Wildlife populations in the East African nation of Kenya are in trouble. Scientists say human development around the country’s national parks is squeezing out the animals. Producer Jon Miller investigates attempts to protect wildlife around Kenya’s famed Maasai Mara reserve.
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LISA MULLINS: I’m Lisa Mullins, and this is The World. Elephants, giraffes, wildebeest, and other animals of the African savannah are in trouble. A study published this week provides the latest evidence. Researchers say that from the late 1970s to the late 90s, wildlife populations in Kenya declined by 40 percent. Scientists say saving the animals is gonna require the help of people who live around national parks. And they point to efforts underway outside Kenya’s most famous wildlife reserve, known as the Maasai Mara. Reporter Jon Miller traveled there and has this story.
[SOUND CLIP OF HIPPOS]
JON MILLER: This is the sound of hippos waking from a nap in a mud-colored stream in the Maasai Mara. The Mara is the Kenyan extension of Tanzania’s vast Serengeti Plain, a nearly 600 square-mile wildlife reserve whose oceans of grass and year-round water have made it a paradise for all sorts of big animals. But now the populations of many of those animals are crashing. And most of the reasons have to do with changes in the human population nearby. More than three-quarters of the Maasai Mara ecosystem is outside the official reserve. Wildlife need every bit of it, especially in dry years like this one. But so do the Maasai, animal herders who move their goats and sheep and cattle to where the grass is. And they’re the ones who own this land.
DICKSON OLE KAELO: This is the migration route for wildlife, going into the park and into the neighboring Maasai land.
JON MILLER: Dickson Ole Kaelo is Maasai. He was raised to value cattle over everything. He takes me to a Maasai homestead, or boma, like the one where he grew up, half a dozen mud huts around a muck-filled corral. Men are bringing the cows in for the night. Kaelo says his people and wildlife have a long history of getting along.
DICKSON OLE KAELO: When I was growing up, one of the things that old people used to tell us is that, we can tell the state of our land by the number of wildlife that are present. So if you see more wildlife, then you say, we are taking good care of this land.
JON MILLER: But things have changed dramatically over the last 30 years. The population has exploded. Some Maasai have settled, planting crops and building fences. Others have sold their land to big wheat farmers. Droughts have become more frequent, too, putting livestock and wildlife in direct competition for grass. Lions have been killing more cattle. Elephants and buffaloes have been killing more people. Kaelo himself was almost killed by both.
DICKSON OLE KAELO: I realized that there was something wrong going on in the landscape and I wanted to address that. And I started thinking about how do we create a solution that will be better for wildlife and also better for the people.
MILLER: So Kaelo got a master’s degree in wildlife management. And he learned that livestock, in low enough numbers, and carefully managed, can actually benefit wild animals, mainly by keeping the grass green and low. He set himself up as a consultant and is now at the center of just about every effort involving the Maasai and conservation.
DICKSON OLE KAELO: I don’t really feel that excluding people from an area is the best way to conserve. Also I know that having too many people in an area can work against wildlife. So I think that balance is what I always endeavor to try and achieve.
JON MILLER: The next morning Kaelo takes me to one of his most promising projects. It’s a 22 thousand acre wildlife conservancy, one of seven he’s working on Maasai land.
DICKSON OLE KAELO: Before the conservancy was created in 2006, all this land had a lot of cattle, and there was very little wildlife, a lot of trees were cut down. But the owners said collectively they would like to manage this land. And they moved their homesteads to the edge of the conservancy, creating this space for wildlife.
JON MILLER: You can see the results as you drive through the property. This morning there are big herds of elephants and giraffes. We see a cheetah, which is rare, and ostriches and wildebeest. There are maybe two hundred antelopes in a place where a Maasai boma used to be.
DICKSON OLE KAELO: We sort of are creating what the Maasais have always done. They’ve been moving from one place to another creating hotspots within different areas in the landscape.
JON MILLER: What makes this new system work is money. The conservancy organizers invited four high-end safari camps to set up here, with strict limits on the number of beds. The operators agreed to pay all 150 households about 130 dollars a month to graze their cattle elsewhere. Every month, tourists or no tourists, that’s decent money in a place where most people earn about two dollars a day.
[SOUND CLIP OF SINGING]
JON MILLER: The next day I get a taste of another initiative designed to help the Maasai benefit from wildlife.
PRINCIPAL: I’d like to welcome you to the fourth graduation ceremony of Koyiaki Guiding School.
JON MILLER: Twenty-five magnificently decked-out men and women have just finished a yearlong course in tour guiding. Hundreds of family members have come to watch them get their diplomas, along with representatives of several of the Mara’s safari camps. One of the graduates speaks to the group.
GRADUATE: [CLAPPING] And I would just like to say a few words to potential employers here. In the next few years the Mara will not be the same again just because of these people. [CLAPPING]
JON MILLER: Ron Beaton is one of the school’s founders.
RON BEATON: What we’re trying to do here is create a situation where the wildlife are treated like cattle, as an income earner, for the Maasai, when they look at a lion or an elephant with a value on it. If the Maasai can see them in that light, then we’ve won.
JON MILLER: After the ceremony I jump into a pick-up with Jake Grieves-Cook, head of the Kenya Tourist Board.
[SOUND CLIP OF MAN SPEAKING ]
JON MILLER: He owns several safari camps, three of them in wildlife conservancies. With a few hours to kill, he takes me to his newest one.
JAKE GRIEVES-COOK: This is the conservancy now. This river is the boundary. So the grazing is on the other side.
JON MILLER: Around 80 Maasai families agreed to move off this land in exchange for a monthly payment. Grieves-Cook put up six tents and sells an exclusive wilderness experience to tourists from the US and Europe. Unlike some other conservancies, this one is totally off-limits to cattle.
JAKE GRIEVES-COOK: Cause the idea is that the conservancy should be solely for wildlife, and particularly for predators, like lions and leopard and cheetahs, the big cats.
JON MILLER: Grieves-Cook says some grazing animals may do well around cattle, but predators don’t, and predators are what tourists pay for. He says the Maasai are in a good position to take advantage.
JAKE GRIEVES-COOK: There’s already very large tracts of land that are being used for cattle grazing, and it seems to me to make sense to say, put about 20 percent of that land aside for wildlife, earn an income from wildlife tourism, and use 80 percent of the land for grazing, rather than use 100 percent of the land for grazing.
JON MILLER: The folks counting animals say conservancies alone won’t send wildlife numbers back to where they used to be. There are just too many other factors from politics and population growth to culture and climate change. But just about everyone here seems to agree that things will only get worse if the Maasai don’t get a bigger slice of the tourism pie, provided they don’t spend the money on more cattle. For The World, I’m Jon Miller, near the Maasai Mara wildlife reserve, Kenya.
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