On June 20, 2012 John Keen watched with horror images of residents of Kitengela in Kajiado County hunting and killing lions in their neighbourhood.
A pride of lions from the Nairobi National Park had struck homes in the area at about 2 a.m. and killed 28 sheep. The residents responded by killing six of the beasts.
The incident was one of the most spectacular in the cyclic human-wildlife conflict story in the country.
As the residents went home with glee, Mr Keen, a Maasai elder and veteran politician, was aghast. How could it possibly be that Kenyans could kill six lions, a rare heritage and a quickly disappearing species?
In 1965, Keen says he suggested the creation of a wildlife corridor between the Nairobi and Amboseli national parks. He says it was ignored.
Keen, who styles himself as a “moran for wildlife”, says the area served as a migration corridor for the wildlife.
He recalls telling the then Tourism and Wildlife minister, Samuel Ayodo, that a clear boundary be drawn to indicate land that was open for human settlement and that which would be preserved for wildlife.
“My suggestion was that the land south of Embakasi river, through Kitengela, Isinya to Kajiado be leased by government and sealed off as wildlife migration corridor while human settlement be confined to both sides of Nairobi-Mombasa highway.
“My reasoning at the time was that we couldn’t eat our cake and have it. Since we wanted the dollars from tourism, which is today the lifeline of our economy, a serious effort needed to be made to conserve the wildlife. I rightly argued that 44 square miles that is the Nairobi National Park land today was too small for the purpose and would bring about a disastrous human-wildlife conflict in the future,” says Keen.
He says he argued for creation of “a realistic space for the national park” – at least 200 square miles of wildlife corridor – or the degazettement of the park altogether. The suggestions, he says, fell on deaf ears.
“Now, the government is talking about creating a wildlife migration corridor between Nairobi National Park and the Amboseli. But what do you do with the human settlement in between when we are yet to resettle victims of the post-election violence and the Mau forest evictees?”
But Keen has not just been sitting around wondering what could be done and who would step in to preserve the rich heritage while reducing or eliminating human-wildlife conflict.
“Today I am a moran for protection of lions – indeed, all wildlife and the environment,” says the 87-year-old with a tinge of passion.
At the entrance of his home in Namanga, a huge signpost welcomes you with the inscription: “Conserve Forest and Wildlife”.
And at his city residence in Karen, where almost every homestead is ringed with a high brick wall and electric fence, Keen’s compound is fenced with a green shrubbery of kei-apple, bougainvillea and indigenous trees.
Growing up in the Laikipia plains, John Keen’s first “education” was on how to hunt and kill lions. Now he has come full circle. Instead of killing lions, he is leading the campaign to save them and other wildlife.
And he is walking the talk and leading the conservation crusade from the front. He has set aside 300 acres of his family land for conservation of wildlife under an arrangement known as ‘environment easement’.
The land which neighbours the Nairobi National Park will now be under the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF).
It will be left pristine — that is no human encroachment, no sub-division and no use as loan collateral — for the next 25 years. The Keen family will have the discretion to extend the easement at the expiry of the agreed period should they wish to do so.
Asked how he acquired a large tract of land close to the city in the first place, Keen breaks into a chuckle and says: “Don’t you know Maasai people at one time owned two-thirds of Kenya?”
However, he is quick to explain that at the time he bought his expansive land in Karen/Lang’ata area from the departing White settlers in the 1960s, an acre was going for less than Sh700 at the current exchange rate.
“And, mark you,” he says, “there were no takers even at that price. The new African elite considered Lang’ata/Karen area a place for game and eccentric mzungus. Instead, they preferred to invest at Muthaiga, Kiambu and Limuru Road.”
AWF president Helen Gichohi says the land donation is a rare act of generosity that should be emulated by other Kenyans.
“While many people look at a piece of land and see dollar signs, John Keen sees ecological, cultural and historical value in it. I hope his leadership in conservation will inspire other landowners to do the same,” says Gichohi, who signed the easement deal on behalf of AWF.
