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Mara Conservancies Embrace Technology to Protect Wildlife

The Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA) has in partnership with USAID, rolled out the use of the Wildlife Information and Landscape Database (WILD) App that will strengthen existing wildlife anti-poaching and human wildlife conflict (HWC) deterrent efforts in eleven conservancies in Maasai Mara.

The mobile phone data collection application and cloud-based database developed by @iLabAfica, Strathmore University is designed to improve collection, sharing, management and analysis of biodiversity information and data of endangered wildlife such as Elephants and Rhinos which are facing threats due to the increased poaching activities.

In January 2014, in response to President Barrack Obama’s Executive Order on Combating Wildlife Trafficking, USAID’s Planning for Resilience in East Africa through Policy, Adaptation, Research, and Economic Development (PREPARED) Project established a partnership with key governmental, non-governmental conservation organization and private sector stakeholders in Kenya and Tanzania to discuss how Information and Communications Technology could be used to improve the fight against poaching in East Africa. The goal was to develop innovative tools that help prevent poaching and HWC, and improve monitoring, coordination, and analysis of anti-poaching and HWC deterrent efforts.

In the partnership with USAID PREPARED Project, MMWCA has trained 11 conservancy managers, 104 rangers on the use of the WILD application. A total of 53 ranger teams covering 11 conservancies have been equipped with a Smartphone installed with the WILD application for data collection during their patrols. Conservancy managers have access to the backend of the application to monitor data collection by their respective ranger teams. Additionally, a data manager has been enlisted to help conservancies collect, analyse, store and apply the data to their daily operations.

The WILD application tracks a patrol unit’s movement using global-positioning software (GPS) using the Smartphone. While on patrol, rangers can record information on incidences that occur, such as poaching, animal mortality, human wildlife conflict, illegal human activity, community service, wildlife sightings, climate data and others.

The information captured in WILD is stored in a secure online database that allows administrators to access and analyse information collected by their rangers, and use this information to support evidence-based management decisions, such as re-organizing patrol routes to cover areas with higher incidents of poaching or HWC. WILD can also be used to track the progress and outcomes of counter wildlife trafficking legal cases that the organization is supporting.

Administrators can view reported incidences geo-spatially by patrol unit, time period or incident type. Administers can link related incidences that occur over a longer time period; for example, linking a crop-raiding incident with a retaliatory killing that may have happened several days later.

Rangers like James Ekiru, Senior Warden of the Mara Elephant Project (MEP) are excited about the use of technology in their work. Ekiru is responsible for coordinating a team of community rangers entrusted with protecting and saving elephants in community conservancies of the greater Maasai Mara region.

For Ekiru, data collection and analysis – critical to the success of his work – has remained the main challenge over his conservation career spanning four decades. “Since I started working as a ranger in 1973, the most cumbersome part of my job was the task of collecting data on paper sheets, filing it in cabinets and retrieving it when needed,” says Ekiru.

Ekiru and his team helped with the development of the WILD application over a period of three years by testing out its applicability. “I now have another weapon in my armory. This WILD application is making our work easy and effective. You do not have to carry pens and notebooks to document what you see, “states Ekiru who particularly likes panic button on the application, which “once you click, it sends a distress signal for immediate response.”

Eriku lauds the involvement of conservancies and rangers in the development of the WILD application. “We have tested it and we like it, especially the choice to use Kiswahili for those not conversant with English and using of icons for an illiterate ranger.”

Maasai Mara Elephant Population Increases Significantly

A recent census has revealed a 72 per cent increase in the number of elephants within the Maasai Mara Conservancy and the Tsavo-Mkomazi ecosystems.

According to an aerial count by the Kenya Wildlife Service, there were 2,493 elephants at the Maasai Mara ecosystem compared to 1,448 recorded in 2014.

Releasing the results at the KWS Headquarters, Director General, Kitili Mbathi attributed the increase in the population to stiff penalties on poaching, increase of rangers and equipment.

“Over the past three years we have seen a serious decline in the level of poaching of elephants and rhinos and this has come about through three major factors, that includes additional rangers who are well trained, equipped and boost of the intelligence unit.”

The survey also captured that as much there is increase in the population of the elephant, human activities within and around the protected areas are gradually on the rise.

“Incidents of charcoal burning are on the rise, as well as the number of livestock in the ecosystem, both of which pose a threat to wildlife and their habitat,” Mbathi said.

An aerial count of elephants was also carried out in the Tsavo-Mkomazi ecosystem that includes: Tsavo East, Tsavo West, Chyulu and Mkomazi National parks as well as South Kitui National reserve, while the adjoining neighbourhoods include Taita, Kulalu and Galana Ranches.

During the census, a total of 12,866 elephants were counted, 12,843 in Tsavo eco system and 23 in Mkomazi national park.

Overall, the elephant population in Tsavo-Mkomazi ecosystem increased by 14.7pc over the last three years (2014-2017), representing an annual increase of 4.9pc over the period.

