By restoring the migratory and connecting corridors at Nashulai there’s been a massive return of wildlife taking up both temporary and permanent residence at our conservancy. Our rangers not only protect our wildlife from poaching but work proactively to prevent wildlife harassment and human-wildlife conflicts (HWCs) from occurring. All Nashulai rangers come from local communities. As the alleviation of poverty and the protection of wildlife go hand in hand, the economic empowerment from ranger’s salaries are vital in creating popular support for Nashulai.
As the primary cause of poaching is poverty (indeed 4 of Nashulai’s rangers are rehabilitated poachers!) the economic benefits from employment at Nashulai are vital to encouraging residents to protect their shared ecological resource. Their connection to their communities also allows our rangers to have a greater awareness of goings-on and possible threats to the conservancy. The success of our project also allows us to lead by example in showing other Maasai communities that they too can restore and conserve their land and wildlife through community conservation
The poaching and wildlife trade problem
Species affected Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus , Lion Panthera leo , African Elephant Loxodonta africana , Temminck's Ground Pangolin Smutsia temminckiiProducts in trade
Ivory, illegally logged firewood, fur, live animals
Overview of the problem
Before the establishment of Nashulai Maasai Conservancy in 2016 poaching was widespread from both inside and outside our communities for both cultural and economic reasons.
Cultural reasons included Maasai morans (warriors in training) killing lions as a show of strength and bravery as part of their initiation process, and the practice of killing the animal that killed our livestock in retaliation, which led to predator and vulture poisonings.
However, the primary driver of poaching was economic and a response to poverty. The groups most involved in poaching were “conservation refugees”, Maasai who were forced off their land for the establishment of foreign owned wildlife-only conservancies, due to both desperation and resentment at being harmed by the prioritization of wildlife. For Maasai poachers, poverty was the primary reason as we value our land and its animals and living sustainably with it.
In 2020 there was a resurgence of poaching near Nashulai due to the collapse of the tourism economy that employs 90% of Maasai, neighbouring conservancies ceasing their land lease payments, and the lockdown shutting the communal markets where pastoralists would barter for produce. Former poachers returned to IWT and ordinary Maasai resorted to hunting for bush meat to prevent starvation.
The anti-IWT initiative
In 2016, facing poverty and biodiversity collapse on our land, and the threat of losing it to desertification or a foreign owned conservancy, 3,000 residents in 8 Maasai villages rallied together under the guidance of our elders to create the first indigenous-owned/run conservancy in the Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem. This allowed us to stay on our land, protect our wildlife, and ensured the economic benefits from conservation and tourism go directly to our communities. To protect our wildlife and increase economic benefits to our community, we established our own scouts and rangers made up entirely of our community members.
Our main strategy is to ensure that conservation brings benefits and not costs to our communities. The poachers in our community and throughout Maasailand are primarily motivated by poverty. Through the revenues generated from tourism and the hiring of 20 community members as scouts and rangers the entire community is incentivized to protect our common conservancy. We also hired 4 former poachers as scouts to give them an opportunity to use their skills for conservation and show community members that working as scouts or guides is a more lucrative alternative to poaching. As the revenue from conservation has led to economic security and development projects, the community is supportive of conservation and the efforts of our scouts and rangers. As members of our community who are upholding the decisions of its elders they have far more communal support for their work then outsiders would.
Another key strategy was ensuring community support for our efforts. As our entire project was designed and approved by the community it had community buy-in and support from the start. Many of our conservation methods were rooted in traditional Maasai culture promoting sustainable living on our land with our wildlife. Our community reinstituted rotational grazing on our communal land and tore down all 25km of fencing to reopen a 5,000-acre great migration corridor and reduce HWC. Much of our land was returned to wildlife while a schedule was enacted so all herders could graze in designated areas at sustainable levels. Under the guidance of our elders, we enacted new laws banning poaching, logging for firewood, and the retaliatory killing and poisoning of predators and vultures for livestock killing, while modifying our warrior initiation ceremony to stop lion hunting. The role of our scouts and rangers was expanded from protection against poaching to also ensuring that these new communal bans were enforced. Due to the community’s decision to support conservation, poaching was quickly eradicated on our lands. As Maasai tribes extend across Maasiland we have kinship ties to most neighbouring communities. As former poachers include our friends and family, they are easier to convince to not harm Nashulai’s prosperity and show how under the Nashulai Model conservation benefits them. Our scouts and rangers as members of our community who are honoured with upholding the decisions of its elders, and have far more support in our and neighbouring communities for their work then outsiders would. A good example of this was when the starvation crisis occurred in April 2020 due to Covid-19 lockdowns shutting the Mara’s communal markets, the collapse of the tourism economy and foreign conservancies unable to afford lease payments. Poachers and residents of other communities facing starvation warned us that they may soon be forced to resume poaching and hunt for bush meat out of desperation. Fortunately, through expanding our Community Feeding Program to their villages and stressing the importance of conservation for all Maasai communities and their collective economic well-being, we succeeded in preventing an increase in poaching in Narok County during the Covid-19 pandemic. Seeing how Nashulai responded to the crises by aiding our extended community, in contrast to far wealthier foreign owned conservancies that halted lease payments for their landowners, helped prove the efficacy of community-led conservation to these communities. Many have expressed interest in setting up community-led conservancies of their own, with several requesting to join Nashulai if funds become available to lease their lands.
