Why the West can learn from East Africa

Reflecting on wildlife conservation in Kenya and at home.

 

Rick Bass is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a writer in Montana.


My guide, David, a member of the Masai Tribe, has been showing me his home ground, in what is now the Llewa Conservancy of northern Kenya. The Masai once were hunter-gatherers, but they have transitioned over the past century to becoming pastoralists, raising cattle and goats. During the European colonization, they were chased into the mountains and forced to survive by hunting with skills, such as bowdrills, snares, and deadfalls. Now they have agreed to support a conservation area that allocates the core of their traditional land to the wildlife that makes East Africa the Africa we think of — dry equatorial grasslands that thrive on two rainy cycles per year, spring and fall. 

Different people come here seeking different things: rare and spectacular birds, the baroque and bizarre giraffes, the hallucinogenic zebras, the big cats, Cape buffalo, gazelles flowing through the grass like a dream. But the rhinos are most rare, and most valuable.

There are many lodges in Kenya, and when the conservation districts were created, this was one of the elements of the conservancies’ establishment — encouraging tourist dollars to flow directly back into the communities. Standards of Western hotel affluence were expected and often attained, though almost always by utilizing European management long experienced in providing elevated levels of pampering. 

I visited one Masai lodge, Il Ngwesi, however, which is reported to be the only lodge in the Lewa Conservancy run exclusively by Masai. To my way of thinking, this is important, maybe vital, in the long run; certainly, to a guest, it feels more ethical than sending a portion of high-end dollars to London. (Last month, pastoralists stormed a non-Masai lodge at the other end of the conservancy, killed five game guards, slaughtered wildlife, and turned their stock loose into lands previously dedicated for wildlife. By no means is the conservation system fully flawless, yet). 

The edgelands of Nairobi National Park, which abuts a growing population center.

Wildlife is the driver. This is a model conservationists have long sought, and to that end, it is imperative that ventures such as Il Ngwesi survive. In addition to drawing visitors to look at animals and housing guests in a charming tree hut over a watering hole, the lodge owners take them to a Masai village, consisting of maybe a hundred people, where they can spend time in the late afternoon just watching the flow of the village, without pomp.

There are cheetahs in Kenya, of course, as there once were on our continent. The cheetahs are elegant and beautiful, but again, the bruising mass of the rhino is the heart of the narrative. The conservancy employs Masai to guard their livelihood, with “shoot to kill” orders against poachers. A single horn can sell for a million Kenyan shillings. 

Once again, I’m reminded of North America, of home. Where, or what, is our rhino? Surely it is the grizzly bear, an equally dramatic animal, so powerful that, like the rhino, it shapes not just the ecology of the physical landscape, but the human communities that fall under its shadow. How ironic that in Montana, the state Legislature has just passed a bill in the House authorizing the hunting of all grizzlies — a federally protected species — in the state.

Certainly, the grizzlies are one of the West’s economic and indeed spiritual drivers; people come West hoping to see them, to the corner of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, in Yellowstone National Park, where there are only 700 left, and where global warming threatens their survival, and to Glacier National Park, where roughly 200 live. In my Montana valley, the Yaak, we have only 20 remaining. How ludicrous to seek to legislate their extinction. 

What are the great bear’s protections, and where in our country is a long-term vision to rival Kenya’s — a way to empower local communities to embrace, rather than fear, the presence of such an animal?

David said that, in Kenya, the guards are effective — no rhino has been poached in over a year — but that among the tightly connected Masai, the best deterrent to a would-be poacher is often local disapproval. Someone’s second cousin will get wind of an upcoming attempt and contact the would-be perpetrator and say, “Hey, people know what you are planning, you shouldn’t do it.”

I think of the West’s last grizzlies, and I think of the one thing they need most and absolutely to survive — big wild country where people are unlikely to hunt and kill them. Slowly, despite setbacks, Africa is seeking to protect its wildlife heritage, even sometimes in the midst of drought and famine. So far, in our fragmented affluence, we have not yet learned to value and sufficiently protect the wildlife unique to our West.

Note: The headline of this article originally placed Kenya in West Africa. It is, in fact, in East Africa.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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