“The increase is notable, but as KWS there are plans to carry out further investigations on elephant poaching threat levels in Galana Ranch and Tsavo East national park northern side where a high carcass ratio was found with a view of taking corrective measures,” stated Mbathi.

Captured in the survey was the population of buffaloes and giraffes with both ecosystems recording an increase in their population.

KWS sought to look into the impact of the Standard Gauge Railway since being operational, and established that there is need to boost the electric fence along the railway line to avoid its destruction by elephants.

While referring to an incident where a section of the Tsavo East conservation fence was destroyed, Mbathi said the barrier as it is currently designed does not provide adequate power to prevent the elephants from crossing over.

“Along the SGR route there is an electric fence and some sections were not adequately electrified. We are working with Kenya railways to ensure that remedial measures are in place so the elephants will not be in a position to break the fence,” said the Director General.

He noted that they are observing animal behaviours in regard to the operations of the SGR line within national parks and reserves.

Biodiversity Research and Monitoring Assistant Director Shadrack Ngene said a few elephants have been collared to monitor their movements and if they are making use of the underpasses constructed to facilitate their migration.

“The collared elephants will help us understand the maximum utilization of underpasses that have been put up to facilitate their movement,” said Ngene, “But for now the elephants are using the underpasses effectively.”


Father of 30 sons banking on conservancy to protect land for his lineage

The Maasai have a deep connection to their land and livestock; whether because, as Samau Ole Soit points out, for grazing cattle which provide their staple food -milk and meat or for cultural values and prestige amongst folks.

For these reasons, Ole Soit and his sons have for years kept hundreds heads of cattle on his 150 acre plot in Pardamat area of the Maasai Mara. “We have drastically reduced the number of livestock in the recent past,” states Ole Soit who explains that “grazing areas have shrunk and almost everyone has fenced their plots because there is less grass due to longer dry spells in recent years.”

Ole Soit regrets the fencing practise mainly meant to preserve grass for livestock and exclude wildlife is now threatening not just his livestock but contributing to increase in conflict with wildlife. “I used USD 3,000 to fence a 30 acre section of my land so that I have sufficient grass all year round for my cattle. Often, the fence is destroyed by Zebras and Giraffes trying to access the enclosed area while Elephants have been trapped posing danger to my grandchildren who herd my cattle. I have also found Gazelles and Wildebeests strangled to death. Over the last 2 years, we have repaired the fence on almost a daily basis using approximately USD 1,000”, narrates Ole Soit.

Confronted by challenges of dwindling prospects from livestock keeping, unpredictable weather patterns and increased human wildlife conflict, Ole Soit says he considered an initiative to establish a conservation area in Pardamat, a timely reprieve. “I unreservedly supported the idea when we were requested to consider leasing our land to establish a conservation area,” says Ole Soit, referring to a meeting convened by Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA), where he was among the 58 land owners that signed land leases. Jointly the land owners dedicated 5,000 acres which will see critical wildlife corridors opened, while they have a guaranteed a monthly income from their land leases.

The Pardamat Conservation Area now under formation with the support of USAID Kenya & East Africa, is premised on a conservation model that allows for mixed land use which prohibits cultivation of the land but only allows settlement and grazing by pastoralists. It also prohibits building of fences so as to allow pastoralists and wild animals move freely within the conservancy area. “If you are serious about keeping land in wildlife conservation and preserving the Maasai pastoral life, you have to be serious about keeping people involved in both,” asserts Ole Soit.

Conservationists have raised concerns over fencing of private land in Maasai Mara, saying it has interfered with wildlife corridors.  A recent research by means of a mapped series of multispectral satellite imagery (1985–2016), found that in the conservancies with the most fences, a real cover of fenced areas has increased with more than 20% since 2010. This has resulted in a situation where fencing is rapidly increasing across the Greater Mara, threatening to lead to the collapse of the entire ecosystem in the near future. Further, the research –Fencing bodes a rapid collapse of the unique Greater Mara ecosystem- suggest that fencing is currently instantiating itself as a new permanent self-reinforcing process and is about to reach a critical point after which it is likely to amplify at an even quicker pace, incompatible with the region’s role in the great wildebeest migration, wildlife generally, as well as traditional Maasai pastoralism.

In order to curb this trend, MMWCA is engaging conservancies and local communities to ensure that they don’t fence off their land and as well working with land owners to see conservation as a viable form of land use.  Supporting Mara conservancies to come up with management plans is one of the approaches MMWCA is using to curb the trend.

Pardamat is one of the conservancies MMWCA is working hard to set up and help formulate a management plan with the prospect of a properly organized area for wildlife conservation, people and livestock, exciting Ole Soit who says his motivation to support the establishment of Pardamat Conservation Area is beyond the present challenges that he attributes to fencing. He declares: “One of the most important, challenging, and rewarding things that we can do as the current generation of Maasai elders is to help secure land for the next generation. Whether you own or have inherited a piece of land you have a world of options available to choose from including selling but protecting it for your children is the best option.”

