Community Conservation: A Maasai Chief’s Perspective

The Maasai people constitute one of the major ethnic groups living in Kenya and Tanzania. Having a pastoralist lifestyle, the Maasai rely heavily on their cattle, sheep, and goats for sustenance, and thus livestock are a Maasai family’s most valuable asset. You may have heard of the Maasai – among many other things, they are known for their ability to jump to impressive heights, and the ceremonial lion hunts (olamayio) historically conducted by young Maasai warriors as a rite of passage. Yet today, we have more and more Maasai like my friend, Nickson Parmisa, a Maasai chief in the Kitengela area, who loves lions and has devoted his life to conservation. Being a chief, Nickson has played an invaluable role in influencing his community’s approaches to conservation. I sat down with Nickson to hear his thoughts about the future of Nairobi National Park and the Kitengela dispersal area.

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Nickson Parmisa, Assistant Chief of Athi River North (Empakasi)

As a lifelong resident of the Kitengela dispersal area, what are your thoughts on threats to this area and to the national park?

Since the national park was originally gazetted, it has been repeatedly reduced. Along with the controversial railway, there is already a highway bypass that has cut through the edge of the park, and an above-ground oil pipeline currently in construction through the park. The Kitengela region was historically declared a conservation area, but after Independence, the government failed to create legislation to protect the land from subdivision and development. Kitengela’s proximity to the city also subjects it more acutely to development pressures. The Namanga Road, a highway heading south from Nairobi, has significantly contributed to development by making this prime land more accessible, attracting many land speculators. (Authors note: While driving on the Namanga Road, I’ve passed countless “Plots for Sale” signs). Since Kitengela is considered to be essentially a part of Nairobi, but with cheaper prices, many people travel here to live and develop businesses. It doesn’t help that NEMA (the National Environmental Management Authority) has failed to protect the land, allowing previously pastoral or agricultural land to be fenced or converted to quarries, and that many government policies in this area are enacted without community input.

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Oil pipeline, Nairobi National Park

What do you think is the future of Nairobi National Park and the Kitengela wildlife dispersal area?

There is hope. People’s perceptions are changing. In the past, people used to see wildlife as a liability or burden, but now many people are seeing wildlife as a resource.

 

Wow, what’s causing such a big shift?

There have been numerous non-profit programs to try and empower and incentivize this community to allow wildlife free passage on their land. One example is the lease program, which was started by Friends of Nairobi National Park (FoNNAP), and continued by The Wildlife Foundation (TWF). The lease program paid community members to not fence their land, allowing livestock and wildlife to roam freely. As a bonus, the payments coincided with the school opening dates, so the money often went straight to school fees and contributed to many more children going to school. However, the program ended in 2014 due to funding issues, and many fences started going up. People would still be receptive to the lease program if it were funded again, so any potential donors are welcome to contact TWF.

There was also a consolation program, run by FoNNAP, which gave people a small amount of money whenever they lost livestock due to depredation. Additionally, in 2014 the government enacted a human-wildlife bill, which will give compensation when people or livestock are killed by wildlife. However, the compensation program has been slow to go into action. Its true that attitudes are shifting, but money speaks, and if these incentivizing programs are run well, people in this area will be able to coexist with wildlife even more peacefully.

Last, the Nairobi National Park Conservancy is an exciting new initiative south of the park. It consists of a group of landowners who own land bordering the national park, and would like to create a conservancy out of their land. I am part of this conservancy, and with TWF we are working on various funding plans. However, the fact that several landowners want to be part of this conservancy is a good sign of changing feelings toward wildlife.

 

So it sounds like there is hope, but lots of hurdles as well. Any last thoughts?

Wildlife numbers have increased in this area. Kitengela has become a calving zone, which hasn’t happened in many years. Along with inside the park, wildlife used to give birth in the 2nd Triangle, an area nearby, yet now wildebeest are calving all around the Kitengela region. This is a good indication that people may be doing land use practices that will conserve habitat and bring wildlife back. We will have to keep thinking creatively, but so far the positive signs are there.

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Zebra, wildebeest, impala, and livestock,                               all within 30 minutes in the Kitengela dispersal area.
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