The recent conflict and inexcusable loss of life and property in Laikipia and the neighbouring counties of Baringo and Samburu could have been avoided, but only if the root causes were correctly diagnosed and addressed. Some media reports have accused wildlife conservancies of being the root cause of the violence in northern Kenya, but this is far from the truth. Conservancies support pastoralist livelihoods, economic growth, democracy, and wildlife conservation.
Since the 1990s when conservancies began, the scope and institutional complexity have broadened out beyond wildlife conservation and tourism. Peace and conflict resolution, land management, income generation, employment, community cohesion and development are equally key objectives of any successful conservancy.
Conservancies such as Sera, Nakuprat-Gotu and Ruko in northern Kenya and the Rift Valley, while being sanctuaries for endangered wildlife such as the Rothschild's giraffe and the black rhino, have provided worthy lessons in resolving inter-ethnic tension and land conflicts. Rival communities come together to form a conservancy and agree on a livestock grazing plan managed by scouts and grazing committees. Where this has been done, peace has been restored, cattle theft nearly eliminated and enterprises to diversify livelihoods started.
Recent allegations that conservancies dispossess communities of their land and prevent them from grazing in their communal land during drought, are fallacious. A conservancy is a legally recognised land use type. It is not a form of ownership and, therefore, one cannot use it to grab land as a conservancy does not confer title to land.
A conservancy is an inclusive and representative institution used by a community or private landowner to better manage land and derive income to offset the cost of living with wildlife. If the costs continue to exceed benefits, wildlife is at risk of being eliminated.
The perception that conservancies are the preserve of a few rich people is a distortion of facts. Among the 155 conservancies in 26 counties, 109 are owned and managed by communities. A key achievement for most well-established conservancies is the ability to grow grass by managing livestock movement. The Wildlife Conservation and Management Act 2013 recognises and promotes conservancies both for conservation and as a mechanism for community and private landowner’s participation in natural resource management, as enshrined in the Constitution. The recently enacted Community Land Act 2016, further entrenches land use planning and community grazing plans as a tool for pasture management. These legal frameworks and the practice of conservancies present a great opportunity for addressing the grass crisis being experienced in the rangelands. Mara North, OlareMotorogi and Naboisho conservancies have utilised this approach to sustain thousands of cattle and a vibrant tourism industry. Some 3,000 households earn a monthly income from tourism and are better able to sustain their livestock during drought. The Mara beef marketing outlet in Enonkishu conservancy and the integration of livestock and wildlife at Ol Pejeta in Laikipia are worth emulating.
Conservancies and some landowners in Laikipia have managed to grow grass well into the dry season. Though a little drier, pastoralists from north and west of Laikipia, with the support of the private sector, national and county governments can also grow more grass by managing the land better. This is what is needed for the conflict over pasture to be averted.
Lack of grass forces herders to migrate to wherever it is available, in desperation, violent methods are used. Conservancies can help reverse this disastrous trajectory. More are needed if future conflicts are to be averted.
Dickson ole Kaelo is chief executive officer, Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association.