By John Muchangi
KWS plans to establish more conservancies sprawled across northern Kenya once the three have taken off. To the Zebu and Borana cattle of northern Kenya, you can now add leopards and elephants. The two will be the main attraction when three pastoralist communities launch their wildlife ranches later this year.
The move means that apart from livestock, the pastoralists will now make money from tourism. The venture is part of a Sh1.5 billion conservation project by the Kenya Wildlife Service and the local community.
It is expected to transform thousands of hectares of dry grasslands around Marsabit into three community-owned wildlife parks. "We already have the 11,000-hectare Mt Marsabit Forest National Park which is the lifeline of this area, the conservancies will surround it and also help save the forest," says Godwin Muhati, KWS manager for the entire project.
The KWS-run Mt Marsabit park comprises densely forested mountain and three crater lakes -- the only permanent sources of water around Marsabit town. The three new conservancies -- Jaldesa, Shurr and Songa -- will surround the forest and act as buffer zones.
The service says apart from saving the last great animal migratory routes, the conservancies will provide income to local families. KWS plans to establish more conservancies sprawled across northern Kenya once the three have taken off. "We want people to see animals as a benefit, not a nuisance," says Joseph Endebe, the research scientist for northern conservation area which stretches from Isiolo to Mandera.
Marsabit Governor Ukur Yatani says tourism potential of the region is still unexploited. "We are the biggest county with lots of diversity. The conservancies will also help build communal relations," he says. Tourists will enjoy huge swathes of grasslands and savannas that have been shaped over millions of years by volcanoes, seasonal droughts and fires, and millions of grazing animals.
The conservancies are a core part of the Sh1.5 billion Northern Kenya Biodiversity Conservation Project currently by KWS. The five-year project aims to conserve natural resources around Marsabit Forest and its surroundings. Endebe says the forest is threatened by unsustainable grazing and logging.
"In 20 years the forest won't be there if nothing is done, he says.
The project is financed through a loan from the French Development Agency and a contribution from the Kenyan Government among other partners.
It follows the success of older community conservancies like the 30,000-hectare forest conservation programme in Taita Taveta run by US conservation group Wildlife Works.
The Taita Taveta group rakes in about Sh80 million a year from sale of carbon credits.
Some of the proceeds is spent on local projects to give the community alternative sources of income.
"We are happy now because we have a new source of income," says Barako Golicha, the manager of Jaldesa conservancy.
He says the conservancy plan includes a knowledge repository centre where all information on the northern Kenya region can be found.
There will also be a museum. Currently, the animals found in the region include elephants, buffaloes, Grevy zebras and leopards.
The Kenya Forest Service and National Rangeland Trust Organisation are also involved in the establishment of the programme.
Endebe says KWS will train 36 youths from the three local communities to become wildlife rangers.
"They will go for paramilitary training in Manyani once the conservancies have picked up," he says.
The communities will also produce one qualified person each to manage the parks.
NRT's deputy project coordinator for northern Kenya Emmanuel Kochalle said the organisation, which has helped set up similar community parks in the region, will train both the rangers and managers in technical skills in the next five years.
The community leaders say they are already feeling the benefits. Jaldesa manager Golicha says there is marked decrease in livestock theft and illegal poaching.
"Relations with our neighbours are better than they ever have been, due to increased dialogue and cooperation, and shared goals," he adds.
Jaldessa area is mostly inhabited by about 18,000 Borana people who have occasionally clashed with the Gabbra and Rendille communities.
The three communities, who are all donating land for the wildlife, will also conduct joint sports for peace events every year.
The Jaldesa Conservancy is 650 km2 big, the same size as Nairobi County.
It has the humid Mt Marsabit to the west, giving way to dry grassland plains in the east, and a natural crater in the north.
NRT says Jaldesa's position between Marsabit National Reserve and Songa and Shurr conservancies makes it a critical wildlife corridor for animals migrating to the mountain in the dry season, notably the endangered Grevy's zebra.
"The conservancy rangers will be key to upholding grazing and natural resource management laws within the conservancy," says Kochalle.
The conservancy headquarters will be completed by the end of this year, he says.
Shurr is the furthest of the conservancies, close to the Ethiopian border. It's inhabited by about 19,000 mostly Gabbra people, who have agreed to donate land.
Tensions have been high between the different ethnic communities that share the unforgiving landscape.
The manager, Ali Mohamed, says the level of awareness in the community has changed.
NRT says poaching remains an ever-present threat but the communities have begun to view it as "economic sabotage."
The harshest of the three is probably the 1,010 km2 Songa Conservancy. It lies close to the Ethiopian border, an area better known for insecurity and frequent droughts. It is inhabited by about 12,000 mostly Rendille people.
NRT says ancient tribal traditions are still upheld here. The communities in Songa are now trying to improve security and develop some infrastructure.
"As such, there are no tourism operations in the area yet. However, this conservancy holds great promise, and there is no reason it will not be able to support tourism ventures in the future," says Kochalle.
Environment Cabinet Secretary Prof Judi Wakhungu praises the initiatives, saying they follow the spirit of the new Wildlife Act.
"The new Act has a strong component of community participation in wildlife management and I am happy to note this project has taken cue from this provision," she says.
Prof Wakhungu is however concerned the five-year period set out for implementation of the projects may be too short.
"I appreciate the measures spelt out in the project implementation approach which include among others the creation of a network of protected areas and community conservancies," she says.