of immediate solutions, we are also always thinking about the future. Just as we are invested in the long-term welfare of Kenya’s wildlife, we are equally committed to the people who live alongside them. Working with charitable partners, we sponsor students from the environs of the Tsavo Conservation Area. We select and sponsor bright and dedicated children who come from impoverished families, and would not otherwise be able to go to secondary school and onto university. Community leaders from the areas we support are committed to our conservation efforts, opening hearts and minds to the value of protecting the environment.
Indeed, shifting perceptions can mean the difference between life and death for the elephants we work so hard to save. To illustrate this, I will take you back to 2008, when a tiny elephant wandered into the Sagana community. At the time, there was no fence separating Mount Kenya Forest Reserve and the community land, which led to rising incidents of human-wildlife conflict, particularly during harvest time. The villagers retaliated by setting spiked traps for elephants, chasing them away with spears and dogs. This exacerbated the issue by causing herds to panic, leaving even more destruction in their wake.
During one of these skirmishes, little Kenia (as we later christened her) was left behind. Jackson Kimaru, a farmer, discovered her hiding in the forest near his home. He knew the rest of the community, who was still reeling from the marauding elephants, might try to enact revenge on the helpless calf. His fears were confirmed when a crowd gathered around, determined to kill her with machetes and clubs. Jackson bravely held his ground until backup arrived in the form of Edwin Kinyanjui, Senior Community Wildlife Officer for the Mount Kenya Trust. Together, they tried to calm the hostile crowd.
And then, something remarkable happened: Kenia, who seemed to sense the shift in mood, became more relaxed so Jackson asked one of the onlooking children to fetch her a drink, and the calf delighted the crowd by splashing water and kicking the bowl around like a football. Suddenly, the crowd went from hostile to helpful. As Jackson shared in The Unsung Heroes, “Kenia was such an engaging little character, she seemed to charm the people. I kept telling them that showing kindness to wildlife would pay us back.”
He was right. We aired Kenia’s rescue story on vernacular radio, which is listened to by 80 percent of the local population. This is one of our key ways to engage with local communities, broadcasting conservation issues and solutions. In the wake of this event, the KWS resumed a project to erect a fenceline along the elephants’ traditional migratory route through the area, which drastically reduced instances of human-wildlife conflict.
The impact of this has been nothing short of transformational. In fact, it feels most fitting to end with Edwin Kinyanjui’s take on it:
“With the fence, the whole standard of living for the Sagana community has risen. Without their crops being regularly destroyed, they have been lifted out of poverty. People are making a good living and can afford to educate their children. They enjoy undisturbed nights, less stress and better health. But, most importantly, they are comfortable living with the elephants – they are proud of their heritage and they have taken ownership of the fenceline, keeping it maintained and charged."
As for Kenia? She continues to charm all those who meet her, humans and elephants alike. At 13 years old, she is finding her way back to the wild at our Voi Reintegration Unit. It won’t be long, we hope, before she starts a family of her own. Kenia’s future — indeed, her very existence — is only made possible because one person was willing to stand up for her all those years ago. Her rescue was also a catalyst for change in the village from which she came. Her story, and countless others like hers, shows just how interconnected communities and successful conservation work are.
Angela Sheldrick produces Field Notes as a special monthly email, providing her personal insight into varying aspects of Kenya's wildlife and habitats, along with the work of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. To be the first to receive future editions of Field Notes, please subscribe here.