The Future of Conservation

Our Land Rover sped around a corner and launched off the rocks, throwing me out of my seat. We continued racing through the savannah, the Kenyan sun drenching me in its heat.

To my left was a herd of giraffes; to my right, the majestic Matthews Mountain Range; however, I didn't have time to enjoy the scenery. Just one kilometer away, a five-ton elephant lay on the ground, immobile, multiple bullets in its chest.

Our Land Rover made it to the scene. After jumping out of the car, I dashed a dozen meters and saw a group of thirty people crowded in a circle. I made my way over and stuck my head through: with legs as thick as tree trunks, an enormous grey elephant lay limp on the dirt.

Two nights prior, he was shot by an unknown aggressor. The bullet wounds were now infected. The only way to save the elephant was with a massive injection of penicillin, and minutes earlier, the elephant had been tranquilized and given the antibiotics. We stood there, waiting, hoping it wasn't too late. I looked around the circle and noticed three main groups of people—and as I reflect back on this moment, it's clear that these three groups were not only key to saving this elephant, but perhaps the entire species.

Beside me, crouching in front of the elephant’s trunk, was Dr. M. Sanjayan, with Conservation International. On another side was Sarara Initiative founder Joffy Bastard. Opposite him, and perhaps most importantly, were warriors from the local Samburu tribe.

To understand how these three groups of people are working together is to understand the future of conservation.

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The following is a Q&A with Conservation International’s Dr. M. Sanjayan, covering the future of conservation, the combined efforts of the Sarara lodge and the Samburu tribe, and the ending of the story of the shot elephant.

How has conversation worked in the past and what do you see as the model of the future?

Conservation has traditionally followed two paths.

It’s either been the province of governments or private wealthy individuals. Everything from national parks to marine protected areas are governmental creations. Similarly, wealthy individuals have pioneered the idea of setting aside land for either conservation needs, their needs or the public good.

There is, however, a third method of conservation, which holds great promise for our future.

Community or indigenous-peoples based conservation is rooted in two simple ideas: that those closest to nature are often the best stewards, and that it’s in the self-interest of local people to be conservationists.

Community-based conservation has the potential to conserve the last big wild places left of this planet. At least 18-22% of the lands and waters of this planet are under local or indigenous management or control, and how these lands are protected will ultimately determine the fate of the planet.

The potential here is huge.

How did Sarara evolve into a leader in community-based conservation?

Sarara is an exclusive, secluded, boutique lodge set amidst millions of acres of true African wilderness.

First, the experience is unparalleled in terms of wilderness, wildlife, seclusion, and cultures. Second, the entire lodge and all the facilities are owned, though not operated, by the local Samburu community. This is extraordinary.

It gives the local communities a real reason to buy into conservation. Each guest who stays at Sarara pays a daily conservation fee that goes directly into the community. This can be substantial, and regularly generates over $200,000 per year for the community.

How is Sarara helping the Samburu tribe? And how are the Samburu people helping Sarara?

Revenue from the lodge goes into a community fund, which splits the money between conservation activities (rangers, etc.) and community development needs (schools, etc.). Sarara and the ranger teams it deploys bring about a sense of security and reduce conflict among tribes and between clans within tribes.

I remember a Samburu woman telling me that “conservation helps her sleep with her shoes off at night.” What she means is that she can sleep peacefully without having to put on her sandals to run in the middle of the night because of cattle raiders or worse.

In turn, conservation is impossible without the Samburu. They provide the eyes and ears on the land to keep it safe from poachers. Their ephemeral wells are a magnet for wildlife in a very arid landscape, and to some extent, even their grazing helps stimulate new growth and life.

What advantages does community-based conservation have that other methods don’t?

If conservation means fencing an area and posting armed guards to keep people out, then conservation has failed.

Sarara is in the middle of a one million acre landscape, which is embedded in another seven million acres of conservation lands. It is an open system, allowing wildlife to roam freely, following age-old migration patterns, and allowing nomadic people to continue with their pastoral existence and culture. It is an interdependent system.

The real challenge in conservation is how to keep funding alive when donor interest has waned. How are we going to build a model that is financially sustainable?

More practically, when it’s in the best interest of the Samburu and other Northern Kenyan tribes to conserve wildlife, then we can have truly sustainable conservation—in other words, conservation that can continue without the constant input of philanthropic dollars.

What ended up happening to the tranquilized elephant? What did you take away from that experience?

Knocking down a big bull elephant in order to treat it is no easy task. After the darting was done by helicopter, we had the chance to get close to it and assist with treatment. What was most poignant for me, once this giant was on its side like a living rock amidst the thorn bushes, was the reverence with which people approached.

For us and the Samburu who gathered to watch alike, we found the experience deeply touching and rather profound.

The good news is that the elephant, pumped full of antibiotics, seems to be on the mend. He was spotted at his favorite waterhole just a few days later being just an elephant.

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