The Laikipia ecosystem has the second highest concentration of wildlife in the country and more endangered wildlife species than any other region in Kenya. It is an area of great conservation value and its fate is largely in the hands of its residents.
The conservancies in Laikipia’ s varied and interconnected habitats are home to some of the most pristine natural resources, including wildlife, forests and wetlands. They showcase successful conservation efforts in Kenya, having provided ideal conditions for wildlife species to thrive even as national parks and reserves come under increasing pressure.
Unfortunately, recurring droughts, climate change and land disputes are undermining conservation efforts in Laikipia. In recent months, an estimated 15,000 nomadic herders, some of them armed, and more than 130,000 livestock have encroached on private conservancies, ranches and sanctuaries in the county with devastating consequences.
Such acts of lawlessness must be dealt with according to the laws of the country to ensure success stories in conservation and peaceful co-existence of residents are not sabotaged. The East African Wild Life Society (EAWLS) has consistently condemned the invasions and urged the Ministries of Interior and Environment to take action to ensure peaceful co-existence of residents and respect for the rule of law.
The invasions have led to loss of human life and property and the killing and disturbance of wildlife. People have been displaced and schools closed. The incursions could have far-reaching negative impacts on wildlife conservation in the area. They will affect the economy and lead to an escalation of human-wildlife conflict. Poachers may also see an opportunity to kill more wildlife, especially elephants and rhinos for their personal gain.
Initially, these invasions were attributed to drought, then to political tensions, land ownership and to a mix of land grievances and politics. If the invasions were purely driven by drought, then why only Laikipia yet the drought has affected the entire country? Why would the ‘herders’ kill and destroy property rather than restrict their activities to just grazing?
The violence points to there being other drivers of the lawlessness, possibly land-related grievances projected in political overtones. The instigators are, perhaps, seeking to gain political capital by portraying themselves as champions of the land rights of “marginalized” indigenous communities.
The murder of Tristan Voorspuy in March by assailaints thought to be herders demonstrates how fraught the issue of land ownership in the area has become. Mr. Voorspuy was a long-standing friend and member of EAWLS as an individual and, through Sosian Lodge and Offbeat Safaris Limited, a corporate member since 1995. The Society and indeed the conservation fraternity has lost a dedicated colleague.
Authorities seem to have dithered when the chaos first reared its ugly head late last year, even as large groups of armed herders with their tens of thousands of livestock stormed private conservancies with impunity. “Madam Minister, we wonder what the law is all about?,” Joseph Kibe, EAWLS chairman posed to Prof. Judi Wakhungu, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, referencing the invasions at the event to mark the Society’s 60th anniversary on 7 February. In her response, the Cabinet Secretary admitted that Kenya’s economic growth is putting pressure on natural resources and the environment.
She stressed the need to work proactively with organisations such EAWLS to look for solutions.
But it is apparent that the invasions have little to do with an expanding economy. They appear to be driven by land and political issues that require a multi-stakeholder engagement to find a solution, while not compromising the rule of law. Wildlife conservation can not thrive let alone survive in a state of anarchy and violence. The relevant national government ministries and Laikipia’s county administration must act with resolve to restore law and order before a significant part of the country’s economy is annihilated through murder, arson and the decimation of wildlife.
Indeed, the underlying issues of land ownership and leases is not limited to Laikipia or private ranches and conservancies. Other areas such as private tea growing estates in western Kenya grapple with similar issues. Strife Baringo and Isiolo also poses a threat to the conservation of natural resources.
I am in agreement with one of EAWLS members, Peter Low, who points out that: “It is difficult to perceive a short-term solution to the Laikipia invasions other than for Government, through the forces of law and order, to take whatever steps are necessary to disarm the invaders.
“The emergency incentive for compliance could be an underwritten market opportunity to allow for rapid and immediate destocking, and famine relief distribution. Leaders may well argue that de-stocking is depriving invaders of their livelihood. Converting livestock into money does not mean loss of livelihood whereas allowing livestock to die does.”