Gilfrid Powse: The maverick conservationist

Saturday January 6 2018


John Gilfrid Llewelyn Powse lived all his life in Laikipia, Kenya’s open and wild country famous for its expansive ranches, farms and conservancies teeming with wildlife. PHOTO | GAKUU MATHENGE 

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When news of the tragic death of 79-year old John Gilfrid Llewelyn Powse broke, Muarizio Dioli, a good friend of Powse mourned him on a Facebook post: “My friend Gilfrid has gone. He died a warrior death, his soul will surely roam freely exploring the great unknown.”

I learnt of the “warrior death” when it was explained by Powse’s friend later that day in a conversation on his untimely death: “He [Powse] used to say he would rather a buffalo took him than being bedridden in old age. God gave him an elephant.”

Powse was killed when one elephant in a herd that had calves attacked and trampled him at a man-made water hole in his ranch used by both wildlife and livestock.

He had approached the herd to push them away from the water hole. One of the elephants attacked him from behind.

Called Gilfrid by everyone who knew him, he was no stranger to animals, wild or domesticated. As a second generation Kenyan of British ancestry, he lived all his life in Laikipia, Kenya’s open and wild country famous for its expansive ranches, farms and conservancies teeming with wildlife.

Gilfrid was the owner of Kisima Group, owners of Suyian ranch in Rumuruti, where he lived, and Kisima Timau where he was engaged in commercial farming of wheat, potatoes, Merino sheep breeding, horticulture and tourism ventures.

As far as conservation was concerned, he was ahead of his time in ideas and what needed to be done to achieve a near perfect balance between herders and ranchers; commercial and subsistence survival of people of not just in Laikipia but also Samburu and Isiolo counties.

Gilfrid Powse spent a lot of his time outdoors. PHOTO | GAKUU MATHENGE

Always aware of what was going on in the community of farmers and herders, Gilfrid Powse spent a lot of his time outdoors. PHOTO | GAKUU MATHENGE


Long before devolution and community participation became buzzwords in Kenya’s political discourse courtesy of the 2010 Constitution, Gilfrid took it upon himself to spearhead a campaign to take on the cynical and powerful wildlife conservationist Richard Leakey (current chair of the Kenya Wildlife Service board) and the people he represented.

The first win for Gilfrid was wrestling wildlife utilisation rights from the state and give it back to communities living in so-called protected areas. This was in the early 1990s.

The communities could finally have a direct benefit from the wildlife they shared the land with, through the sale of meat and skins and hides from zebras, giraffes and gazelles killed through cropping or periodic culling. Gilfrid’s argument was that, legal periodic cropping would reduce poaching for food or as a commercial activity.

Leakey, respected, loathed and feared — depending on your convictions — in conservation lobbies locally and internationally, sneered at Gilfrid’s campaign as a backdoor attempt to introduce sport hunting, long outlawed in Kenya.

Gilfrid and his lieutenants were not cowed. They put up a spirited fight through arguments that farmers, both small and large-scale living side by side in Laikipia’s ranchlands could not be expected by KWS and the government to bear the burden of hosting wildlife on their properties — with the attendant destruction of infrastructure, crops, burden of diseases to livestock not to mention deaths and injuries to people — with no compensatory benefits accruing to them.

They argued that wildlife is state property, and that if the state could not contain them in their protected areas then the farmers and ranchers would either fence them out of their properties or kill them than bear endless losses. Some farmers and ranchers did “eject” wildlife from their properties.

The dilemma was that the protected areas under national parks and game reserves were no longer sufficient for wildlife, and substantial numbers survived on private and community land.

As founder and long time chair of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum (LWF), which he hosted for a long time on his property in Nanyuki town, Gilfrid changed how communities viewed wildlife in the greater Ewaso ecosystem, when LWF finally got cropping rights out of KWS in the early '90s, and for the first time communities directly benefited from the wildlife they took care of.

Ewaso ecosystem is the vast expanse of the sun baked rugged wilderness between the southern slopes of Mt Kenya and the Aberdares Ranges that drains into the Ewaso Nyiro River and onward to the Lorian Swamps in remote northern Kenya.

This shifted the narrative from one of a bitter resentment of wildlife as threats to life and livelihoods, to one of exploration of opportunities, that gave birth to community conservancies and lodges dotting the region today, generating jobs and revenues for local communities. Laikipia has become the best experience being replicated all over the country” said Fred Kihara, a long time development worker in the county.

Gilfrid Powse was known as a community mobiliser and campaigner. PHOTO | GAKUU MATHENGE

Gilfrid Powse was known as a community mobiliser and campaigner. PHOTO | GAKUU MATHENGE


Unknown to many, Gilfrid was also at the forefront of championing the enactment of the Kenya Aloe Regulations, by pushing KWS to adopt a proactive approach to get wild aloe harvesters, processors and exporters, to cease operating on the fringes of the law and instead follow proposed rules and regulations to make the aloe trade viable for all.

Kenya is home to over 60 species of the aloe plant that for decades contributed significantly to the multibillion global cosmetics industry, but from the shadows.

