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A Conservation Laboratory in Laikipia-Samburu

  • Friday, October 1, 1999

Heartland Offers Chance to Test New Conservation Approaches

In the world of wildlife conservation, the Laikipia-Samburu Heartland is truly a land of opportunity.

A starkly beautiful area with an exceptionally wide diversity of wildlife, Laikipia-Samburu is one of four large regions in East Africa identified as African Heartlands by AWF for the purpose of conserving wildlife.

Located in north central Kenya just north of the equator, Laikipia-Samburu--almost the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined--includes Mount Kenya and the seemingly boundless Laikipia plateau. "Come around the shoulder of Mt. Kenya in the drive north from Nairobi," says R. Michael Wright, president of AWF, "and suddenly there's an expanse of land as far as the eye can see."

The green of the mountain slopes yields to tawny and golden brown, as grasslands turn to semidesert. Massive kopjes of granite rise from the landscape. Rainfall is low on the plateau, so wild animals range far and wide during the dry season.

While the wildlife population outside protected areas in most of Kenya has been reduced by 50 percent in the last 30 years, Laikipia-Samburu is one of only two regions in the country where wildlife outside parks is increasing. A variety of well-known and rare species live there, from elephants, lions and buffalo to Grevy's zebras and reticulated giraffes.

One question for scientists is why the wildlife of Laikipia-Samburu is thriving. Another is how to identify emerging threats and resolve them before they materialize. A looming problem, for example, is the water supply. Mt. Kenya--the second highest peak in Kenya--is the water source for part of the region, but there are few rivers and wetlands. If too much water is pulled off for agriculture, wildlife will suffer.

Private and communal ranches account for about 70 percent of land use in the heartland. The other 30 percent is home to the Mukogodo Masai and, in the north, the Samburu pastoralists. Protected areas are few--only Aberdare National Park and the Samburu and Shaba Game Reserves.

In Laikipia-Samburu ranchers have been involved in wildlife management. In this environment, says Patrick Bergin, AWF vice president for program in Africa, is a good opportunity to build public-private partnerships, conduct research and develop commercial natural-resource enterprises. Although AWF traditionally has worked with government agencies and nongovernment organizations, he says, the first step in Laikipia is to work with private interests--ranchers, landowners, community leaders and other stakeholders--to build a shared vision of the heartlands.

Crucial to this effort is the Laikipia Wildlife Forum, an organization of ranchers and landowners over whose land the wildlife roams. AWF's support of the forum's goal of increasing tourism and related businesses already has resulted in significant joint efforts. Most notably, AWF and the forum are working to develop a land-use plan for the area. The approach to wildlife conservation in the Laikipia-Samburu Heartland will differ from AWF efforts in the past. "Instead of tackling wildlife conservation species by species," Bergin says, "Laikipia enables us to address the issues on a large scale." For example, Dr. Laurence Frank of the University of California at Berkeley who heads the AWF Laikipia predator project, is examining the entire predator community and its role in the food chain. "That way we will be better able to understand the health of the overall ecosystem," Bergin adds.

AWF is also working on an elephant-tracking project with a conflict-management component to improve relations between elephants and their human neighbors.

Several other efforts are already underway through the AWF Wildlife Enterprise Business Services center (WEBS) that aids development of local wildlife-related businesses. WEBS, for example, supports efforts to promote beekeeping busineses for honey production.

A number of ranchers have approached AWF for help with developing community projects. Although some ranchers remain hostile to conservation efforts, says WEBS manager Richard Young, many have enthusiastically offered their support. Entrepreneurs on some ranches have started small wildlife businesses. One, for instance, makes furniture from wood felled by elephants, a venture that Young says has drawn an enthusiastic response from the export market. Local communities are also working with a tour operator to test the concept of "skybeds," low-cost shelters on stilts where tourists may spend the night but still have access to the dining room and other services in the lodge.

The Laikipia-Samburu Heartland also lends itself to original research into many aspects of wildlife conservation. AWF has recently completed a Wildlife Economics Study; another study is investigating the impact of the Il Ngwesi lodge, a successful community tourist facility, on local incomes; and a third, on game-bird hunting, is underway.

At the moment, Bergin says, AWF's immediate priority is recruiting a heartland director who will serve as a "champion" of the area. It will be a big job, as more conservation opportunities are likely to emerge in the splendid Laikipia-Samburu Heartland.

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