Former US ambassador Scott Gration was also touched by the gesture.
“If more Kenyans were to follow John Keen’s example and lead from the front on matters dear to their hearts, this would be a great place to live in,” Gration said.
The land set aside by the Keen family has been named the Silole Sanctuary. Silole is the name of his youngest child, a 15-year-old student at Brookhouse School.
“I decided to name the conservancy after my youngest daughter, Silole. In her, I see all the children of Kenya to whom we owe a burden to conserve the environment. We may have all the beautiful highways and the tall buildings but we will have condemned our children to extinction if we continue destroying the environment. After all, what can they do with only a concrete jungle around them?” he says.
Land and wildlife have been contentious issues for the Maasai since independence. Just this week Heritage minister William ole Ntimama and Defence assistant minister Joseph Nkaiserry protested in Par liament that the community has no representative in the National Land Commission which MPs were approving.
“The Maa community feels discriminated [against]. We have to talk loudly on this one. If there’s any community that has lost land, it is the Maa community. We lost over a million acres to the settlers. When they left, we never got our land back,” said Ntimama.
Nkaiserry added: “If you’re a chicken farmer, you’ve no business talking about cattle.”
For the Maasai, pastoral land and wildlife are intertwined and part of their rich culture which they have preserved for centuries, attracting tourists from far and wide.
To demonstrate how serious Keen was on the idea of setting aside a safe corridor for wildlife between the capital city and Kajiado town, he says in the 1970s he was offered to buy the land that is today Kitengela town and the sprawling estates.
He says he declined the offer as a matter of principle.
“I could have mobilised resources to buy the land which was just empty plains all the way from Athi River to Isinya. But my reasoning was: this is home for our wildlife which is our national heritage. Why would John Keen be so selfish to want to own it all for himself?”
Keen says his proposal to the government had been inspired by findings he had made during a visit to the US as a member of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Kenya.
“We were supposed to be in the US to see wildlife and learn one or two things about conservancy. My great surprise was to learn that Americans were spending millions of dollars to conserve wildlife they didn’t have!”
“Our first stop was in Florida which we had been told was home to America wildlife. But what we saw were just a few alligators and a bird here and there. Then we were taken to Colorado to see the famous American mountain sheep. But alas! They weren’t there. We had to use binoculars to see the very few remaining in the horizon. Lastly were taken down south to Yellowstone national park supposedly to see buffaloes. Again there was none!”
On return home, Keen began thinking.
“If Americans could spend so much conserving something they didn’t really have, Kenyans had all the reason to conserve what we have in plenty and make it our comparative advantage,” he says.
The Maasai elder says the millions of dollars earned from a well managed wildlife could have been used to open up as many other areas for human settlement as well as create jobs along Nairobi-Mombasa highway.
Driving along the highway, he says, one sees so much available land for human settlement if only the government would drill boreholes.
“That is the way we should have gone from the word go. Create a wildlife corridor from Kitengela to Kajiado, but at the same time actively open up both sides of the Mombasa highway for human settlement through provision of water for agri-business and opening up of as many commercial centres as possible. After all, we already have the basic infrastructure in form of road, rail and electricity.”
He adds: “It isn’t that we don’t have enough land for human and wildlife to co-exist. It is simply a question of mismanagement and skewed priorities.”
In Namanga where he owns a ranch, Keen has dug a huge dam where his livestock and wildlife freely mix when quenching their thirst.
On a good day, you can hardly differentiate between his cattle and the buffaloes or his goats and the antelopes when they converge on the dam.
At one time he had to read the riot act to his guards at the ranch after they shot dead a leopard that had killed his livestock.
“I had lost four cows to the leopard, yes, but that was not good reason to kill the predator. The big cats are created by nature to eat other animals; hence the leopard had not committed such a big ‘crime’ to deserve to die!”
His workers at the ranch are under instruction not to kill even a snake.
“Why bother with a harmless reptile going about its business in the bush? That is where they are meant to live.”