That same year we were also honoured by being a UNDP Equator Prize 2020 winner and connected with past Kenyan winner the Northern Rangelands Trust. Together we have been sharing our methods of indigenous community-led conservation and providing scouts and rangers training to indigenous communities from Laikipia to learn from our success.
Inclusion of gender, age and ethnic groups
While our scouts and rangers are exclusively young and male due to the physical rigours of the job and our respect for traditional Maasai gender roles, as a community conservancy all members of the community are involved. Under our community’s governance structure decisions are guided by our Council of Elders, while our elected gender parity Landowners Committee represents each of the 8 villages that make up Nashulai. As per the traditional Maasai cultural emphasis on consensus building, we also provide community consultation with open participation on all major decisions affecting our community. This not only provides our members with an opportunity to participate but by providing all residents an opportunity to voice any concerns they have we can address them in the conception stage and incorporate them into the project design, resulting in better outcomes as well as widespread community support. As Nashulai is made up of 8 Maasai villages our main focus is on Maasai people in our and neighboring communities. As the first Maasai conservancy in Maasailand we wish to become a source of inspiration to our people throughout Kenya and Tanzania and show them what their communities can do themselves if properly empowered. However, we have provided conservation training to non-Maasai indigenous communities, shared grazing land with our historical enemies the Samburu during cattle drives, and fed the mostly non-Maasai residents of Sekenani during our 4 month community feeding program.
Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour
The entire principle behind Nashulai is ensuring the benefits of conservation go to the community and indigenous people who have been its stewards for centuries. While all members benefit from revenue from land-lease payments, our scouts and rangers are further compensated as paid Nashulai staff. Community volunteers called the Nashulai Warriors for Wildlife Protection assist them in times of need. During the threat of desperation poaching during the Covid-19 pandemic dozens of young men volunteered to augment our scouts and rangers.
The biggest factor however is the strengthening and supporting traditional norms and sanctions against IWT. Convincing our and neighbouring communities that indigenous people can benefit from conservation and that changing several practices (for example Moran killing a lion as part of their initiation, retaliatory killing and poisoning of predators who kill our livestock, and logging for firewood) will benefit all communities in our interconnected Serengeti-Mara ecosystem has been the keystone of our success.
Another success we’ve had is hiring 4 rehabilitated poachers as scouts. By showing former poachers in our community that they have economic alternatives and that their skills can be used to benefit their communities and protect wildlife, instead of punishing and shaming them for their former activities, we have won them over to the side of conservation. Our scouts are unarmed as we prefer to engage with communities and known poachers instead of combating them with violence, and as we know who the poachers are, we can engage with the authorities if arrests are necessary.
Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship
By establishing Nashulai all landowners received lease-payments bringing most of our community financial stability for the first time. This also allowed us to establish a communal bursary fund where contributions from lease payments have funded post-primary education for 62 children to date. Through the financial stability brought to our residents from lease payments and working as staff, 60% of Nashulai households have been able to apply for microloans due to the economic stability our conservancy has brought them.
Nashulai also led to benefits from sustainable resource use and conservation for all residents through the creation of a sustainable grazing commons, allowing herders more space to range their livestock then their fenced in plots did. The restoration of our once degraded Sekenani River (a Mara River Basin headwater) benefited all our residents and livestock as much as it did wildlife. The establishment of Nashulai led to both safari tours paying to visit our land and the establishment of our own Nashulai Maasai Safari company that has brought more revenues to our community and funded more development projects that we collectively benefit from.
