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Helping local people see the benefit of conserving elephants


That there are few places in the world like the Mara is an understatement.  For those of us living and working within and in the immediate vicinity, this reality remains a constant companion and a reflection of a life that once was; the beauty and the majesty.  But with it comes the all too familiar conservation challenge – human-wildlife conflict, especially with elephants.

Elephants in the Mara © WWF-KenyaElephants in the Mara © WWF-Kenya

Land tenure and land use changes in the immediate adjoining community /private areas provide challenges and opportunities and present a landscape mosaic that has to be addressed.  I have only been in the Mara for five months now (although not a complete stranger having worked here in a different capacity during my previous life).  I believe that when it comes to benefits, the entire landscape will bear the fruit of elephant conservation, and as a result community members, the County and National governments will continue to reap the rewards of the tourism industry, while elephants and other wildlife remain as abundant in future as they are today – and abundant they are.

In 2014 the African Elephant Project (the project that I work for), supported a wet season count which revealed a growing but stable elephant population within the Mara Serengeti landscape despite an increase in poaching levels.  You need only go as far as the Mara riverfront to see herds of elephants congregating along the water’s edge, drinking, swimming or playing in the mud. Even after five months of Mara life, it is still a new and exhilarating feeling driving by a herd of elephants grazing only metres from the roadside. One never gets accustomed to the wonderful feeling of watching elephants by the roadside!

For pastoralists and agro-pastoralists though, the scenario is one of mixed fortunes. Elephants do destroy crops and occasionally maim and kill people within the range areas. Working with tourism partners, land owners and other partners, we are helping stakeholders to establish and strengthen Conservancies within this priority landscape. We have seen improvements over the past few decades in the Mara thanks to growing sensibilities for nature, devolved systems of governance, new national conservation legislation and a willingness on the part of land-owners to accommodate elephants on their land.

Nyekweri National Park, Mara, Kenya © WWF-KenyaNyekweri National Park, Mara, Kenya © WWF-Kenya

In Siana Conservancy, which was launched in July, our support has been geared at concessions with land owners on lease agreements with tourism partners and improving management capacity and governance structures in the conservancy. These arrangements also translate to economic ‘win win’ scenarios for all. In Oloisukut and Nyekweri, we’re working with Conservancy management to improve human and resource capacity to better manage the conservancy; while in the Pardamat section of the landscape we are in partnership with others in engaging with communities and stakeholders to develop a conservancy model unique to the scenario on the ground. In Nyekweri especially, a significant upland forest that also serves as a refuge, breeding and calving site for Mara elephants, these complexities are further compounded by an influx of non-Maasai migrant land prospectors.

Fencing and trench at a human wildlife conflict hotspot around Shimba Hills National ReserveFencing and trench at a human wildlife conflict hotspot around Shimba Hills National Reserve © Cath Lawson / WWF-UK

Here and in Sitoka and Laila forests (other upland forests in the Mara), WWF-Kenya in partnership with local elders, sub-county administration and opinion leaders is working to strengthen community conservation of the forests while creating awareness at the local and national levels. Community based sustainable forest management is seen as crucial to the overall objective of forest conservation within the Mara-Serengeti landscape. We recognise  the economic, social and ecological role of these remnant forest patches in supporting livelihoods and providing linkages and habitat connectivity for various species within the Mara-Serengeti Landscape.

To strengthen community conservation of these forests, we’re working with Narok County Ministry of Natural Resources and have set aside significant financial resources to build capacity of local communities to continue managing the forest sustainably.

Working with the African Elephant Programme affords me the opportunity to engage with like-minded people and the network in elephant conservation. I have come to appreciate the importance of engaging community members in partnerships as essential to biodiversity conservation within the Mara-Serengeti Landscape; forming a critical link to some of the most important biodiversity conservation areas nationally and at the global level.

Elephant support team at their camp, Mara, Kenya © WWF-KenyaElephant support team at their camp, Mara, Kenya © WWF-Kenya

The success of our effort is evident in Enonkishu and Siana – conservancies that support vital ecosystems with the aim of restoring ecological integrity across the greater landscape. The continued maintenance of such biodiversity /habitat links will extend the existing range available to a number of wildlife species particularly mega fauna such as elephants.  Furthermore, the importance of these conservancies to the overall achievement of biological diversity cannot be underestimated.

Seized poacher's weapons and poached ivory. Copyright: James Morgan.Seized poacher’s weapons and poached ivory. Copyright: James Morgan.

Despite the legal protection status, these conservancies face serious challenges; and in particular the poaching of protected species and the illegal trade in wildlife and their derivative parts and products (collectively referred as “wildlife trafficking”) which represents a local and regional crisis that continues to escalate. Poaching operations in the Mara landscape as elsewhere in Kenya have expanded beyond small-scale, opportunistic actions to coordinated operations commissioned by armed and organized criminal syndicates.

The survival of protected wildlife species such as elephants and rhinos has beneficial economic, social, and environmental impacts that are important to the Mara Conservancies. Working towards eradicating wildlife trafficking will improve those benefits and stop the generation of millions of shillings in illicit revenues each year, creating more stability and security within the Mara. Therefore these human-wildlife projects are vital in our understanding of behaviours and how we live in harmony with nature, for better protection for both humans and wildlife.

Have you seen an elephant in the wild before? Our Sabah Terrestrial Conservation Programme (STCP) colleagues were on their way to Maliau Basin when they spotted Conservation Area’s Studies Centre in June 2015 when they encountered a herd of Borneo elephants.

How you can help

On World Elephant Day, you can help support projects like the one Maurice works on by adopting an elephant. Alternatively, you can share this blog on Facebook and/or Twitter and spread the word about what we do.

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