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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 October 2005, 13:49 GMT 14:49 UK
Lifeline for Kenya's 'lost' wilderness
By Zoe Murphy
BBC News, northern Kenya

Samburu moran or warrior (Image: Anna Parkinson)
Many Samburu cattle-herders have been driven off the land
Sera is a remote and inhospitable part of Kenya. No rain has fallen since April.

Animal tracks scatter the sandy riverbeds but the wildlife remains hidden.

Gangs of poachers shot the last of the Black Rhino in Sera a decade ago.

The sustained slaughter, which began in the 1970s, also decimated elephant populations, with Kenya losing 80% of its herds.

Incursions by armed Somali bandits, known as shifta, have deterred all but a few of the Samburu from grazing their cattle here.

Lawlessness seems to have locked the land in a downward spiral. But an ambitious project is under way to reverse the fortunes of Sera and its people.

Tough compromises

Outside Kenya's national parks, a quiet revolution in conservation is taking place.

Sera Wildlife Conservancy Trust is part of an experiment focusing on the restoration - rather than protection - of 'the wild'.
Fewer than 2,000 Grevy's Zebra survive in the wild

Led by a council of Samburu elders, the local communities have been granted a stake in managing 300,000 hectares of government land, along with its wildlife and watersheds.

But tough compromises are necessary.

Cattle are the Samburu's most valuable possession, providing the food basics of milk, fat and blood.

They determine a man's wealth and social status; without cattle he cannot marry or celebrate the transition from boyhood to tribal warrior.

All cattle and goats will be excluded from Sera's core zone, which will be turned over to attract and sustain wildlife stocks.

Convincing the herders of the benefits of handing over this pristine grazing land has been a lengthy task.

"Talks have been going on with the villagers for more than two years. Sometimes they don't turn up to meetings.

"We've had to work hard to maintain momentum," Gabriel Lengishili, a Samburu elder and vice-chairman of the board, told the BBC.

A 200,000-hectare buffer zone for grazing is the trade-off.

New recruits

Security expert Michael Ntosho
If poachers are armed we fight them, if they are not we arrest them
Security expert Michael Ntosho

The infant project has so far attracted $600,000 (323,000) from USAid and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy Trust - a former white-owned cattle ranch now a heavily protected wildlife area and one of the only places in Kenya to successfully breed Black Rhino.

Establishing security is the priority. Lewa security expert Michael Ntosho is training 28 new rangers.

He has more than 10 year's experience on anti-poaching patrols with the Kenyan Police Reserve. He drills his rookies hard; shouting orders as they march relentlessly.

Although poaching is no longer endemic, the threat is constant, he says. In 2002, a gang armed with AK-47s and G3 assault rifles slaughtered 15 elephants in the Samburu district.

The new recruits will patrol the core zone, keeping the herders out and monitoring wildlife numbers and responding to security breaches.

Remarkably, predators such as lion and leopard have survived in Sera, as has the endangered Grevy's Zebra. There are plans to boost numbers by importing game from other conservancies.

Changing times

The pastoral lifestyle is under pressure. A human population boom means an increasing number of cattle, which has led to clashes over resources such as wells and grazing land.
Women and children in a Samburu village or manyatta (Image: Anna Parkinson)
Local Samburu communities are experiencing a population boom

In recent years the traditional spears have been supplemented by guns, and dozens of people can die in single disturbance.

Many pastoralists have drifted to the nearest town in search of alternative work. Isiolo is now a blip of pollution and overcrowding, vibrating with pop music and flashing TV screens.

When asked, adults and youngsters show no interest in or understanding of the project. But there are those for whom the project is already paying off.

On Sera's outskirts, labourers building the new dusty airstrip are being paid. Illiterate, they sign for their salary with an inky thumb-print.

Next the boundaries will need marking and trenches dug for water pipes. They welcome the work.
Map of Kenya

The project, which has funding until 2007, will provide the financial and material support to build dams, and veterinary services promoting quality rather than quantity of livestock.

With security forces at their disposal there will be a crackdown on the problems of cattle rustlers and organised poaching that continue to threaten elephants and other wildlife.

It is a huge undertaking. Change in such a vast area is not likely to come overnight, but if successful it could be a blueprint for a better future.

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