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Kenya: Economic Pressure Turned Cattle Ranches Into Wildlife Oases

A magnificent giraffe walks slowly among Acacias. A large herd of brown impalas feeds on grass and two rhinos quietly graze nearby. It’s early morning, the sun is rising above the horizon and zebras seem to be everywhere. Later during the day, a robust lion male stalks his mating partner and an elephant family enjoys pleasantly moist marshes.

It’s spectacular record for the area that used to be a cattle ranch just a few decades ago. But Ol Pejeta, a 300 square kilometer conservancy in central Kenya, is not alone. The whole region called Laikipia has recently become one of the most noteworthy places of wildlife conservation in Africa. Economic pressures and wildlife legislations have made it difficult to sustain cattle-only ranching, so many private properties in this area have been turned into wildlife conservancies.

And with remarkable success. Some of them are even cited as examples to follow in other places. What approach lies behind their present satisfying results?

Richard Vigne, the chief executive officer of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy

We are showing that conservation can successfully happen in the presence of other forms of human activity, says Richard Vigne, the chief executive officer of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Photo: Jan Stejskal/

Ol Pejeta Conservancy

“Ol Pejeta had always been a cattle ranching area,” says Richard Vigne, the chief executive officer of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. He is sitting in his stark office in the main conservancy bulding. Simple, a bit dark room with small, high placed window contrasts with sharp sun light, fresh breeze and open plains outside.

“This semi-arid place had been used by the pastoralist Masai for grazing cattle even prior to the arrival of colonialists,” explains Vigne. The latter took over the ranch after the First World War. They continued with their efforts for half of the century. “There was no wildlife here in those days because wildlife was considered to be competition for cattle.”

But in 1970s and 1980s two things changed. First was a ban on hunting wildlife in Kenya in 1977. Due to the government decision ranches could no longer control wildlife numbers which lead to competition for cattle. As a result, the productvity and profitability of the cattle operation began to decrease.

In 1970s and 1980s there was also a lot of elephant poaching in Kenya. Between 1973 and 1990, elephant numbers in the country dropped to about 20,000 from some 167,000. Their numbers dramatically declined even in northern Kenya. As a consequence, elephants that previously moved through Laikipia on migratory path began to take permanent residence within the area because they felt safer there. But in the presence of the elephants it was impossible to maintain the internal fencing of the ranches, so the whole system of cattle ranching had to change.

“Instead of being kept in huge fenced paddocks with access to 24-hour-grazing, cattle actually had to be herded by the herder and put back in thorn-bush enclosures at night,” says Vigne. “This led to reduced productivity and increased costs. And in 1980s overall profitability reached the state when cattle ranching was no longer a viable form of land use in this area.”

At the same time, in 1980s, the black rhino population in Kenya was slaughtered to about 250. They were left in small scattered populations across the whole country, all of them heavily threatened by poaching. For this reason the Kenya Wildlife Service, a state wildlife agency, decided to consolidate the remaining population in small, heavy protected reserves. As the owners of the Ol Pejeta ranch decided to gain some profit from having wildlife, they created one of these black rhino reserves on their property.

Cattle grazing in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy

Ol Pejeta traditionally used to be a cattle ranching area. Later its owners decided to conserve wildlife too. Photo: Jan Stejskal/

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy

The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy lies just 65 kilometres north from Ol Pejeta. The Craig family that had owned Lewa until recently can’t complain about indifference of media to their property as they are close friends of British Prince William. He even got engaged with Katherine Middleton on their land in Kenya. However, there are better reasons why journalists should be curious about Lewa than celebrities.

“(The land) was purchased by our family in 1922, has passed through three generations and was sold this year to the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, a Kenyan not-for-profit organization,” says Ian Craig, in his sixties, present head of the family, as he shares the history of the property. He is now the strategic advisor and the former executive director of the Lewa conservancy.

