Insurance is about protection against loss — and so, in many ways, is conservation. The similarities between these two industries mean both could gain from a closer relationship.
The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) recently announced the trial of an innovative insurance scheme for traditional herders in northern Kenya. There’s a severe need for such insurance: Drought, compounded by a loss of traditional grazing lands, has pushed pastoralists in many developing nations like Kenya and Mongolia into severe poverty.
But it has been almost impossible for these pastoralists to take out insurance against the loss of livestock due to drought, largely because of the challenge verifying livestock deaths over vast remote areas.
To address this challenge, the ILRI trial uses satellite images to calculate vegetation cover, and offers insurance payouts when forage is so scarce that livestock stand a high probability of starving.
So what does this have to do with conservation?
The ILRI insurance trial is being conducted in Marsabit, right in the middle of Kenya’s northern rangelands, the site of a major project for The Nature Conservancy’s Africa program. One of the conservation strategies being employed by The Conservancy and its partners in the northern rangelands is the concept of a “grass bank.”
A grass bank is essentially a section of natural grassland that communities agree to set aside and not graze their animals on, partly for the benefit of wildlife and partly as a safety net for periods of drought. I hope the link with the insurance industry is becoming transparent now.
The same technology being employed by the insurance trial could be used to calculate how much grass we have in the bank. It would also provide a transparent and reliable index of when these grass banks should be opened.
However, I think there is also the potential for a more formal arrangement with the insurance industry. Allowing pastoralists access to grass banks will hopefully minimize livestock deaths during tough drought periods, as animals will have access to additional fodder.
If livestock are less likely to die during drought periods, the insurance company could reduce the premium charged to pastoralists. This premium reduction could act as an incentive to participate in a grass bank system.
Conservation groups might even sweeten this incentive by subsidizing some of the premium for communities participating in grass bank systems.
To know whether this is a viable strategy we will need to wait for the results of the insurance trial. However, this is just the sort of creative conservation strategy that will be increasingly required to navigate the ever more complex relationship between economic development, human well-being and the protection of nature.
(Image: Eland grazing at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (LWC), Northern Kenya. The Conservancy is partnering with LWC to help protect the grasslands and savannas of Kenya. Credit: Ron Geatz/TNC.)