At Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, we explore the symbiotic relationship between wildlife, tourism and local communities, and how these three pillars contribute to and benefit from conservation.
Photographs: Brian Siambi
Now the manager of Lewa Wilderness Lodge, when Karmushu Kiama was growing up in Ngare Ndare which borders Lewa Conservancy on the western side, he and his peers would look after livestock along the boundaries of the conservancy. Following a translocation, a rhino called Mukora had been introduced into Lewa, and the kids would line up along the fence to look at it, hoping it would come closer, and when it did, they would run off. Rhinos were a rare sight in Lewa at the time, but his father, who had himself been a warrior there in the 60s, had shared nostalgic youthful tales of his own days spent taking the cattle out to graze. The animal they had been most wary of in the bush was the black rhino; they were simply teeming in the area.
According to Geoffrey Chege, Lewa’s Head of Conservation and Wildlife, in the 1970s, there were still at least 20,000 black rhinos in Kenya, a number that had been much higher in the years before that. By the mid-80s, the population had drastically reduced to between 300 and 400. I’d like to think that in their time, our ancestors, being hunters and gatherers, depended on wildlife for various resources such as food, clothing in whatever its form, tools and more, but their numbers were low enough to be sustained by the population. I imagine lions prowling unperturbed through vast lands in what would today be an urban center like Nairobi or Nanyuki. But the lifestyle changed, population increased and wildlife started being exploited at a higher rate.
The commercialisation of wildlife was introduced to Africa by Arab ivory traders and European hunters, then, eventually, the illegal wildlife trade in Yemen and the Far East. Ivory was a precious commodity and you’ve likely seen gory images of caravans of slaves carrying these towards ships. Poaching to fuel this new demand for wildlife parts became rife. It was now easier to take down an elephant with a gun than it had been with a bow and arrow, and I’ve heard unclarified tales that animals were gunned down in large numbers from some regions in order to resettle people in towns as we know them today. Climatic conditions changed and other factors probably came into play, and by the 80s, a lot of species were critically endangered. Conservancies were primarily born out of a need for protection; to ensure that wildlife and their habitats continued to thrive for future generations.
The land that now forms Lewa had until then largely been used as a cattle ranch until 1984 when David and Delia Craig founded the conservancy. Only a few black rhinos were in the north and they were so widely distributed that even their chances of mating were low. 15 were brought into this new conservancy, and today the number has risen to 100, making Lewa’s the third key one population in the country after Ol Pejeta and Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary in Tsavo West. The population is now stable, increasing and of significance continental importance, and has been used to help establish other zones around the country such as Borana in 2013 and Sera in 2015.
But, black rhinos are not the only animals that have tangibly benefited from Lewa’s existence. The Southern White Rhino, which is actually exotic to Kenya as it was first brought in from South Africa in the 60s, has found a safe home on Lewa. Chege explains that in the 90s, Lewa introduced the species to its land, translocated from South Africa and existing populations in Kenya, and the number has today gone from 15 to 97. These have then been used to re-establish other populations in Kenya, Ol Pejeta being a big beneficiary.
Elephants, which had been isolated and had no passage due to human development (they used to come from Mt Kenya through Ngare Ndare Forest into Lewa then as far North as the Mathews Range, and back), now have a corridor with a good underpass that was recreated thanks to Mount Kenya Trust, Lewa, Kenya Wildlife Service and various stakeholders. Elephants are creatures of habit, and before then, there was a lot of humanwildlife conflict as they would break infrastructure and fences knowing there was a route there.
“ Lewa today has 11% of the world’s population of Grevy’s zebra,” says Chege, “and the country’s population of lions stands at 2,000. The survival rate of cubs on Lewa is 70%, which is actually higher than what is currently documented in other areas.”
Wait, Kenya only has a total of 2,000 lions? Going about my regular life in Nairobi, I have always imagined that they are teeming in our game reserves in their tens of thousands.
