Contested conservancies: livestock, wildlife and people in Laikipia, Kenya

To complement the recent series of blogs on conservation and development issues in the southeast Lowveld of Zimbabwe, I thought readers might be interested in a recent piece I wrote for the PASTRES blog based on a visit to Laikipia in northern Kenya kindly facilitated by the Laikipia Forum. It includes some commentary on parallels but also differences with Zimbabwe. Read on…..

Across vast areas of relatively high potential rangeland in Kenya, advocates for conservancies proclaim the advantages of combining livestock and wildlife in integrated, conservation-oriented land uses, linked to tourism. This, it is claimed, has benefits both for biodiversity and wildlife protection, as well as for the local economy, with ‘community conservancies’ being the latest effort to expand the model out from the core private land of Laikipia into pastoral areas beyond.

Conservancies have emerged in Kenya as a new form of registered land use in this area over the last decade or so, now formalised through the 2013 Wildlife Conservation and Management Act. Building on successful experiments in combining livestock and wildlife land uses over many decades, the conservancy model is now central to a high-profile and well-funded push towards conservation in these areas, notably through the controversial Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT).

Certainly, the Laikipia area is not only beautiful, but also has fantastic natural resources and during drought periods huge numbers of wildlife move down from further north in search of pasture and water.

Conservancies: mixing wildlife, livestock and tourism

Our short visit to just one conservancy was of course insufficient to get a full picture, but a number of themes nevertheless emerged.

Our hosts were one of the now relatively few white Kenyans who run a farm as a family business, first established in the 1963, immediately after Independence when the current owners’ father took over. The original farm was settled after the World War I, when the northern Maasai pastoral populations were removed from this area and solider settlers given land. However, it was only into the 1940s when a white settler rancher took over the land, assisted by Italian prisoners of war who helped build the infrastructure. Most ranches across Laikipia were established in a similar way, with white Kenyan settlers running cattle operations. However, over time, many such original settlers or their families have sold up and moved away.

Those who run conservancies these days are a mixed bunch, ranging from rich tycoons from the Middle East to eccentric, passionate conservationists from the US and Europe to families, such as our hosts, who have lived in these areas for generations. For some, the fantasies of living in ‘wild’ Africa, conserving endangered animals and enjoying sundowners around an infinity pool loom large. For some conservancies that don’t need to turn a profit Laikipia is the playground of a super-rich, but conservation oriented, eco-passionate, Western elite. Our hosts however were not of this type, and were much more grounded in the local context, necessarily having to make a living from the ranch; although with other income sources to supplement too, as the ranch income is insufficient to cover all costs.

The ranch covers a total of 15,600 acres (small by Laikipia standards; nearby Ol Pejeta covers over 90,000 acres), with most devoted to open rangeland, and 600 acres currently allocated to arable farming. The core business remains livestock production, focusing on producing high-quality breeds for live sale, both cattle and sheep. The land is ideal, with good grass and relatively high (on average) rainfall at 800mm per annum; although due to extraction of groundwater by upstream farming operations on the edge of Mount Kenya (mostly flowers and export vegetables), the rivers are not flowing as often as before. Breeding animals is a skilled, niche business developed over years through careful breeding and management. This offers greater returns than beef production, although they do lease land to NRT beef herds; currently only 150 head, but at times up to a thousand. These animals are bought up by the Trust in pastoral areas and fattened on conservancy land for later sale. Presented as a ‘development’ effort by NRT, it is essentially a commercial venture making use of plentiful land and cheap grazing leases in the ranches.  

The other activity on the ranch is a high-end tourism facility, which is run by another branch of rhte same family. With a limited number of exclusive chalets, with riverside game viewing, a pool and restaurant (which prepares dishes now featured in a beautiful, illustrated book), the lodge can attract tourists able to pay high daily rates (the ‘local’ rate was beyond our budget, so we stayed in Nanyuki!). This type of tourism, very much framed around sustainability and conservation efforts, is common across the conservancies.

With hunting banned in Kenya, non-consumptive wildlife uses are the only way to make money from the plentiful wildlife populating the conservancies, including all the ‘big five’ charismatic animals – with large herds of elephants trashing the trees. Yoga retreats, corporate meetings, wildlife safaris, bird watching and so on are all part of the packages offered. And the place was indeed amazing! While COVID had dramatically hit the international tourist market, ‘local’ tourists filled the gap (including Nairobi businesspeople, UN types and so on, all clearly with more cash than us researchers).

Relations with neighbours

The ranch we visited was not far from Nanyuki so had neighbours on ‘community land’ nearby. The contrast across the fence line was dramatic. On one side was plentiful grazing, open savanna and along the fence line expansive wheat fields, all beautifully laid out. On the other side was a barren, dusty selection of dwellings, with a few goats and some scrawny looking cattle around, and the odd irrigated garden for vegetables. It is no wonder that those living outside look over the fence enviously.

In this particular conservancy, the relations with the local community are seemingly relatively good. While not many people are employed on the ranch (around 50 on the livestock operation, and 25 at the lodge), some do come from the villages around, especially for temporary piece jobs (about 25-30 are employed on short-term contracts through the year). The local chiefs and other key people important in local politics are regularly invited for discussions on the ranch. Nevertheless, the area has to be guarded, a big fence is erected, a buffer zone of wheat fields has been planted and regular arrests take place as people break in to graze animals. Given the serious drought over the past few years, the ranch owners have allowed some people to bring their animals in on an informal lease grazing arrangement, but this is very selective, targeted at those who matter and can keep the peace.

