From conflict to coexistence

Coexistence between humans and wildlife is not easy, but Maasai herders work amazingly to keep themselves and the wildlife roaming free, writes Michael Parks

COMMON GROUND Wildebeest and livestock share the range on SORALO lands. PHOTOS BY GUY WESTERN

As night falls on the Olkirimatian Group Ranch, in south-central Kenya, a cacophony of whistles and cowbells fills the air. Herders are hurrying cattle, sheep and goats home for the evening. By day, Maasai pastoralists and their livestock rule this stretch of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. But each night, people here still beat an age-old retreat, ceding the land to its other, wilder owners.

Many international tourists think of Kenya as a country defined by a few famous, people-free protected areas. In reality, Kenya’s government-run parks cover only 8% of its territory, an area too small to sustain the country’s wide-ranging wildlife populations. Nearly two-thirds of Kenya’s iconic animals depend on open rangeland areas like Olkirimatian, where mobile wildlife live alongside mobile herders.

Lions rest on a termite mound in the  SORALO landscape.
Lions rest on a termite mound in the SORALO landscape.

 

For a cause

In recent decades, however, a sweeping set of pressures, including human population growth, the breakdown of traditional pastoral practices, new fences, and development, have begun to transform Kenya’s open range. Herders and wildlife today must navigate pastures that are increasingly crowded, fragmented, and fragile. A 2016 paper found that livestock numbers had increased dramatically in Kenya’s rangelands since 1977. Meanwhile, wildlife suffered “relentless, pervasive and catastrophic” losses, with populations of counted species declining by an average of 68% over the same period.

The Lale’enok Resource Centre, on the Olkirimatian Group Ranch, is headquarters to an organisation aiming to halt these trends. The South Rift Association of Landowners (SORALO) is a collective of 16 Maasai-owned group ranches that have come together to protect the free movement of both people and wildlife in southern Kenya.

Though some SORALO-owned lands have been fenced, most are a relative holdout against the changes on other Kenyan rangelands. Spanning about 10,000 square kilometres (3,800 square miles) between Kenya’s Amboseli National Park and Maasai Mara National Reserve, the SORALO territory is home to a quarter of a million people and some of the planet’s most diverse and abundant populations of large mammals.

SORALO’s work faces serious obstacles, but, succeed or fail, its implications extend well beyond Kenya. Pastoralism is humanity’s most extensive form of land use, and pastoralists in many regions share landscapes with migratory or highly mobile wildlife. As conservationists around the world struggle to secure space for wild animals to roam, SORALO is out to prove that one solution may start with people who themselves survive through movement.

Loserem Pukare, who works for SORALO, looks for lions on the Shompole Group Ranch.
Loserem Pukare, who works for SORALO, looks for lions on the Shompole Group Ranch.

 

Inside-out conservation

Today, however, SORALO’s mission is more fundamental. While the organisation continues to help member communities develop tourism projects, its focus is on sustaining the bedrock resource — a “healthy and intact landscape,” as the group’s promotional materials put it — upon which both herders and wildlife rely.

To do so, SORALO takes a three-part approach. To keep lands open, SORALO helps communities deploy land-use planning and legal tools to strengthen their rights to their land. To help communities manage their natural resources more effectively, SORALO employs a large network of community game scouts, a rangeland monitoring team, and a lion-conflict mitigation team called Rebuilding the Pride. And to help communities benefit more from those resources, it builds their incomes by developing wildlife tourism ventures and supporting a livestock marketing and production programme and a women’s enterprise programme. The point, SORALO staff emphasise, is to demonstrate that development doesn’t have to come at the cost of open landscapes, wildlife and an intact culture.

Uniting SORALO’s work are the challenges posed by communally held natural resources. Open rangelands allow wildlife and pastoralists the freedom of movement necessary to survive in the savanna. But they also represent a classic commons, prone to the “tragedy of the commons,” in which individual, self-interested decisions can add up to disaster for a community.

SORALO programmes focused on introducing land-use planning and adaptive rangeland management concepts offer part of a solution. Importantly, SORALO isn’t starting from scratch: the South Rift Maasai maintain several traditional systems for managing communal resources. The Olkirimatian and Shompole communities, for instance, employ rules that determine when and where herders can graze, as well as reciprocal grazing arrangements with outside communities. The final plank of SORALO’s work focuses on documenting and helping communities sustain their traditional practices.

But coexistence, where pastoralists and wildlife benefit each other, is also possible. For instance, herders might play a role in keeping land open for wildlife, even as wildlife brings in tourism dollars or draws predators away from livestock. A number of cultural factors help explain the trend towards coexistence in the South Rift. The most obvious is the Maasai’s cultural prohibition against eating wildlife in all but the most extreme circumstances; generally, the Maasai attitude towards wildlife is live and let live. But there are also subtler dynamics at play. The South Rift region is among a few places in Kenya where pastoralists still employ a traditional seasonal movement system. SORALO’s research shows that the system creates a heterogeneous landscape with rotating areas of different kinds of pasture and habitat that reduces conflict between wildlife and livestock.

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