Early on a cold August morning of this year, a young bull elephant was speared to death on community land just outside Amboseli National Park in Kenya, another victim of the limitless Asian demand for ivory. But things did not go as planned for the poachers. Community rangers were at the scene almost immediately, and the killers had to flee without the tusks. Within two weeks two members of the gang had been tracked and caught.
The death of another elephant is always a tragedy, but the success of the ranger response is one of the reasons that elephant conservation is succeeding in this part of southern Kenya. Working closely with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Big Life Foundation is playing a pivotal role in this success, operating according to a conservation formula that is seemingly obvious, but rarely achieved.
Big Life works in the Amboseli-Kilimanjaro ecosystem, a large, arid expanse of wildlife habitat that straddles the border between southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. The ecosystem is far more than the national parks that are its namesake; these protected areas would be unsustainable were it not for the wild community lands that connect them, providing key habitat as well as important movement corridors for wildlife. It is on these community lands, here and across Africa, that the battle for the future of continent’s wild animals is being fought.
The obvious place to start then is with the communities, curators of these important elephant ranges. But it is an uneasy coexistence between animals and people. The costs of living with wildlife, and elephants in particular, can be severe. Destruction of crops and property is common and can ruin a rural family, and worse, people are occasionally injured or killed by elephants. A community angry at elephants is a community that is likely to welcome poachers.
In the early 1990’s Richard Bonham, director of operations for Big Life, realised that if wildlife was to persist in the Amboseli ecosystem, conservation needed to have the support of local people. Photographer Nick Brandt joined Richard in 2010 to create Big Life Foundation, and today the simple philosophy remains the same: to provide conservation-related benefits to the communities of the areas in which they operate, and through this to fundamentally change attitudes and behaviours in favour of wildlife protection. This is the only strategy with any long-term hope of success.
Big Life provides this community benefit through a variety of conservation projects, including education scholarships and a compensation scheme for livestock killed by predators. But Big Life’s main activity is the management of a vast network of community game rangers, and a combined team of over 300 people employed to protect wildlife. The rangers are spread across 25 outposts on the Kenya side of the border, with comprehensive coverage of most of the ecosystem. Each day these rangers conduct foot and vehicle patrols in search of any potential threats to wildlife, and are able to provide a quick response to incidents. Tracker dogs and aerial support are always on standby.
Very importantly, the Amboseli-Kilimanjaro ecosystem spans an international border. Previously, poachers were able to kill elephants in one country and escape across the border with little chance of being caught. Realising this threat, Big Life began funding operations on the Tanzania side of the border, through implementing partners Honeyguide Foundation. There are now frequent coordinated cross-border patrols, and with operations on both sides of the border there is no longer a place for poachers to run to.
But the physical footprint of the rangers in the field will always be limited by the number of men in boots. What is perhaps more important is the community support behind the rangers. The structures of social reliance in the Maasai communities mean that the salary of one ranger generates a wide ripple of goodwill towards wildlife. The cumulative impact of this employment is enormous and has already changed the socio-economic balance to provide an incentive for wildlife protection. Beyond this, the rangers assist the community in a number of ways; including protecting crops from elephants and preventing community crimes. This means that Big Life not only has the eyes and ears of the ranger teams protecting wildlife, but of their entire communities.
Big Life rangers provide vast daily coverage of the Amboseli ecosystem through vehicle and foot patrols The result is a constant flow of information. People have a vested interest in the continued existence of elephants and other wildlife, because of the jobs that they bring, and there is also a financial reward for information that leads to the successful arrest of poachers. Very little happens in the Amboseli ecosystem without the information reaching Big Life quickly. The risk of arrest for poachers is higher than ever before, as demonstrated in the opening paragraph of this piece, and the positive impact of this has been clear.
A 2014 aerial survey of the Amboseli ecosystem estimated approximately 1700 elephants in the ecosystem, and so it is likely that there are upwards of 2500 in the greater area that Big Life protects. Despite this large and concentrated elephant population, in contrast to scary poaching statistics across Africa, in 2013 only 7 elephants were killed by poachers across the 2 million acres in which Big Life operates in Kenya, and arrests were made in 3 of these cases.
Big Life has shown that with a holistic community-based conservation approach, successful wildlife and elephant conservation is possible, even in humandominated areas. The threat of elephant poaching has now been largely brought under control in the Amboseli-Kilimanjaro ecosystem. Although other threats loom, such as development and human-wildlife conflict, these challenges can and will only be addressed with community involvement. If conservation supports the people, the people support conservation.
Big Life is always looking for partners who are interested in contributing to the effective conservation of wildlife in Africa. If you are interested in supporting Big Life’s work in any way, please contact Richard Bonham (firstname.lastname@example.org) for further information.