Peaceful relations with neighbours is not always the case in the Laikipia conservancies. The shooting of Kuki Gallmann, owner of the vast Laikipia Nature Conservancy, in 2017 was a recent example of where poach grazing and land invasions turned to violence. Many stories surround this incident, including accusations of political interference in encouraging pastoralists to enter the area, but also a view that longer-term conflictual relations with neighbours did not help. Land incursions in Laikipia are a common event, especially during extreme drought periods, as today. They are also part of a cycle of populist electioneering tactics, where politicians can point to the vast lands and encourage armed pastoralists to take ‘their’ land, but without any real intention of following up. 

Contested land

In the weeks before visiting Laikipia, I had been in Zimbabwe. There are of course many resonances with the land story there. Similar settler colonial histories, a racialised pattern of land holding, populist political rhetoric about land access and a deep inequality in who has land, especially better-quality land. Having studied land reform in Zimbabwe over many years, seeing such vast areas in Kenya still under ‘white’ control was striking. How could this still be the case?

Conservancies have been used in Zimbabwe too as a route to assert land control, with the case being made that high-value tourism generates foreign exchange and that wildlife needs conserving in ways that under-funded national parks cannot. The bringing down of fences across vast areas, such as the Save Valley, occurred in Zimbabwe from the late 1980s, part of what many thought was a tactic to offset land claims through growing moves towards reform. ‘Community’ outreach and projects in neighbouring areas in turn were seen as a route to offering ‘development’, based on a wider commitment to the area, although of course never assuaging land hunger or dealing with deep inequality. In the southeast Lowveld of Zimbabwe that I know well, this has been quite a successful ploy, and even at the height of the land invasions in 2000-01, key conservancies were protected, including from the very top.

Although of course not articulated in this way, the Laikipia conservancies have followed a similar route, bolstered by the new legal status, and so formal recognition, of conservancies. Although not the case for our hosts who receive no external funding, many receive huge amounts of subsidy from international conservation organisations and even massive grants from aid agencies, in support of their ‘community’ work. Some even have TV deals with global channels to profile their animals and the great work they are doing. With the political-business-international donor elite from Nairobi regularly visiting, Laikipia is valued as major national asset, and leading political families (as seems inevitably the case in Kenya) have stakes in the area.

Some conservancies have exceptionally good PR machines, with hagiographic books profiling owners, alongside great international press coverage highlighting the wonderful work being done, with glossy pictures of threatened charismatic animals and their conservation. With royal patronage thrown in (the future king and queen of England apparently proposed to each other on one of the conservancies in a very fancy lodge), there is a very high level of support, which disgruntled pastoralists, even when agitated by local politicians, cannot confront.

Yet the inequalities are stark between pastoralists suffering drought and conflict in the areas around Laikipia and the plentiful resources and rich lifestyles of those who reside and visit there. The Nanyuki airstrip is full of small planes and helicopters, ferrying tourists to amazing lodges and kids from the farms to their private schools in Nairobi. However, such stark inequalities cannot be hidden completely and, given the historical origins of these places, memories of violent dispossession are of course still present. Despite the international backing, the huge foreign investments and the hold that the conservation organisations have over land and politics in this area, recalling the Zimbabwe experience, you have to wonder how sustainable this is for the longer-term.

‘Community’ approaches

To counter any agitation towards land reform, and in moves aimed at shoring up the conservancy ‘model’ and so protecting the core private lands of Laikipia, the community conservancy approach is being very effectively sold as a solution to ‘sustainable development’ in the northern areas of Kenya by the NRT. And, as we found, there are well-articulated arguments both for and against.

In our study areas to the east in Isiolo County some community conservancies have already been established and others are being planned. These plans are highly divisive, however. Accepting the challenges of pastoral production and especially conflict, some local pastoralists are avid supporters. In particular, the appeal of increased security through the supply of guns and guards to local areas is seen as a great advantage. Many areas of grazing have been out of use for years – if the conservation people can fight off enemies, then it will be an improvement, and meanwhile we can earn money from tourism, so the argument goes.

Others object: our life is based on pastoralism, we already have problems with wild animals, how can we encourage more? And will people really want to fly in to have a holiday in Kinna, rather than one of the lodges on the white people’s ranches? And yes, stopping conflict is definitely a priority, but will peace come through more guns, night vision equipment and armed guards? Surely this will result in abuse, as we’ve seen elsewhere? The debate continues to rage, but currently there is very little common ground, with accusations flung from all sides.

Future directions?

A very short visit can inevitably only give a partial view, but it was sufficient to touch on some of the controversies surrounding the Laikipia conservancy approach, and its extension into community land. The troubled histories of former settler economies in Africa cannot be brushed under the carpet with slick PR campaigns, backed by the global conservation elite; nor can the very dramatic, racialised inequalities be ignored.

Yet, nevertheless, the arguments for integrated use of land in the face of recurrent drought and climate change are good ones. The challenges of the pastoral economy, especially for younger and poorer people unable to accumulate large herds, are very real, while the benefits that can be derived tourism and wildlife are tangible.

Beyond, the polarised debates a more open deliberation about the future of the drylands – and the role of both pastoralism and wildlife use within this – is clearly required, as the future of Laikipia and the conservancies remains highly contested.  

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on the PASTRES blog

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