"Salamia watu wa Kenya” (say hello to those in Kenya) is often a farewell message by communities in northern Kenya to visiting friends and relatives returning south.
It’s a dichotomy born from and perpetuated by geography, history and socio-economics. Kenya is physically split in half by the Equator.
The drier north has 18 of the 20 poorest constituencies in Kenya, where 74 per cent to 97 per cent of people live below the poverty line. It is also a region once associated with protracted insecurity, rampant elephant poaching, drought and sparse job opportunities.
But all this is starting to change, as the historically marginalised communities take control of their natural resources, and use conservation to create the conditions for enterprise and better lives. They are redefining the narrative, and wildlife numbers are increasing as a result.
Securing an economic asset
The recent Great Northern Aerial Survey of four endangered species across five counties in northern Kenya reported an annual elephant population increase of about 2.4 per cent.
A total of 7,347 elephants were counted in the Laikipia-Samburu-Meru-Marsabit ecosystem, compared with 6,454 in 2012 — a 12 per cent increase in the past five years. Buffalo numbers are on the rise too, while the rate of decline of the critically endangered Grevy’s zebra has slowed from about 5 per cent between 2008 and 2012 to 3 per cent between 2012 and 2017.
All of this is good news for tourism, which contributes one in every 10 US cents to the national economy, and directly or indirectly employs one in every 10 Kenyans. In north Kenya’s community conservancies alone, tourism income totalled just under Ksh55 million ($572,900) in 2016.
Communities are realising the importance of wildlife to their local economies, and through community conservancies are developing strategies to protect their flora and fauna in ways that complement pastoral livelihoods.
It is this attitude shift, together with the efforts of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and increasing support from county governments, which is allowing wildlife numbers in many conservancies to flourish.
However, elephant poaching remains a continuous threat both to wildlife and the security of local communities. One region that has struggled to curb this more than most is West Pokot.
Elephants here have experienced considerable pressure over the past decade with historically high levels of poaching and human/wildlife conflict.
That is why last December, at the request of the governor of West Pokot County Prof John Krop Lonyangapuo, the KWS, Pellow and Masol Community Conservancies, Save the Elephants and the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), participated in an elephant collaring exercise along the Kerio and Turkwell rivers.
From an estimated population of approximately 600 elephants, four adult female elephants were collared — a feat in and of itself.
Information provided by the GPS collars will help Pellow and Masol Community Conservancies and their partners to improve security and build effective conservation plans — paving the way for potential tourism partnerships in an area currently off radar to tour operators and investors.
This is all part of a growing community-led conservation movement across northern Kenya, championed by several organisations.
With increasing support from national policy and county governments — conservancy revenues totalled Ksh31.5 million ($328,125) in 2016 transforming lives, conserving natural resources and securing peace over 4.5 million hectares of northern Kenya.
Across East Africa, the NRT model of community governance is increasingly being seen as a continental leader in the field of grassroots conservation.
As autonomous institutions, it is the members who decide where profits from conservation should go. In 2016 for example, 10,350 people directly benefited from conservancy projects and 3,262 students received school bursaries.
Through NRT’s commercial arm, NRT Trading, conservancy-based enterprises added Ksh63.5 million ($661,458) to household incomes through livestock markets, Ksh7.8 million ($81,250) to women’s income through bead markets; and Ksh3.8 million ($39,583) in youth loans.
Inclusion, strengthened governance structures, better infrastructure planning and collective forecasting are now the modus operandi, especially in areas supported by the Northern Rangelands Trust.
Increasing wildlife populations are a clear testament to the interconnection between people, wildlife and land-use value, as well as the value add of community conservation, collaboration and cohesion.
With these principles in hand and with conservation as an entry point to sustained and fundamental change, a paradigm shift is happening in the social, economic and environmental fabric of northern Kenya.
The question now is, will this ensure communities in the north of the country feel part of the same unit as those below the Equator? Will “Salamia watu wa Kenya” eventually be a statement from the yesteryears? Only time will tell.
Tom Lalampaa is the CEO of Northern Rangelands Trust.