We also established the Nashulai Cultural Training Centre in 2019, providing so far 45 youth from throughout Maasai land with the skills needed for conservation management, scouting/guiding, hospitality, and community development training. By educating our youth to get higher paying and leadership positions in the conservation and tourism fields we are further empowering our people to reclaim stewardship of our land.
Decreasing the costs of living with wildlife
As a community led conservancy our residents stay on their land necessitating us to make life more compatible with conservation. As we tore down all 25km of fencing to reopen our land we lion-proofed our bomas and relocated several bomas located in the centre of the wildlife corridor into the villages inside Nashulai. We established protective fencing around our community and kitchen gardens to prevent HWC. We also modified our practice of retaliatory killing of predators that attack our livestock with a communal insurance system where Nashulai compensates residents who lost their livestock to predators financially. After re-establishing our mixed-use commons, we zoned the land so that the wildlife corridors were fully returned to wildlife, while the rest was designated for rotational grazing where all community members could graze their livestock in accordance to our schedule to prevent overgrazing.
We also supported our community in changing their breed from the South Asian zebu to the indigenous more sustainable and more valuable Boran breed, resulting in smaller but more valuable herds grazing in their native ecosystem. As this land is savannah these sustainable grazing practices helped restore its ecology faster than leaving it to nature would. We also helped members purchase sheep and chickens and establish communal and kitchen gardens at their bomas as a more sustainable source for livestock and food. As this land is savannah these sustainable grazing practices helped restore its ecology faster. To further reduce HWC and provide alternative incomes we created beekeeping cooperatives. Bees are a natural wildlife deterrent and as 70% of plant species in our ecosystem are pollinated by them, making them vital for restoring and maintaining our ecology.
Increasing livelihoods that are not related to wildlife
As the core of our Nashulai Model of conservation rests on bringing benefits to the community, we’ve used the wealth generated by our conservancy to fund development projects. We’ve built 2 new schools and provide universal primary education to our residents. We constructed a piping system to provide all villages with potable water, which decreased infant mortality and waterborne diseases. We’ve provided the women in our community with entrepreneurship training and anti-female genital mutilation and anti-gender-based violence programming. 60% of our community’s families have applied for microloans and our gender parity bursary fund has provided 62 children with post primary school education.
During the Covid-19 starvation crises we fed not only our community of 3,000, but 25,520 in neighbouring communities up to 100km away including northern Tanzania, healthcare workers in Sekenani, and the rangers protecting the Maasai Mara National Reserve, providing them with hand sanitizers we could mass produce using our water system (as most lacked water for hand washing). We also provided sexual and reproductive health training to the girls in our community and started producing reusable menstrual pads as they lost access when schools closed due to lockdown.
The Covid-19 crisis also showed the overreliance that Maasiland has on the tourism sector as it makes up 90% of Maasai employment. It also showed us the effects of over tourism on wildlife as populations at Nashulai increased by 40% due to fewer tourists disturbing animals in the region (animals fleeing poaching nearby being a secondary factor). As such, we have been focusing on other non-tourism sources of income for our community including forming women’s beading co-operatives, cattle and livestock co-operatives, beekeeping co-operatives and tree planting co-operatives. To provide additional income and increased food security, we created 4 community gardens and helped 20 households establish their own kitchen gardens and poultry sheds. 50 beehives have also been set up to date.
Build/and or support sense of community ownership or stewardshipFurther detail
Maasai culture has always had community ownership and stewardship of our land as an integral part of our worldview, and one that has only changed this past half century with the subdivision of land plots that are sold to outsiders and the increase in our peoples population. This has contributed to the problem of poaching in foreign owned wildlife centred conservancies as conservation refugees have lost the ownership and stewardship of their land and at times respond by poaching on what was once their land and their wildlife. As Nashulai is a community owned, centred, led, and managed conservancy this has been essential in our success in protecting and restoring our land and its wildlife, and having its most skilled warriors serve as our scouts and rangers. It's also what inspired our community of 3,000 to completely mobilize to combat the effects of the Covid-19 crisis, from feeding and mass-producing sanitizer for over 25,000 of our neighbours, to dozens of our youth volunteering to support our scouts force. Through the mobilization of our community not only could we create Nashulai in 2016 but save it, our neighbours and our wildlife from starvation and desperation poaching in 2020.
Improving education and awarenessFurther detail
In addition to their role in protecting wildlife, our scouts and rangers serve as the primary educators in our community on the importance of conservation. An important aspect of their work is providing guidance on the importance of biodiversity and the impact of ecological degradation - encouraging garbage collection, hygiene and ecologically sustainable living. We have included conservation modules rooted in Maasai culture in our primary schools and at our Nashulai Cultural Training Centre conservation is a core course component for our conservation management, scouts and guiding programs.