“My generation made the decision to give up cattle as they were not viable, damaging the land and had no future,” he describes the moment when the Craigs changed the aim of their efforts. In 1980s they set aside thousands of acres to build a black rhino sanctuary. It was a successful model, so in 1995 the Craigs dedicated their entire ranch to conservation and formed the non-profit Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.

“This has resulted in a significant increase in employment opportunities and overall revenues,” adds Ian Craig. Although known as a black rhino sanctuary, Lewa, now encompassing about 200 square kilometres (around 60 000 acres), is home to the world’s largest single population of Grevy’s zebra too.

While Lewa focused entirely on wildlife in 1995, Ol Pejeta had to wait for a similar decision until 2004. At that time its population of black rhinos had increased so much that its black rhino reserve became too small for them. For this reason managment decided to expand the existing sanctuary and created present Ol Pejeta Conservancy that encompasses about 300 square kilometres (around 90 000 acres).

Cattle, Wildlife and Tourism Together

When entering Ol Pejeta, one immediately realizes that this area is fully fenced. It’s hard to call such place real wilderness. However, when standing in the middle of Ol Pejeta and overlooking the vast land around, the end of the beautiful plains and bushes cannot be seen. It is home to rhinos, elephants, lions, giraffes, buffalos, leopards, cheetahs, hippos, hyenas, baboons and many other species. Wildlife is free to roam on the whole area and there are corridors in the fence that allow wildlife to move in and out. “These corridors are designed to stop rhinos, but allow all other species of wildlife to move, so Ol Pejeta works as an integral part of the wider Laikipia/Samburu ecosystem,” says Richard Vigne.

Both Lewa and Ol Pejeta are run as not-for-profit organizations. As such, they succeed in protecting wildlife, especially rhinos, and now they are able not only to restore their local numbers but help with black rhino reintroduction in regions where they long had been absent.

However, just having wildlife on the property doesn’t bring any revenues. The way to make money on it is tourism.  So along with supporting wildlife, both Ol Pejeta and Lewa had to build an infrastructure for visitors. Lewa was even the first place in Laikipia recognizing this opportunity and set up a camp for tourists at the time of cattle-ranching already. In Ol Pejeta, they focused strongly on tourism in 2004. And with significant results: the number of visitors has grown to about 70, 000 at present from 20,000 people a year in 2004.

But tourism can be a pretty tricky bet. In times of economic crises, or insecurity like post-election violence in Kenya in 2007, the number of visitors can considerably decrease. For that reason it’s possible to see in Ol Pejeta lions just a few hundred metres from herded cattle. The thing is that Ol Pejeta deliberately keeps cattle operation along wildlife conservation. According to Richard Vigne, they just needed to have alternative revenue stream so that in the event that tourism would slow or disappear, it would allow the organization to pay the costs of conservation.

“So we have a herd of seven thousand herded cattle here but we also have one of the highest populations of wildlife in terms of predators and prey species as well as the biggest population of black rhinos in East Africa. We’ve proven that you actually can keep cattle and wildlife together,” Vigne says proudly.

(For detailed info about keeping cattle and best ways of land use, please listen to the embedded voice stream).

Helping Communities

Part of the success Lewa and Ol Pejeta has achieved surely lies in the fact they understand one important thing – it’s practically impossible to run a successful conservation project in the middle of impoverished people without helping them. According to Ol Pejeta managment, all revenues (and additional funds) are used for conservation purposes and for programmes that help neighbouring communities.

Nancy Ingutiah is sitting in a similarly stark office as her boss Richard. But as an assistant of community programmes in Ol Pejeta, she gets quite often a chance to visit rural communities the conservancy is surrounded by.  “We help them with education healthcare, water, roads, agriculture services and sometimes we provide even funds for luncg feeding programmes in schools,” says the young lady as she gives a brief overview of her unit’s work.

