Will Kenya go the way of Zimbabwe?
NAIROBI, Kenya––What will become of wildlife and wildlife tourism in central Kenya?
“Wild West” conditions driven by drought and political and ethnic rivalries have over the winter of 2016-2017 devastated many of the renowned Laikipia County wildlife conservancies, leading Kenyan interior secretary Joseph Nkaissery to issue a “dangerous and disturbed” warning covering seven districts where people have recently been killed in disputes over land and water.
Advisory against “all but essential travel”
“This notice shall take effect from the date of publication and shall remain in force for a period of 30 days subject to revocation and or extension,” declared Nkaissery on March 7, 2017, in effect putting the region off limits to outsiders.
Agreed the British High Commission in a near-simultaneous parallel advisory, “The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all but essential travel.”
This followed the deployment of another 255 police officers to Laikipia, augmenting “200 police officers, 139 National Police Reservists and one armored vehicle” sent in February “to counter the herders since they are armed with superior weapons,” reported Emilio Muriithi for Citizen Digital.
Wrote Kenya Star reporter John Muchangi, “Villagers in group ranches and small-scale farmers around Laikipia have been silent victims of the ongoing invasions. Their farms have been left bare. Hundreds of their livestock have starved to death. The survivors have nowhere to graze. They feel abandoned by the government and by their political leaders, some of whom are accused of even inciting the invaders.
“Officials say that since last year the invaders have murdered at least 30 villagers who tried to resist.”
Former British military officer Tristan Voorspuy on March 5, 2017 became the first Caucasian victim, shot on March 5 after riding his horse to inspect the burned ruins of three of the four tourist lodges he had operated on the 24,000-acre Sosian Ranch since 1990 under the business name Offbeat Safaris.
Pokot tribal pastoralist (herder) Samson Lokayi, 40, has been charged with Voorspuy’s murder.
After killing Voorspuy, Muchangi wrote, a pastoralist mob “managed to resist more than 300 police officers for 24 hours, and let his body lie in the bush. Before his death,” Muchangi recalled, “Voorspuy penned a commentary [published by the Kenya Star] explaining that he brought together some investors to buy the Sosian ranch from its [former] Kikuyu owners in 1999.”
“No grass or game”
Recounted Voorspuy, “There was no grass or game on the farm. The Samburu [pastorialists] who had squatted there had moved off because nothing was left. We now have 1,800 head of cattle and stick to the crucial one beast-to-15-acre ratio,” deemed necessary to avoid overgrazing. “We employ 150 people at the tourist lodge and pay $200,000 in taxes every year. It is a culmination of 18 years of love and investment, but we are bracing ourselves for an armed walk-on any day now.”
Resumed Muchangi, “Thousands of pastoralists from Baringo, Isiolo, Samburu and West Pokot counties started moving into Laikipia early last year, looking for water and pasture. There are serious claims that the invasions have been orchestrated by local politicians, who are using the cover of drought and the general election [coming later in 2017] to stir up ethnic violence to drive ranch owners out.”
“Open gates, burnt grass”
Earlier, reported Job Weru of the Kenya Standard, “Open gates, burnt grass and acacia trees, bare ground and vandalized structures at the entrance to Kifuko Farm in Rumuruti, Laikipia County, tell a tale by themselves. Armed herders have forced their way into various ranches and wildlife conservancies,” demolishing electric fences and stone walls as they go, “posing a threat to an eco-system the ranchers have protected for decades.”
The violence began months before the drought, Kifuko Farm owner Maria Dodds told Weru, recalling that her son had been shot at nine times and badly wounded in September 2016, three months after Lambara Ranch owner Wachira Mwai was shot twice in a car-jacking and left for dead.
Politicians inciting communities
“Around the same period,” Weru wrote, “illegal grazers invaded ten of the largest ranches in Laikipia, including Segera Ranch, a conservancy which boasts of hosting international soccer star Samuel Eto’o and 100-metres Olympic champion Usain Bolt. Several people were killed during confrontations with ranch security. Some ranchers who sought anonymity said they suspect politics could be behind the escalation of the attacks, while others intimate that the politicians are inciting the communities with the promise of land belonging to the large scale owners.”
Meanwhile, ranchers and nature conservancy owners were forced to sell animals after pastoralist invaders plundered the stored hay meant to have fed the animals during the dry season. About 5,000 employees’ jobs were put at risk.
Overly simplistic explanations?
“Five of Laikipia’s approximately 30 tourism enterprises have closed temporarily, including Suyian,” Suyian Ranch owner Martin Evans told Weru.
This left about 35 wildlife tourism facilities still operating, but all are believed to have been closed by the “dangerous and disturbed” warning.
The pastoralists-versus-ranchers and conservationists explanation of the violence is overly simplistic, offered Daily Nation columnist Rasna Warah.
“One of the big fallacies about pastoralist communities,” Warah opined, “is that they cannot be trusted with protecting wildlife, and hence the need to create conservancies where the animals can be guarded against marauding herders and their livestock. Yet, for centuries pastoralists such as the Maasai and the Samburu have lived harmoniously with wildlife. They do not generally kill wild animals for food or trophies.
