Cattle, Culture, and Co-existence in Kenya
Community Conservation Solutions in Africa
Across Africa, great local organizations are working with communities and other partners to deliver innovative solutions that work for people and nature. Maliasili’s mission is to help those organizations become more effective and achieve greater impact; one way we do that is by helping to tell their stories. This new monthly series provides a closer look at the frontlines of African conservation, highlighting the most important solutions and the organizations that are making it happen.
In Brief: For centuries, the Maasai living in Kenya’s South Rift Valley have used and managed the land in a way that supports both livestock and wildlife. This approach provides the foundation of community conservation and today this area serves as an important model of co-existence and wildlife restoration in Kenya and beyond, where people, livestock and wildlife live together and benefit from each other.
How it works:
Maasai communities established community conservation areas on their lands - Shompole and Olkiramatian Group Ranches - and developed and enforced land use and grazing plans that govern livestock movements and pasture uses across different seasons. Roughly 150,000 hectares within the wider landscape now has more grass during periods of drought, which helps sustain livestock as well as a diverse range of wildlife.
A network of community game scouts and other interventions help prevent conflict between people and wildlife, contributing to the recovery of wildlife populations in the area.
The South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO), a grassroots association comprised of 16 Maasai group ranches in the region, plays the key role in supporting this work by helping these communities plan, govern, and manage these lands.
Pastoralists in southern Kenya have co-existed with wildlife for centuries. But changes over the last fifty years have brought new pressures that put both pastoralist livelihoods and wildlife survival at serious risk. Fortunately, there are efforts to help strengthen both, and in Kenya’s South Rift Valley we’re starting to see the benefits pay off.
Lions and people are co-existing. There are high lion population densities (roughly 6/100 km2) in Shompole and Olkiramatian Group ranches, demonstrating that local communities and herders, can co-exist with large carnivores.
Scientific studies show that traditional land use zones established as ‘conservancies’ and used as dry season livestock grazing in this landscape have more grass during times of drought, helping sustain both cattle and wildlife, including several thousand zebra, gazelle, and giraffes.
Elephant populations are recovering. With herds of roughly 300 elephants recently seen in the area, and over 430 elephants recorded in surveys of the adjacent Loita Forest, there is growing evidence that elephant populations are coming back in the South Rift,
Wildlife recoveries in the South Rift landscape:
A Shifting Landscape
East Africa’s famed savannahs and grasslands are home to the world’s greatest diversity and abundance of terrestrial large mammals. Wildlife moves extensively between wet and dry season ranges, and crosses the boundaries of many different land management categories,even national boundaries. This land is also where, for at least several thousand years, people and livestock have also lived.
Livestock and wildlife have similar needs, and traditional pastoralist cultures such as the Maasai, developed ways of using and managing their pastures to mirror the seasonal movements of wildlife, shifting livestock between different dry season and wet season grazing lands. Today, with rapidly growing human populations and intensifying pressures on pastures, the ability of pastoralist communities and their livestock to continue to co-exist with wildlife is a central question facing the future of conservation in East Africa.
Perhaps the greatest threat to both pastoralists and wildlife in Kenya comes from changing land use and ownership patterns. Traditionally, the Maasai and other pastoralists held and managed land communally, based on collective rules that governed their shared resources such as grazing pastures and water. But since the 1970s, most of southern Kenya’s pastoralist lands have been subdivided into individual land parcels due to a range of pressures and social changes. This shift from communal to individual ownership has the potential to fragment rangelands, such as through the fencing of individual properties, which prevents seasonal movements of both livestock and wildlife.
Owning the change
In Kenya’s South Rift Valley, local residents are working to address these pressures and changes. They seek a future for Maasai communities that retains their way of life and cattle-based livelihood while also protecting the wildlife and extraordinary biodiversity of their landscape. SORALO, a grassroots organization made up of the resident communities, is helping the communities navigate these changes and find ways to keep their land intact and healthy.