She points her finger at different places on a tacked map in her office and explains where the conservancy built classrooms, laboratories, dispensaries, libraries, water taps and water tanks. ”We also employ two officers who travel around on motorcycles and train farmers in conservation agriculture. And in some neighbourhoods we help women with micro-financing their small businesses like making necklesses,” says Nancy Ingutiah.

Nancy Ingutiah, an assistant of community programmes in Ol Pejeta

We help our neighbouring communities with education, healthcare, water, roads, agriculture services and sometimes we provide even funds for lunch feeding programmes in schools, says Nancy Ingutiah, an assistant of community programmes in Ol Pejeta. Photo: Jan Stejskal/

Both conservancies welcome school trips as well. While the entrance fees for overseas visitors can be hardly regarded as low (68 US dollars a day in October 2012 in Ol Pejeta), East African residents enjoy considerably lower prices and school kids can get in Ol Pejeta for less than two US dollars. No doubt it can be still too high for some of them, but in general the policy of conservancies towards schools is pretty friendly and school buses can be regularly seen bumping on their dusty roads.

Changes in the Whole Region

Success of Lewa and Ol Pejeta inspired some of neighbouring ranches and communities to partly follow their way. Ian Craig from Lewa serves as the member of the Board of the Northern Rangelands Trust which is an umbrella organization for almost 20 conservancies. The trust supports conservation, sustainable use of natural resources and improving the life of residents on over three millions acres (about 12,150 kilometers) in northern Kenya. For traditionally unstable region in the country with steep population growth, it’s a nice achievement.

In Laikipia and northern Kenya thus emerged interesting patchwork of protected areas. “Many communities run successful conservation initiatives known as conservancies and currently being legislated for by central government,” says Craig. According to him, Kenya is ahead in Africa in terms of its multi faceted approach on land ownership for conservation. As government owns all wildlife, it has jurisdiction over all wild animals in Kenya, but land owners can benefit from game viewing and bird watching.

And that’s what Ol Pejeta and Lewa do. Managment of Ol Pejeta discovered that having cattle and wildlife with tourism together is more profitable then either cattle by itself or wildlife and tourism by itself. Their combination actually seems to be the most productive form of land use in the area at present. “We need to justify our ownership of 90 thousand acres of land,” says Ol Pejeta’s director Richard Vigne. “Employing 700 people in a country where most people don’t have access to jobs and where most people are poor, that’s pretty important signal that we are sending to the political class.”

School children visiting the Ol Pejeta Conservancy

School children enjoy meeting Baraka, a blind black rhino that wouldn't survive in wild conditions and for that reason is kept in fenced enclosure. Ol Pejeta has a friendly policy towards visits of school groups. Photo: Jan Stejskal/

But their approach has got even wider implications. “Conservation in the world is perceived as something which is very expensive, because you have to set aside a lot of land to let conservation happen,” says Vigne who is convinced that Ol Pejeta proved that conservation can successfully happen even in the presence of other forms of human activity. “So it means that more people can afford to do what we do.”

It’s getting dark and I’m on my way back from the conservancy. Suddenly we see five giraffes walking along the road,one baby among them. As we stop the engine, the animals turn their sight and stare at us with irresistible mix of awareness, curiosity and patience. One inquisitive giraffe decides to have a look at our vehicle from the other side and one even braver one goes to observe us from the close proximity of just a few metres. Surrounded by giraffes, I pull down the window, poke out my head and enjoy one of the unsurpassable moments we live our lives for. When regarding giraffes with pleasure, I realize there could hardly be more appropriate farewell from the place that was formerly known as pure cattle ranch, but boasts wildlife at present.

 The opening slideshow shows wildlife in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Credit for all images (incl. featured image): Jan Stejskal/

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About The Author(s)

Jan Stejskal

Jan Stejskal

Journalist, based in the Czech Republic

Journalist, currently an editor-in-chief of the - leading Czech on-line news, comments and features on environment and nature. As he has to illustrate his stories, he takes photos as well. Master degree in anthropology.

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