Although the most popular aloe species in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industry is the aloe vera — grown commercially in South Africa — the supply of commercial plantations cannot meet global demand, and which was for decades topped up with wild harvesting of Kenya’s aloe Turkanensis and aloe Secundiflora species.

The Kenyan species — harvested through tedious sap draining technics, as opposed to aloe vera which is harvested by industrial scrapping of the gel on both sides of the aloe blades — are said to be more potent and are used in blending the various vera products.

However, in the absence of supporting laws, regulations and formal production and processing infrastructure, the value chain thrived and flourished underground with exports to Pakistan, Germany, Italy and South Africa.

The trade is run like any other agricultural enterprise chain featuring grassroots harvesters in Laikipia, Samburu, Baringo and Isiolo counties, with middlemen, brokers and transporters bringing the product to Nairobi-based processing factories where the sap is packaged, labelled and exported as “natural gum” to fool government regulator (KWS) and the Kenya Revenue Authority.

Gilfrid mobilised resources to conduct a study of the value chain by capturing data and understanding the players involved at the various levels.

He was a pragmatist. On his work with aloe traders, he once cautioned: “Do not expose the players. Ours is to understand the trade, not to expose anyone. They deserve a medal of Head of State Commendation for spotting opportunities, looking for markets and organising a value chain that is plugged into the global cosmetics industry, without government input.”

Kenyan aloe vera species. PHOTO | GAKUU MATHENGE

Kenyan aloe vera species is harvested through tedious sap draining technics and used in blending the various vera products. PHOTO | GAKUU MATHENGE

He feared that exposure would result in both punitive action by the state and disruption of the trade, that could eventually drive the trade deeper underground.

His leadership, sacrifices, courage, connections and material support as chair of the Kenya Aloe Working Group led to the development of the Kenya Aloe Regulations to harness the potential of plantation propagation for commercial exploitation of the endangered plant. Some counties like Baringo have taken advantage of the regulations to venture into legal commercial harvesting and processing enterprises.

Improving lives

Besides fighting for aloe traders, Gilfrid also leaves behind a legacy of pioneering initiatives. For example, he was passionate about the Boran cattle and camel breeding, shaping the inaugural Kenya Land Policy Formulation process (2009) through the Kenya Large-Scale Farmers association that fought hard to moderate the strong human rights lobby pushing for policies of “equity” in land ownership, that some saw as a disguised push for a state-driven land grab.

While the lobbies pushed for and secured the reduction of 999-year leases granted in the colonial era to 99-years leases, the land owners lobby pushed for stringent conditions in case of compulsory acquisition, to make it harder for acquisitions driven by political populism.

Gilfrid was larger than life in stature, a towering six foot-plus man, with sun-bleached greying hair, always in the outdoors in khaki shorts and shirts with rolled up sleeves, whether in the bush or in Nanyuki town.

A man of the people to a fault, he never shied away from telling off politicians and especially current CS for Devolution, Mwangi Kiunjuri, over agitation of herders to invade commercial ranches either over pastures for pastoralists, or over human-wildlife conflicts. He would clash with Kiunjuri in heavily accented Kiswahili; “Leo ni leo, msema kesho ni muongo.” (A defiant call to an opponent to step up to a face-off).

As chairman and founder of Laikipia Wildlife Forum and chair of commercial farmers association, he always had a speaking spot in the official programme to mark national days or other public platforms in Laikipia county.

Gilfrid Powse was larger than life in stature, a towering six foot-plus man. PHOTO | GAKUU MATHENGE

Gilfrid Powse was larger than life in stature, a towering six foot-plus man, with sun-bleached greying hair, always in the outdoors in khaki shorts and shirts with rolled up sleeves, whether in the bush or in Nanyuki town. PHOTO | GAKUU MATHENGE

He once told me in a gossipy tone, “Mathenge, wazungu also have their own tribes like Africans,” referring to the differences between the clearly aristocratic stock white farmers and the ordinary farmers like him who were sympathetic to community herders who were desperate for pasture and water.

One of Gilfrid’s gripes was against wildlife conservation lobbies based in London, Brussels and New York and their Kenyan representatives who seemed — and still do — to project what he thought was undeserved power and tight stranglehold over conservation policies in Kenya from the luxury of their leafy suburbs in Karen in Nairobi, and in complete insensitivity or ignorance of the realities and cost to communities who shoulder the burden of wildlife conservation.

Laikipia Governor Nderitu Muriithi, as Gilfrid’s former member of parliament in Laikipia West, had fought many battles with him over anarchy visited on Laikipia by invading pastoralists from neighbouring Samburu and Baringo Counties.

Mr Muriithi said: “Gilfrid had a big heart for Laikipia. He made his mark and leaves us a rich legacy.” In 2002, Gilfrid received the Elder of the Burning Spear from president Daniel arap Moi.

Gilfrid leaves behind wife Patricia, who lives at Suyian ranch; two daughters, Anne and Marian and three grandchildren. Although he never divorced from his wife, he was a long time companion of the famous rancher and conservationist, Kuki Gallmann.