Built in 1972, Lewa Wilderness is the oldest lodge in the conservancy with the main house which was built for David and Delia still functioning as a lounge. Here, guests from all over the world converge to have afternoon tea. They then set off for exciting activities which include horse riding, camel and walking safaris, game drives, hiking and swimming in the neighbouring Ngare Ndare Forest, taking to the skies in a canary yellow open cockpit biplane- the same model Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen used to fly around years ago, and more. The views are striking and the accommodation unmatched, and they return every year in their numbers. At least 5,000 guests stay at the conservancy every year, and most of the lodges are currently fully booked until the end of October.
One would be surprised to discover that the average resident rates at the very obviously high end lodges here is Ksh 25,000, and that includes meals, game drives far from the madding crowd and a conservancy fee of Ksh 4,500 which goes directly to Lewa’s development work. Even if all you do is spend a night at Lewa, you have already made your contribution to conservation as neither wildlife nor tourism would thrive without the involvement of the community.
Employment is one of the ways in which lodges contribute to conservation, and well over 95% of the staff at Lewa are Kenyan. Lodge manager Karmushu, himself a beneficiary of a bursary scheme, is a prime example. Today, whenever guests ask him how they can get involved, he tells them about the range of projects currently going on, all of which are available for them to witness firsthand through the conservancy’s ‘behind-the-scenes’ program. The biggest donor who supports at least 200 kids per year through the Lewa Education Programme came through Karmushu. What had started as a regular conversation, with Karmushu telling him about two young girls who had just run away from home to avoid getting married, led to these girls becoming the first to get a scholarship through this donor.
At Lewa, I discovered that conservation is actually really about people’s relationships with wildlife and nature, and the conservancy has therefore been intentional about investing in the community. People will get generally involved if they can see tangible benefits. Based on Lewa’s 2018/9 impact report, here are just five of the projects that have successfully been rolled out:
Education- 30 government schools are now supported by Lewa and its western neighbour Borana’s Education Programmes. In these schools, infrastructure projects have been initiated, such as new classrooms, teachers houses, dormitories, lavatories, laboratories and libraries. There are 421 learners in the adult literacy programme across nine centres, with 458 students receiving bursaries at all levels. 2,500 students are enrolled in the digital literacy programme across different centres in the sponsored schools. 5,105 students and teachers have visited lewa for a conservation education experience.
Healthcare- Lewa supports four clinics that are the nearest health centres for many of the locals, providing medical care to more than 40,000 people. Through the healthcare programme, children are checked and treated for diseases and ailments receiving vision tests, dental screening, immunisation and more, mothers have access to ante and postnatal care, and cancer screening is available to all.
Water- This has always been a major issue in the north. Over the years, Lewa has built 11 water projects including dams, boreholes and water tanks, providing water to approximately 20,000 people.
Business opportunities- The Micro-Credit Programme provides small-scale loans at low interest rates to support enterprise amongst local female entrepreneurs. Started a decade ago with just 30 women, the programme now serves 1,800. Jewellery handmade in beadworks projects are available for sale as souvenirs to guests, while lodges like Lewa Wilderness display furniture and rugs woven by the community to any guest keen to buy.
Employment- According to Wanjiku Kinuthia, Lewa’s Senior Communications Manager, conservation is one of those fields where everyone gets a chance at excelling. Indigenous knowledge backed by on-the-job training is celebrated where there is a clear passion. A safari guide could for instance get an opportunity and excel in this way, whereas they may have struggled to get a decent job in a city like Nairobi.
RUNNING IN THE WILD
Set to take place on 29th June, this will be the 20th year of the Safari Marathon run annually in Lewa. Considered one of the top ten marathons in the world, this milestone year will attract 1,400 runners from over 35 nationalities. One of the key selling points of the Safaricom Marathon in Lewa is that it is one of the few marathons in the world that takes place in a UNESCO World Heritage site, a conservancy no less. The money collected annually goes towards supporting Lewa as well as other conservation initiatives such as the Local Ocean Trust that works in turtle conservation, Mt Kenya Trust, Grevy’s Zebra Trust, and more.