“Hunting wildlife began in Kenya,” Warah charged, “when white colonial settlers turned it into a hunting ground, and more recently, when poaching became a lucrative business.”
Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of modern Kenya, banned hunting in 1977 at request of conservationists David Sheldrick (1919-1977), who had been the founding warden at Tsavo National Park in 1948, and his wife Daphne, who founded the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in his memory.
“After independence, when it was no longer politically correct to hunt wildlife,” Warah continued, “when white settlers with huge tracts of land needed a justification to hang onto their property, the former hunters became game wardens, turning their ranches into ‘wildlife conservancies.’ Some of this land was acquired more than a hundred years ago through treaties such as the 1904 Anglo-Maasai Agreement, where [under duress] the locals ‘willingly’ ceded their territory in the central Rift Valley to white settlers.
“Not Zimbabwe-style invasions”
“Since then, attempts by the Maasai and other pastoralists to reclaim their ancestral land have been largely futile,” recounted Warah. “In 2004, when the Maasai called for the restitution of their land, the government dismissed their demands and herders who drove their cattle into a ranch in Laikipia were shot at by police.”
While the land invasions are widely perceived as similar “to the Robert Mugabe-supported invasions of white farms in Zimbabwe,” Warah wrote, “these are not Zimbabwe-style invasions. In Kenya, white-owned ranches (now known as conservancies) have had the full support of the government for decades.
Northern Rangelands Trust
“In fact, according to a controversial article by journalist Gitau (John) Mbaria that was published in last month’s New African magazine,” Warah noted, “ not only are white-owned ranches getting government support, but many are also being funded by influential donors through what is known as the Northern Rangelands Trust. Mbaria claims that this trust controls 10.8 million acres of land in northern Kenya and the coast region, or 8% of Kenya’s total land mass.
“The acquisition of this land,” Warah summarized, “has been facilitated by local leaders and politicians, who have been coopted as members of the trust’s board. The NRT has been hailed as a success story, where landowners and local communities share a vision of protecting wildlife and the environment. This partnership is viewed as being mutually beneficial: the NRT gets to protect the fragile ecosystem in these semi-arid regions while providing employment to locals. The problem is that when there is a drought, pastoralists are not allowed to use the land for grazing.”
“Historical land injustices”
“Yes, there are claims that some politicians are behind the invasion,” acknowledged Mbaria to ANIMALS 24-7. “But the whole issue is deeper than that. It has to do with historical land injustices and the fact that the mainly white game ranchers (most, not all) refused to allow the pastoralists to temporarily graze their animals in their lands at a time when we have a devastating drought here in Kenya. Yes, this is their land, but the herders have always looked at the white-owned ranches as part of their ancestral heritage and are emboldened by some politicians (and the fact that they are well armed) to invade.
“But more importantly,” Mbaria said, “pastoralists have been duped by the Northern Rangelands Trust to set aside large pieces of their own land for wildlife conservation. By agreeing to this scheme, the pastoralists have denied themselves grazing areas in a region that is quite degraded. The pastoralists are not allowed to graze in the wildlife-exclusive zones within their own land, sections of which are leased to investors.
“I toured these places”
“I toured these places,” where land invasions have occurred, “between December 24, 2016 and January 12, 2017,” Mbaria recounted, “and can tell you what has been taking place there. The measures taken by the mainly white ranchers include complaining to the government and seeking protection by armed policemen; others have dug long and deep trenches to prevent the livestock from accessing their ranches.
“My perspective,” Mbaria finished, “is that the herders and local communities feel that they need to be allowed access to the land and water,” in a region where many 99-year government-issued land leases “are now expiring,” and pastoralists and other indigenous residents believe “that they need to be considered as leases are renewed.”
Mbaria is optimistic that the Laikipia crisis will not deteriorate into the sort of catastrophe that has afflicted Zimbabwean wildlife management and agriculture since Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe authorized land invasions by his supporters in 2000.
So, likewise, is Josphat Ngonyo, founder of the indigenous Kenyan organization Youth for Conservation in 1999, still thriving, and of the Africa Network for Animal Welfare in 2005, probably the strongest indigenous animal advocacy voice on the African continent.
Seek “engagement with the affected communities”
“Government usually takes the position of law and order,” meaning a tendency to favor landowners, Ngonyo told ANIMALS 24-7, “while politicians take a more sympathetic view [toward nomadic pastoralists], which is understandable as they hunt for votes. Nonetheless, both of these positions just address the symptoms and not the real issue, which requires engagement with the affected communities to seek long term solutions.”
“It is true, the risk is there,” Ngonyo acknowledged of the risk that Kenya will repeat the Zimbabwean experience, “but the resilience and soberness coupled with the experience so far of the Kenyan people would not let that happen,” he hoped.
Laikipia Wildlife Forum
Of note is that Laikipia is home of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum, an association of landowners that reportedly lent behind-the-scenes impetus to a December 2004 stealth repeal of the 1977 Kenyan ban on sport hunting.
Then-Kenyan president Emilio Mwai Kibaki vetoed the bill after Ngonyo and allies rallied opposition, including from pastoralist leaders.
Hunting proponents “keep looking for every opportunity to push their agenda forward,” Ngonyo said. “Thus, we must keep vigil.”