Roger Milliken, Jr. is the Chairman of the Board of The Nature Conservancy.

I recently ventured to Kenya and Tanzania with Africa Program Director David Banks. The trip was organized by fellow Board member Teresa Beck, and we traveled with former board members and a strong and lively contingent from Utah. As I have experienced elsewhere around the globe as well, I found in Africa that The Nature Conservancy’s DNA is expressing itself there in ways that both builds on our history, and presages our future.

One afternoon in Kenya, our group went for a walk, following a guide dressed in the traditional Maasai red blanket (although next to the sword on his belt was cradled a cell phone) and accompanied by a game scout in green fatigues with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Rare Grevy’s zebra grazed on the open plain ahead. Rounding a small grove of trees, we were surprised to find two bull elephants moving in our direction. The largest bull stopped and extended his ears wide as if to assess our intent. We stopped in our tracks. This was not watching game from a Land Cruiser—being on the ground we were literally on the elephant’s turf, and this activated a new kind of watchfulness—and every one of my senses. The big animal took a step in our direction, paused, then took another. Our guide motioned us out of the elephants’ presumed path and into the trees. The old one made his way forward until he was parallel with us, maybe twenty meters away. Turning to look at us, he spread his ears like flags, snorted, then continued on his way.

We were on the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, a 62,000-acre former cattle ranch turned into a game reserve by its visionary co-owner Ian Craig. When rhinos were pushed by poachers to the brink of extinction 30 years ago, Ian and his family provided habitat and protection on the ranch, and later eliminated cattle altogether. Freed from grazing, the grass and browse reestablished itself, and elephants, giraffes and zebras, along with the lions and cheetah which feed on them, returned on their own—a spectacular example of how nature bounces back when we give her the chance.

Over the past two years, the Conservancy’s Sam Lawson, drawing on skills developed working for the Conservancy in California’s Central Valley, has worked with Ian and his siblings to find a way to protect the Lewa ranch while also passing on a legacy to their children. Together they have come up with an innovative, cost-effective conservation plan that allows the family to realize an appropriate economic return from the bargain sale of their land to the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy that will conserve it in perpetuity. This exemplifies how the Conservancy’s listening skills and protection strategies, honed over the last 60 years in the US, are being applied in new countries and cultures.

An hour north by plane, the Conservancy is applying similar qualities of listening and problem-solving to find a mutually beneficial approach between wildlife conservation and centuries-old pastoralist cultures.

There, the local Maasai and Samburu people continue their ancient lifeways. We spent a morning at the “singing wells” where wandering Samburu warriors (men roughly between the ages of 13 and 23) bring community cattle to water every other day. The rainy season ended months ago, and no water is available on the surface. And so the young men, following age-old practice, have dug wide wells ten feet or more into the dry riverbed to tap the underground river.  Their naked bodies glistening in the wet, they chant songs to their cows as they haul up water a gallon at a time and pour it into hand-carved wooden troughs. When the watering is done, they bathe and head off into the dusty bush for another two days in search of green grass. Night reveals a different scene, where elephants come to the wells for refreshment and leopards stalk the smaller game attracted to the water.

For decades, the Samburu have viewed some wildlife (lions, rhino, even elephants) only as a threat to their lives or livestock and others (wildebeest, buffalo, zebra) as competition for their own herds. They have killed some animals, and their expanding communities have fragmented key habitats. Seeking to find a solution that benefits both people and wildlife, the Conservancy has followed the lead of Piers Bastard, a fourth generation white Kenyan, who worked to create a tourist economy that would also benefit the pastoralists. Together with Piers and leaders of the Northern Rangelands Trust, the Conservancy has been working with local community leaders to delineate what Americans might call “multiple use areas,” places where grazing cattle and wildlife can coexist. Kenyans call these areas Conservancies.

Piers figured that the tribal communities might cooperate if, in addition to providing jobs at the lodges, a separate stream of tourist income was shared with them. A per-bed, per-night, tourist fee was established, with 40% dedicated to employ the Samburu as game scouts and security guards, and 60% contributed to a trust, which local elders direct to community projects. We visited a school funded by one such trust, and an ingenious water project, where a water-powered pump brought water uphill from a small stream to concrete tanks where people could collect water for drinking in one area, cows could drink in another, and clothes be washed in a third, all the while leaving the original stream free of cattle and running clear for wildlife.

While the communities appreciate these benefits, and the open and transparent ways decisions are made (the day we arrived, 1,500 people were meeting in a local town to review the accounting for last year’s funds), local people have identified an even larger–and unexpected–benefit of the scheme. The game scouts hired to protect the animals from poachers provide eyes and ears on the ground, and their presence has reduced not only poacher attacks on animals and people, it has also inhibited raiding parties from other tribal groups. One woman, grateful for no longer regularly having to flee for her life in the middle of the night said, “for the first time in my life, I don’t have to go to bed wearing my shoes.”

Word of mouth has spread, and from the first 23,000-acre reserve created by the trust, the work has spread to encompass over 3,000,000 acres, with a waiting list of others that could expand the model to nearly 5,000,000 acres. The Nature Conservancy is working with community leaders and conservationists of the Northern Rangelands Trust to identify where protection can bring the largest benefits to animal habitat and essential migration routes.

This is the emerging Conservancy: working with new and unfamiliar partners, following the lead of local people, while applying our signature deep listening and creative problem-solving to create large-scale conservation, be it in Kenya or the lower Mississippi. Working with others, we are finding ways to protect large landscapes, sustaining both nature and the human societies that depend on her bounty–which, after all, is every one of us.

(Image: Roger Milliken, Jr.; Chairman of the Board of The Nature Conservancy. Image credit: ©Mark Godfrey)

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  1. That statement conveniently left out that your group’s ignorance of how governments work, tribes, people, and so on played a huge part in people being violently removed from their homes, attacked,raped, their homes burned, animals killed, so the Kenyan govt could profit from your conservation (which is probably not safe either since they see the animals as “cash cows”). The people are living on the edge of this “conservation” area with nothing. You can’t make a statement and leave all of that out of it.

    I am a firm believer in conservation and in helping nature and animals, I do not believe however that we can run around other countries without doing our research and colonize their land by means of creating conservancy without any attention to who lives on that land.

    Studies show that keeping indigenous tribes supported and letting them stay where they are is one of the greatest conservation moves out there. I hope you all will think differently in the future, will do something about this current conflict, and the next time you wanna pay a govt to go in and violently evict people, you’ll do it at a government building site or something, not a tribal homeland.

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