Collateral Damage

Local people are the real victims of the turf war between the conservation authorities in Kenya

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 18th March 1994.

The Sarova Shaba Hotel, in the Shaba reserve in Kenya, embodies all the promise and the mystery of Africa. Reed mats and carved gods hang from pillars of knotted wood. The walls are of raw rock, the thatched roofs reach almost to the ground. A sunken bar sells cocktails called “Wild Elephant” and “Born Free.”

But what makes it truly exotic is the water. In one of the most parched regions of central Kenya, pure water bubbles up from beside the lobby, runs under the reception area and re-emerges in a series of waterfalls and pools, in which cichlids fan their fins beneath flowering lilies. A pipe runs from the spring into an enormous swimming pool, where tourists can drift beneath the Japanese bridge and around the rocky promontories.

If you wander up the stairs and into the restaurant, you will see tables set with white cloths and silver and, if you are lucky, large Europeans eating steaks and slabs of fish and drinking European wine. From the restaurant balcony, through the flowering jacaranda trees, you can just see the village of Nakwamor. If you take out your binoculars, you might be able to spot an elder of the Samburu tribe, standing, still as a pole, in the dust beneath a tree. Like the other people of his community he is starving. The grazing lands where his cattle fed were taken by the game reserve that surrounds the hotel. His only reliable water source was the spring which now supplies the swimming pool.

For the people of Nakwamor this week’s reinstatement of Richard Leakey as Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service may well mean more of the same. Local people in many parts of Kenya have come to see his feted directorship as more of an obstacle than a blessing.

Dr Leakey is a workaholic of unflagging determination, a brilliant manager and a brave and persuasive speaker. He became director of the KWS at a time when poaching of elephants and rhinos in Kenya was so energetic that some conservationists had despaired of saving either species from extinction.

Sacking anyone suspected of corruption, reinstating a shoot to kill policy for poachers found in parks and reserves and persuading the Kenyan President to set light to confiscated ivory and rhino horns in front of the world’s press, Leakey showed Kenya he meant business. In two years he brought large-scale poaching to an end. He persuaded foreign donors to give his service $300 million and, by contrast to his largely ostracised predecessor, won the active support of the President. He became, in the eyes of conservationists all over the world, a hero.

But not everyone has such a tender regard for Dr Leakey. The parks and reserves he has managed so effectively were once the lands of nomads and hunters and gatherers, people such as the Samburu, Maasai, Turkana and Ndorobo. Many of them believe that while conservation in Kenya is run by Richard Leakey, they will never reclaim the places they consider their birthright.

East Africa’s first white conservationists claimed that African hunters were cruel and wasteful, while nomads over-grazed the land and out-competed the wild animals. The only way to protect the region’s wildlife, they believed, was to keep it apart from people.

To this end they set aside places from which all humans except rangers and paying tourists would be prohibited. In the words of the famous conservationist Bernhard Grzimek: “A National Park must remain a primordial wilderness to be effective. No men, not even native ones, should live inside its borders.”

The only problem was that the places chosen were the homes of tens of thousands of local people. Far from being “primordial wildernesses” they were, in fact, among the longest-inhabited places on Earth. The game concentrated in the most fertile regions: the places, in other words, which were most important to the survival of the local people.

There are ways in which local people and wildlife conflict, but modern ecologists now see that over-grazing and wasteful hunting were the exceptions rather than the rule. Indeed, the lands of the nomads and hunter-gatherers were chosen as game reserves for the simple reason that they continued to support a fantastic abundance of game.

Yet, despite the gradual realization that local people and wildlife can live together, the policies of exclusion have remained unchanged. Dr Leakey argues that tourists neither expect nor want to see people inside parks and reserves. Local people, he says, want developments such as roads and piped water, and this is incompatible with conservation.

But the people of Nakwamor just want their land and their spring back. Confined by the reserve in the south, a military training area in the north and west and bandits in the east to a strip of land too small to support their cattle, they have watched their livelihood wither away. They are forced now to drink from the dwindling waters of the Ewaso Ngiro river, which is turbid in the wet season and diseased in the dry. Their necessities have been turned into other people’s luxuries.

Throughout Kenya, local people feel they have been given a raw deal by conservation. The Maasai, for example, complain that they have lost nearly all their dry season grazing lands to parks and reserves. They have been offered a share of the revenues KWS collects from tourists, but, as one Maasai man asked me, “How could any money compare to what they have taken from us, to the grazing we have lost, to the human lives we have lost by being kept out of the park?” They believe that the misinformed expectations of tourists have become more important than the lives of local people.

These real grievances have been cynically exploited by Richard Leakey’s opponents. While the ministers who narrowly failed to unseat him have evinced little enough concern for local people in the past, in the last few months they have been trumpeting their complaints, as they have tried to seize control of Kenya’s most lucrative industry.

Mr Noah Ngala, the Minister for Tourism and Wildlife, managed to drag the previously independent KWS into his ministry last year. Mr William ole Ntimama, Minister for Local Government, wants the county councils he oversees to strengthen their grip on Kenya’s national reserves. As Leakey attempted both to fend off Ntimama and to break free from Ngala, they dug deep for mud to sling at him. They accused him of racism, arrogance and financial irregularities. The charge of injustice to local people was used as loosely and as ruthlessly as these groundless allegations.

All over the world, conservationists are finding that it is possible to reconcile the needs of local people and the needs of wildlife, that, with a little imagination, both can use a conservation area. Tourists can be educated to recognize that what they are seeing is not a wilderness, but a human as well a natural environment. Local people can be allowed to use parks and reserves, in return for undertakings about development, grazing pressure and poaching. But not in Kenya. The tragedy of the turf war waged by Dr Leakey’s enemies is that the debate about the parks and reserves may well have been terminated, before it has even begun.