Community conservancies fall short of promised gains for locals

Tuesday December 13 2022
Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy in Samburu, Kenya.

An elephant keeper feeds a calf with milk at Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy in Samburu, Kenya. The reality of community-based wildlife conservation is sometimes less straightforward, as the experience of Kenya shows. PHOTO | LUIS TATO | AFP


By Carolyn K. Lesorogol

Community-based wildlife conservation is often promoted as a win-win solution. The idea is that the people who live close to wildlife can be involved in protecting it and have an interest in doing so.

This results in wildlife being protected, a win for global biodiversity, and local people benefiting from conservation through tourism revenues, jobs or new infrastructure like schools, clinics and water supplies.

However, the reality of community-based wildlife conservation is sometimes less straightforward, as the experience of Kenya shows.

Kenya is home to spectacular wildlife, landscape and cultural resources that drive the safari tourism industry. Yet, its tourist attractions face significant threats. These include climate change, illegal wildlife trade, loss of habitat due to deforestation and human-wildlife conflict. To address some of these risks, community conservancies have been established.

Implications for thousands


The conservancies are wildlife-protected areas established on community owned or occupied land. They make up a significant part of the wildlife protection landscape in Kenya, with implications for thousands of people.

There are currently 76 such spaces, covering tens of thousands of square kilometres. They date back to the 1980s, but have accelerated in number and extent over the last 20 years.

In northern Kenya, most conservancies are supported by the Northern Rangelands Trust, a national NGO funded by global donors and international conservation agencies.

It’s difficult to establish how much funding is directed to community conservancies. However, in 2020, the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association reported that the conservancies incur about $25 million in annual operational costs.

Community conservation is gaining popularity among Samburu communities in northern Kenya, yet there is little evidence about its operation or effects.

I conducted a study to explore the issue.

Study findings

While more wild animals are found on conservancy land than in unprotected areas, my research found that conservancies increased human-wildlife conflict, with communities bearing the brunt of loss and injury. Further, the economic benefits of community conservancies to members were minimal.

Community-based conservation has its roots in the realisation that the “fortress” model of conservation – which is the creation of parks and reserves that exclude all human use – is untenable. Wild animals require vast landscapes to thrive. They cannot be contained within the boundaries of parks.

Equally, when local people are excluded from parks, they are denied access to the resources they need for survival. Treating people as less important than wildlife makes them less inclined to protect wildlife.

Engage communities directly

Understanding that successful conservation depends on local populations having a stake in its success has led to efforts to engage communities directly in conservation activities. In this approach, the community sets aside part of its land for conservation in exchange for anticipated benefits that will flow from conservation.

In the Samburu case, communities have set aside about 10 to 25 percent of their land for wildlife, and in some cases for tourism infrastructure. These conservancies are run by paid staff overseen by boards made up of community members and supported by conservation NGOs.

Livestock grazing is prohibited or severely restricted on this land.

Community conservation creates boundaries, which are policed by wildlife scouts who are often armed.

Heightened tensions

My research revealed that conservancies actually heightened tensions among the Samburu. Creating zones of land use and restricting grazing makes it necessary to maintain boundaries and refuse access to non-members. This goes against Samburu norms of allowing livestock access to pasture, particularly during dry seasons and droughts. On the other hand, members of conservancies see the policing of grazing as a benefit.

Many times, I heard people refer to their Samburu neighbours outside conservancy boundaries as “outsiders” or “encroachers” who must be kept out. Conservancies resemble islands around which herders must navigate to find pasture. If and when they landed on these islands, conflicts often occurred.

Additionally, the amount of funding channelled to conservancies from donor organisations was relatively large compared to other sources of support. Conservancies that have tourism facilities also earn revenue from hotel contracts, bed-night charges and conservation fees.

Minimal economic benefits

Members perceived that there was a lot of money circulating in conservancies, controlled by the boards and staff. They reported minimal economic benefits for themselves, mostly in the form of school fees for students and sometimes an annual dividend. This fuelled suspicions among members that the money was being misused by conservancy boards and staff, resulting in bitter conflict within the community.

There is a risk that if members don’t receive the kinds of benefits they have been promised, their support for conservation could decline.

This calls for more effective models. Conservation that places less emphasis on who may or may not use a piece of land, and that improves accountability, could result in better outcomes for people and wildlife. Greater engagement of members, and more accountability regarding funding would enhance confidence and ownership among members.