He explains that he informed and discussed with his family the option of leasing land for wildlife conservation instead of fragmenting it into smaller plots for his 30 sons. “I believe my land will remain suitable for my family and our pastoral lifestyle if we don’t fragment and fence it,” states Ole Soit who is glad all his sons supported the idea of leasing their land.


Conservancy Land Leases: No-One is Taking Away Our Land

On the 28th of March 2010 when several hundreds of local Maasai landowners were formerly signing a 15-year lease to create the Mara Naboisho Conservancy, 41 year old Kimemia Ole Taek was not one of them.

The development of Naboisho Conservancy is not something that just took place over night. Instead it was the result of extensive discussions between community leaders, conservationists and tourism investors. Yet, Ole Taek whose extended family owned several hundred acres of land in Naboisho was hesitant:

“My family members looked up to me for advice on where we would resettle and graze our cattle. I was worried about our land so I chose to resist. I didn’t understand the idea of leasing land and instead I believed it was a ploy to simply take over my family’s land.”

A few years later, Ole Taek remained opposed to the conservancy, at times even clashing with conservancy management over cattle grazing and fencing of land. His friends couldn’t understand his position. Ole Taek was a seasoned tour guide in the Mara, and thus should be a champion of wildlife conservation, not fighting against it.

Eventually, it was for the betterment of his community that turned Ole Taek around. “I never went to school but because of wildlife in this area I learnt to speak English through interacting with tourists. Today my children are going to school with others who would not be in school if there was no income from the conservancy. The lease payments are transparent, timely and used to pay for our children to have an education – the benefits of leasing land to conservancies are clear,” he explains.

According to a study by Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda (STTA) in May 2016, conservancy rent is the main source and most regular income for the people of Mara Naboisho. Further, education, healthcare and livestock treatment are the key areas of expenditure from this income.

Ole Taek now foresees a great future. But he is quick to caution that for conservancies to thrive “Maasai children and youth must be sensitized to appreciate their heritage and the conservancies must continue to allow the Maasai to graze their cattle within them.”

Like Ole Taek, many local Maasai land owners need reassurance about their land, heritage and culture being honoured, to participate and support wildlife conservation. The conservancy model by Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA) combines conservation of nature and cultural heritage, eco-tourism, and the enhancement of livelihoods for the local communities.

Land is an emotive issue in Kenya and so land transactions tend to be complex. Supporting conservancies to register land leases is a key component of the MMWCA program supported by USAID-Kenya and East Africa. The goal is to protect land for wildlife while also promoting joint partnerships with the communities that own the land. The Mara Conservancies protect over 330,000 acres belonging to more than 11,000 landowners in the Maasai Mara ecosystem.


USAID Supported Conservation Project Unleashes Teacher’s Passion

For 5 years, Johnson Soit has been teaching at a local primary school in the Maasai Mara relishing his role in a career he has cherished since his childhood.

Then in November 2015, he was elected to Chair the Pardmat Conservation Area Committee, a responsibility that would see him become the head of 850 community land owners who have come together to conserve a critical area in the central greater Maasai Mara.

“We are here because of our commitment to work together to protect this vital piece of land,” stated Johnson in late December 2016 as he led 58 land owners in the signing of land leases totaling 5,000 acres; an event he describes as a milestone in the history of the Pardamat area. He added: “we believe Pardamat will become suitable for wildlife and our pastoral lifestyle living together. By stopping the fragmentation and fencing, opening up migration routes which, will in turn, reduce human wildlife conflict that has been rampant in the recent past.”

Pardamat area is important to the wellbeing of the greater Mara ecosystem. It has critical wildlife corridors, serves as a migration route from the Loita plains and connects the Mara Triangle and Maasai Mara National Reserve to four other established conservancies. Importantly, it is a key area in the Mara landscape with saltlicks in addition to its hilly forested terrain cherished by elephants for the vegetation.

As a resident and a teacher of science, Johnson comprehends the reality of reducing wildlife numbers and how the Pardamat area, like most parts of the Maasai Mara, has been altered by changes in land use practices and weather patterns. He is excited that beyond his dream teaching career, the USAID Kenya & East Africa supported Pardamat Conservation Area project, has presented him an opportunity to contribute to efforts to tackle the changing and escalating land-use practices, which seriously threaten the long-term viability of the greater Maasai Mara.

“My passion is to champion community conservation initiatives and inspire and nurture the younger generation I teach to protect their natural surroundings and be tolerant of the wildlife and the space we have shared for hundreds of years,” Johnson says in a silvery tone.

Securing the Pardamat area is a key priority for the USAID supported project being implemented by the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA). The project seeks to help landowners and community members establish a wildlife conservation area through identifying and opening critical wildlife corridors and migration routes. Moreover, the project will see a cattle rangeland established for a community cattle enterprise to supplement income from direct land leases in addition to other benefits such as provision of predator proof bomas to reduce loss of livestock to predators.

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