Just what does sustainable travel really have to do with you and me and the people and places we encounter? Are we a blessing or a curse?
Well, both really. I think we are all aware of the ‘curse’ aspect, simply put… too many. Here you are ensconced in your lone vehicle on the great plains of the Serengeti, silently watching a family of young cheetahs atop a large ant hill mound. This is something you’ve planned for years You are suddenly aware that there are three or more vehicles charging your way. The spell is broken.
Too many tourists cramming into too-small areas and not enough facilities to accommodate the growing number of visitors are changing the way we interact with the world and the way it interacts with us.
That is precisely where conservancies in Africa come in to play. While national parks and reserves are vital to species survival, they are simply not enough. Biodiversity and ecosystem health are irretrievably intertwined with human populations. And people need food security, a way to make a living, health care and education. In the last three decades, these multiplying pressures have resulted in significant declines in wildlife across Kenya. Habitat loss, poaching and conflict with humans over shared resources are primary factors.
To meet current demands and to try to plan the future, more state-owned protected areas are needed as well as the establishment of more private and community conservancies.
Conservancies, both community owned and privately owned, are lands set aside for conservation that provide benefits and safeguards to wildlife and to the land owners. They provide additional lands and, in many cases, vital safe corridors for animals to transit through and space as they roam outside the parks’ manmade boundaries.
Private conservancies such as Lewa Wildlife Conservancy allow opportunities for individuals to receive health care, participate in educational and training activities and gain employment. Lewa has one of the highest wildlife densities in Kenya, including 12% of the country’s black and white rhinos, and the world’s single largest population of Grevy’s zebra. The Conservancy is also home to healthy herds of elephants and buffalo, giraffes, lions, cheetahs, more than 400 species of birds and a pack of wild dogs.
This is where conservationists and community leaders began to create long-term plans to involve and benefit the pastoralist communities in the surrounding areas. The idea of setting up a community conservancy organization initially came from a meeting between Lewa’s Ian Craig and the local community of Il Ngwesi to the north. That became The Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) in 2004.
Today, NRT is an umbrella organization for community conservancies in Northern Kenya. Its mission is to “develop resilient community conservancies that transform lives, secure peace, and conserve natural resources.” It currently supports 39 community conservancies across northern and coastal Kenya. It involves 18 ethnic groups; permanently employs 1,012 local people in conservancies; has benefitted 71,000 people with its 83 conservancy-funded development projects since 2015; and has 1,840 people involved in conservancy-led savings and credit cooperatives.
And then there are the animals! The conservancies present a range of habitats: mountains, dense forests, rivers, deserts, savannahs, lakes, deltas and the Indian Ocean. They are home to an equally diverse array of wildlife, including elephant, lion, giraffe, oryx, hirola and black rhino. NRT member conservancies are protecting wildlife in six main ways:
1. Anti-poaching operations
2. Habitat management
3. Increasing conservation awareness
4. Human-wildlife conflict mitigation
5. Wildlife population monitoring
6. Endangered species recovery programs
Tens of thousands of rhinos once thrived in Africa but since the beginning of the 20th century, humans have pushed the species to the brink of extinction. In the 1960s, Kenya was home to an estimated 20,000 black rhinos, but in just two decades, poaching reduced the population to less than 300.
As a result of conservation efforts, the black rhino population is steadily but slowly recovering and there are now over 600 black rhinos in Kenya, however, black rhinos remain critically endangered. The work to protect rhinos was the catalyst that led to Lewa’s founding originally, which has provided a safe and suitable home for rhinos since the early 1980s. As the first and the leading pioneer in private rhino sanctuary in East Africa, Lewa’s rhino population has grown from an initial 15 rhinos to 169 today.
As one of the successful sanctuaries for rhinos, Lewa is working with a growing number of partners across country and the continent with the hope that a common mandate helps the rhino rise out of near-extinction. But the survival of one of Africa’s iconic species rests on long-term solutions that involve local people, securing habitat and national and international efforts to help reduce demand for its horn.
Recently our president, Ashish, lead a small group of travel professionals to Kenya, where the itinerary included a visit to Lewa to learn about the conservancy’s well-known anti-poaching team, who work to protect wildlife. The anti-poaching work, in line with Lewa’s philosophy is centered around people in the local communities, who are the first line of defense against poachers. The well-trained and motivated rangers team up between radio operators, gatekeepers and the anti-poaching rangers. They employ the innovative use of technology to gather the best intelligence they can. They do all this on a shoestring budget, relying on NRT and NGOs, receiving no government funding.
Even though their resources are scarce, there have been no rhino poaching at Lewa in five years. Across northern Kenya, the Proportion of Illegal Killed Elephants (PIKE) levels have significantly decreased in the past five years. Hundreds of livestock have been returned to their owners, saving the farmers from financial ruin and bankruptcy. They have seen an increase in peace and stability in the communities surrounding Lewa-Borana, with the help of the rangers as well as the combined efforts with the Kenya Police and the Kenya Wildlife Service.
So does sustainable travel really matter? You bet it does. As you can see, when local communities, travelers, NGOs and other stakeholders combine, the results can be remarkable.
To assist in the mission of these dedicated rangers, Big Five brought digital cameras, binoculars, Garmin GPS devices suited to unmapped terrain and memory cards to for the anti-poaching team, which previously did not have these tools.
Today, the survival of all the rare, wonderful and unique species in Africa and the financial destiny of traditional communities rests on long-term sustainable solutions that closely involve local people keeping their lands safe and conservancies, national parks and reserves protecting the remaining wildlife as well as an international community commitment to give up the outdated notion of collecting horns, tusks, skins and other wild animal “trophies.” In other words, all our futures are intertwined and solutions need all of us to make them work.