Central to SORALO’s approach is the integration of traditional livestock grazing systems with more modern conservation initiatives. Traditional seasonal livestock movements, based on local Maasai customs governing pastures, have been formalized within the group ranch structures and integrated with conservation zones set aside for wildlife and tourism. Shompole and Olkiramatian Group Ranches now have about 150,000 hectares established as different livestock and conservation zones, with a range of rules that are locally monitored and enforced.
Scientific monitoring carried out by SORALO and other researchers shows that during the annual dry season, these grazing areas or ‘grass banks’ have better forage and pasture than surrounding areas. This helps both livestock and wildlife survive during droughts and reduces conflicts between people and wildlife. By attracting concentrations of wildlife, these areas also serve as tourism attractions that have brought new forms of investment into these remote areas, generating employment and revenue benefits from conservation.
Using Traditional Values to Inform Conservation
SORALO’s approach explicitly recognizes the importance of cultural values and norms to conservation, basing their work and mission around two Maasai words that have deep cultural meanings:
Enkop’ang – which roughly translates as ‘our good land, our common identity, our common pride’
Eramatare – which roughly translates as ‘stewardship over common resources’
For SORALO, these two concepts help explain why culture is so central to conservation- in that it is the value placed on communal land and institutions, as a core foundation of Maasai culture and traditions- that is critical to maintaining healthy landscapes in the South Rift, and other parts of Kenya. It is also these same values of stewardship and connectivity to the land that result in these communities demonstrating exceptionally high tolerance of wildlife including dangerous species such as lions and elephants.
Rewilding the South Rift
The restoration of pastures through establishment of livestock grazing zones, the strong localc conservation ethic, and new interventions such as a network of more than 40 game scouts that SORALO oversees, all are contributing to the recovery of wildlife in this landscape. A range of anecdotal observations and published analyses of wildlife data provides evidence of the recovery of lions, elephants, and most other large mammals in the South Rift, all taking place in a landscape that is entirely community-managed.
This success story is important not only for the South Rift, but for a much larger area across southern Kenya. The South Rift is located to the east of the Maasai Mara, Kenya’s most important wildlife area, and to the west of Amboseli National Park, another critical transboundary wildlife area. Keeping the South Rift landscape healthy and open for the movement of wildlife and livestock is important for these areas as well. Lions from Amboseli have turned up in Shompole conservancy, and elephants are increasingly moving in from the Mara and the Loita Forest to the west.
A priority for SORALO connectivity across the landscape, including by working with local landowners to create conservancies in Maasai areas that have already been subdivided. This can help more areas restore wildlife, and spread successful conservation models across a larger area.
Kenya: Maasai herders work to keep themselves and wildlife roaming free.
Feature on SORALO’s work in the South Rift in Mongabay, February 2019.
All of SORALO’s work operates at this intersection of preserving culture, protecting landscapes, and conserving wildlife and their habitats.
Read 2018 SORALO Annual Report
Community-based rangeland management in Shompole and Olkiramatian group ranches, Kenya: Taking successes in land restoration to scale project.
Case study by the International Livestock Research Institute on land restoration efforts in Shompole and Olkiramatian Group Ranches.
Seasonal interactions of pastoralists and wildlife in relation to pasture in an African savanna ecosystem.
A 2018 paper published in the Journal of Arid Environments that documents the impacts of land use zones and other conservation initiatives in the South Rift.
Creating Landscapes of Coexistence: Do Conservation Interventions Promote Tolerance of Lions in Human-dominated Landscapes?
Paper on lion co-existence with local communities, based on research by Guy Western of SORALO and other scientists at Oxford’s WildCru.
Simba’s future depends on putting communities at the forefront of lion conservation
Op-ed in Mongabay on community-based lion conservation strategies, co-authored by SORALO Executive Director, John Kamanga, and Maliasili ED, Fred Nelson