You are here: HomeLaikipiaCommunity & Conservation

Community & Conservation

Laikipia’s recent emergence as one of the world’s great wildlife conservation successes is not a conventional conservation story. It is instead a rare and wonderful unintended consequence of history and geography – a story of hope for both people and wildlife. Without large private and communal land holdings there would not be the wild animal populations that exist in Laikipia today; and without a historically weakened livestock sector, plus a history of elephant persecution further to the north, it is also unlikely that Laikipia would be home to such abundant and diverse species and habitats. The changing fortunes of peoples and economies have resulted in space for wildlife like no other area in East Africa, and the region’s transformation into such a haven is thanks entirely to the people of Laikipia.

Laikipia is widely recognised as a model for wildlife conservation on private land in Africa. The region’s function as a fully integrated conservation area is a fairly recent development, however, going back no further than the 1980s.

Before 1980, few Laikipia ranchers welcomed the presence on their land of wild animals. Some tolerated the wildlife for sentimental reasons; others did so because they were benefiting from safari hunting or other forms of consumptive use. To the majority, however, wildlife was a costly nuisance. It competed with, or consumed, livestock. And as such, it had to be ‘controlled’.

Slaughter of antelopes and zebras during World War Two to feed Italian prisoners of war held in Nanyuki had seen to it that Laikipia’s wildlife numbers were lower than in former times. Subsequent game control kept numbers down. Zebras were regularly culled, as they were seen to be competing with cattle and because their presence made ticks and tick-borne diseases harder to control. Large predators – lions especially – were shot on sight.

Yet, despite decades of game control, there were – in the 1970s – still significant wildlife populations in Laikipia. The area’s first tourism camp, on Lewa Downs, was set up on the back of Kenya’s tourism boom of the 1960s and 70s. As tourism activity expanded, ranchers came to view the wildlife on their land in a new light. Presented with tourism as a viable land use, they took an interest in conservation, becoming more tolerant of wild grazers and of lions and other predators.

In the 1980s, amid global concern over the fate of the Black Rhinoceros, then the target of unprecedented poaching activity across Africa, Laikipia took the lead in providing sanctuaries for the region’s last remaining rhinos, captured in remote parts of northern Kenya. This initiative, spearheaded by Solio and Lewa, proved so successful that today Laikipia is home to most of Kenya’s Black Rhinos.

As conservation interest continued to grow, new challenges arose. Most daunting was a sudden influx of large elephantherds. Before the 1970s, elephants were largely absent from Laikipia. Small groups would be seen only very occasionally, passing through forested northern areas. Massive ivory poaching in neighbouring Samburuland in the 1980s, however, drove more and more elephants into Laikipia. Elephant numbers have been increasing steadily ever since. While elephants are a valued tourist attraction, their destructive impact continues to have far-reaching implications for land management and conservation.

Initially, ranches bore the brunt of the damage, as elephants flattened fences, broke water piping and fouled reservoirs. But then, as herds started moving further south into farming areas, they took to crop-raiding as well, culminating in severe human-elephant conflict that triggered a political uproar. A 150-km-long elephant-proof fence has since been erected between the conservation and arable farming areas.

In this context, the original goals of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum – a group of local landowners formed in 1992 and registered in 1996 – seem surprisingly modest. The body’s prime functions then were to coordinate the cropping for meat and skins of surplus Plains Zebras on commercial ranches and smallholdings where the animals were proving a menace, and to develop a VHF radio system through which to alert members to incursions by poachers and cattle rustlers.

The Forum has since assumed a much broader role, spanning all critical aspects of conservation and of land and resource management. Its successes in devising and implementing an integrated conservation strategy for the entire region have been nothing short of remarkable, given Laikipia’s diversity of land uses and ownership structures. The Forum’s membership is necessarily wide-ranging, in the interests of ensuring that all sectors of the broader community are represented.

Conservation Tourism

Laikipia is a classic example of how well-designed tourism investments can lead to major conservation and economic gains. Hundreds of thousands acres of land has been set aside over the years by local communities for conservation and ecotourism developments.
Tourism development has been the main rationale for these land use decisions. 

The key innovation in these areas is that tourism investments have been structured as jointly owned ventures, in the form of lodges or tented camps, between private investors and the local land-owning communities.  Some of these ventures include Il Ngwesi Lodge, Tassia, Koija Star Beds and OlLentille.

Tourism development is at the core of the Forum’s activities. And to this end, the Forum has pioneered some of the most innovative and successful community-run eco-tourism and conservation ventures in the world. Proceeds from tourism have enabled local people to benefit directly from conservation, while having the Forum to depend on for advisory support and for marketing and promotion.

The success of community-owned tourism and conservation enterprises such as Il Ngwesi on the communal, or group, ranches of North Laikipia has not only been instrumental in providing shareholders with much-needed supplementary incomes; it has also helped secure important wildlife dispersal corridors. The strong sense of ownership now felt by community groups has helped conserve habitats such as the remote Mukogodo Forest. Similarly, tree cover in the NgareNdare Forest, adjacent to the Lewa Conservancy, has increased since the Forum, in partnership with the Kenya Forest Service, began devolving responsibility for forest management to local communities.

Given Laikipia’s erratic rainfall, it is important that wildlife be allowed to move freely within the ecosystem – and beyond – so animals can follow the rains. The Forum has successfully lobbied for fencing on and between ranches to be limited. Conservation education is another important aspect of the Forum’s activities. In the Forum’s bus, schoolchildren can participate in regular guided tours of Laikipia’s conservation areas.

A scarcity of water is Laikipia’s single most pressing challenge. Streams emanating from Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, once thought of as perennial, are now increasingly seasonal in character. Even the EwasoN’giro River, the region’s main artery, has in dry years stopped flowing – severely impacting downstream wildlife and human populations. Commercial farmers, no longer able to rely on river water, have been forced into operating irrigation systems utilising floodwater collected in dams and reservoirs. Burgeoning human populations along the upper reaches of rivers, coupled with illegal water extraction (mostly by small-scale farms), remains a serious conservation concern. With community groups, the Forum has formed a number of River Water Users’ Associations, amid efforts to regulate off-take and promote less wasteful irrigation methods.

The secret to Laikipia being a modern-day wildlife conservation success is the people and their attitude, their willingness to experiment and take risks, challenge conventional wisdom, break down barriers, and to work together and lend support across the different boundaries in this physically and ethnically diverse landscape. All of the efforts outlined above are only possible because of the willingness of the people of Laikipia to come together to conserve and manage what is theirs to make life better for all — for the people and wildlife of Laikipia and Kenya.

English Afrikaans French German Italian Portuguese Russian Spanish Swahili
Free business joomla templates