Our community also gains awareness and a first hand education through active participation in conservation related projects such as reforestation, river restoration, community water monitoring, community and kitchen gardens, and sustainable grazing. For the reforestation, gardens and grazing projects, learning how to reduce HWC is part of the project curriculum.
Has the initiative made a difference?
Our project has been a massive success. Due to wholesale community buy-in from the outset poaching decreased to zero across our 5,000 acres within months of the establishment of the Nashulai Maasai Conservancy. Our rehabilitation of former poachers in our community has led to them now making up 20% of our scout force. In just 4 years wildlife populations increased 70% to the highest levels in living memory, with approx. 500 zebras, 500 gnu, 200 wildebeests, 100s of warthogs, 25 lions taking up temporary and permanent residence on our land. Our Maasai giraffe population is one of the largest in the eastern Mara and packs of cheetahs and African wild dogs take up temporary residence every few months. Notably, we’ve seen a large number of births occurring at Nashulai starting in 2018. As a historical elephant nursing ground, approx. 25 elephants are birthed on our land each year, with herds (av. size 20) taking up temporary residence every few weeks. Endangered birds such as the hooded vulture and Madagascar pond heron have also begun nesting in our conservancy. In 2018, our warden Joseph Kasaine Ole Kosikir was one of 50 winners of the African Ranger Award in recognition of his team's success. When poaching returned to the region during the 2020 Covid-19 starvation crisis our wildlife populations increased an additional 40% in part because it was one of the most protected in the region. Through our Community Feeding Program our scouts repurposed conservancy vehicles to run conveys to remote villages, providing food for 28,520 people over 4 months, including the rangers protecting other conservancies, and minimizing poaching increases on the 2583.5km2 of conservancy and community lands where they resided. This outreach has had a lasting impact as two neighbouring communities requested our assistance to restore 5,425 acres of their land, including 2 wildlife migration corridors with several other communities also expressing interest. We have provided training to members of other communities on our method of conservation.
Aside from anti-poaching, our project has been successful in advancing conservation in other ways. Under the scout’s oversight, 5,000 acres of savannah has been fully restored due to rotational grazing with 50% of our forests restored (scouts also patrol and protect saplings from hungry herbivores). Erosion causing logging and riverbank sand mining have been reduced to zero. Through outreach activities on proper trash disposal, we have also greatly reduced littering. Our Sekenani River Restoration Project to restore 18km of Mara River Basin headwaters, has been a success thanks to our scouts.
Our 3,000 residents universally support conservation through their participation in our community led conservation projects while over 25,000 more Maasai have been won over through the resilience of our conservancy and our commitment to aiding them during the Covid-19 crisis. Aside from preventing mass starvation, our conservancy has brought enough stability to its 3,000 members that 60% of households have been able to apply for micro-loans to start enterprises and plan for their family's future for the first time. Our children gain conservation education in our primary schools and 62 have been given scholarships through our bursary fund to continue their education. Through our Nashulai Cultural Training Centre we have trained 100s of youth from our community and beyond in conservation management, scouting, and guiding, allowing them to gain higher paying jobs and take leadership roles in conservation
What works and why
The greatest lesson we’ve learnt was that indigenous people are willing to share their land with wildlife and can often protect their land better than outsiders, provided that conservation brings benefits and not costs to their communities. By having the entire community buy in to the project at its inception and designing it ourselves, with the consultation of our community and under the guidance of our elders, we had widespread support. Our warriors and even former poachers are more than willing to protect our land if they are empowered to do so. With an emphasis on rehabilitation over punishment we have former poachers now using their skills to benefit conservation. Our family ties to other communities allowed us to reach known poachers in other communities and gain human intelligence about their activities. The community support and participation in this project provided us with additional human intelligence on wildlife activities and a massive decrease in HWC through members tearing down all fencing, adopting rotational grazing and ending retaliatory killing and poisoning of predators. By setting up a community conservancy it also allowed for the profits from conservation and tourism to go directly to our community, which helped fund development projects for collective benefit. These gains succeeded in further growing community support for conservation over the past 5 years. Being a community-led conservancy allowed us to be more resilient and adaptable. This was demonstrated in 2020 during the Covid-19 lockdowns when we, unlike foreign owned/run conservancies who abandoned their landowners and residents, not only provided for our community, but took efforts to save the people and wildlife in neighbouring communities through our Community Feeding Program, thus preventing a devastating wave of desperation poaching throughout Narok County
Factors for success
Devolved decision-making power so local communities have a voice in creating or co-creating solutions (as part of the initiative)
Clearly defined tenure or resource use rights
Clear and tangible benefits to local communities from wildlife (These may be financial and/or non-financial)
When Nashulai was first proposed in 2015 many residents were sceptical and even fearful as they knew the experience of neighbouring communities where our extended family members had been forced off their land as conservation refugees living landless and in poverty. Ensuring that all landowners would be paid for leasing their land, that no one would be displaced, and that and livestock lost would be compensated for (the size of cattle herds is the traditional Maasai way of measuring wealth, so our herders are extremely protective of their livestock), was integral to winning them over.
