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.”
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.
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.