Having the decision-making in the hands of the community was also vital. Maasai culture emphasizes community consultation and consensus building under the guidance of our elders. Under our governance structure all decisions must be agreed upon by our Council of Elders and our elected Council of Landowners, where each of our 8 villages are represented, and our community has a chance to be consulted on and provide input into these decisions.
Ensuring benefits reach the community is also integral as it proves that using their land for conservation purposes can benefit them. As many of these benefits are for the entire community it further incentivizes collective community protection of our shared ecological resources by our community’s residents, staff members, and scouts/rangers alike.
What doesn’t work and why
Despite our successes we have and continue to experience some challenges. Our greatest barrier is overcoming financial shortcomings. As an indigenous conservancy we are one of the poorest in the region and lack the advantages that foreign owned and run conservancies have in gaining access to private donor, governmental, and institutional funding. This has led to periods where our scouts have had to work temporarily unpaid due to funding shortfalls, and situations where we are unable to afford necessary technological upgrades. As our scouts use motorcycles for patrols they are often unable to patrol at night as its too risky. The Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA), the umbrella body for conservancies in the Maasai Mara, has developed a conservation app WildLife allowing all conservancies to centralize their conservation data and better protect our interconnected ecosystem. However, as we are unable to afford smartphones for our entire scouts force our use of this resource is limited at this time. The lack of funding is also preventing us from expanding Nashulai to include the neighbouring communities who wish to join, preventing us from being able to protect and restore another 5,000 acres and secure 2 other wildlife migration corridors. Were these financial barriers to be overcome we would no doubt have even greater conservation outcomes and even better data via use of conservation aps.
Another challenge is the increased pressures from climate change. In both 2019 and 2021 we suffered some of the most severe droughts in the Mara in recent memory, killing over 70% of our community’s livestock. While our community typically abides by our rotational grazing schedule and don’t graze in the wildlife only zones, some members will ignore the schedule and graze their herds in the wildlife only areas during times of drought. Aside from trying to help combat climate change at our local level through carbon sequestration in our restored lands, this issue can only be solved through more funds to strengthen our scouts, compensation for livestock lost to drought, and more alternative livelihood opportunities for our community.
Factors that limited or hindered success
Lack of long-term donor support that is flexible, adaptive and/or based on realistic time goals
Lack of sustained and flexible funding is our greatest hindrance. Lacking the advantage of foreign owned and run conservancies in gaining private and government donors and sources of funding has made finding sustained funding more difficult. Most donor funding and grants received are projects based while the Covid-19 pandemic showed how variable tourism revenue can be. While we have explored alternative methods like selling carbon credits from the carbon sequestration on our land, as carbon markets are only national or regional in scale, we are unable to participate in it. Only with the establishment of a truly international carbon market will indigenous and local communities like Nashulai be able to gain this vital source of non-tourism income for protecting our ecosystem. Similarly, while there was much excitement around the COP26 $1.7 billion USD commitment to provide indigenous and local communities with funds to protect their ecosystems, and the additional pledges of support from corporations and billionaires, these funds are to be distributed at the discretion of national governments opposed to directly to communities. With less than 1% of all climate change funding going to indigenous and local communities, changing things on the international institutional level to provide larger amounts of sustainable funding for indigenous communities directly is integral to unleashing our potential. Otherwise global conservation funding will only continue to disproportionately benefit western organizations at the expense of the indigenous communities that protect 80% of the world's biodiversity, and further cement the view that foreign conservation is just another colonial enterprise to displace them from their land and their resources.
Organisers, donors and partners
Avaaz, Trolltech Foundation and Libra Foundation
For further information contact Noah Nemoy (email@example.com).