06 Feb 2019 Story Ecosystems

‘Conservation is our way of life’

Photo by Duncan Moore/ UN Environment

An interview with Kenyan Maasai elder on human-wildlife conflict and effective land management

Kenya’s Maasai community has reared livestock and co-existed with nature for thousands of years. Chief Nickson Parmisa, a Maasai elder, lives with his family just outside Nairobi National Park where lions, rhinos, giraffes, zebras and leopards roam against the backdrop of the Nairobi skyline.

Parmisa is an unusual Maasai elder: he works closely with The Wildlife Foundation and Kenya Wildlife Service to ensure conservation is successful in the Nairobi National Park. Currently, he is the Assistant Chief at Athi River North sublocation under the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government.  Before his work with the government, he worked with Wildlife Direct and the International Livestock Research Institute as a researcher. He sees himself as a guardian of nature and a resolver of human-wildlife conflict. He holds a degree in Criminology and Security Management from KAG East University.

Do you believe we have a responsibility as humans to protect wildlife?

My philosophy is that there is a triangle made up of humans, livestock and wildlife. This triangle functions on a principle of respect for nature, and an awareness that we truly depend on it. If one part of the triangle is missing, the other elements will fail. It is time for all of us to foster this notion of respect. It is vital that we listen to nature, and the communities that have a deep first-hand knowledge of wildlife.

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Photo by Duncan Moore/ UN Environment

How can humans and wildlife co-exist to maintain a balance?  

Although the northern, eastern, and western perimeters of the park are fenced, the southern part is not. It is at this point that the Maasai community’s land meets the park. This area also acts as a wildlife corridor where wildlife can freely migrate to other parks, including Maasai Mara and Amboseli. In fact, 60–80 per cent of wildlife in Kenya is outside formally protected areas.

For the pastoral Maasai community, wildlife poses an enormous threat. As herbivores migrate during the wet season, they are followed by predators such as lions. Livestock are an easy target for them. A lion attack can be devastating, ruining their lives and livelihoods. Indeed, I recall one night where a single lion killed 40 sheep.

A game-changing solution has been introduced: solar powered “lion lights”, a concept created by Richard Turere, aged 11. We have modified them to suit the needs of our community. These lights consist of small LEDs that surround livestock enclosures, turn on automatically at night, and emit a small beam that deters predators.

Enclosures with these lights have had zero attacks. We have also introduced a vegetable patch to provide additional food security and an alternative source of income.

How important are communities for conservation?

Conservation is our way of life. Along with the benefits from tourism that arise through high wildlife populations, predators also play a vital part in balancing the ecosystem. For example, since carnivores reduce the population of herbivores, they allow enough pasture for livestock to graze. We recognize this, and it is engrained in our thinking: respecting and conserving wildlife is at the core of Maasai culture. Despite being a breeding ground for black rhinos, if you look at the history of the Nairobi National Park, we have never really had any incidents of poaching; the last case was in 2014. This is because of community involvement in conservation efforts.

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Photo by Duncan Moore/ UN Environment

Land management is crucial! In 2007, the government passed a law that considered the Maasai land I live on as part of the Nairobi metropolitan which has caused waves of people from Nairobi to buy land in Kitengela and develop properties. These properties have had a negative impact on the wildlife because they reduce the land available for wildlife to migrate effectively. The government now offers financial incentives to community members to keep their land open. I believe the future of conservation depends on community perceptions and community support. If communities decide to support conservation, then you will win. If communities decide to sell their land and move away, then you will lose.

Conservation exists on community land. Excluding communities from the conversation will prevent real work from being done. Conservation agencies need to work closely with communities where there is resource sharing. I see how education will empower young people to utilize the knowledge they have gained over the years by living alongside wildlife to come up with innovative solutions that we need to protect our wildlife. We have done a lot of work to educate families on the long-term benefits of sending their children to school and not selling their land. We are also working with students so that they come back equipped with the knowledge to apply and implement their solutions to protect our wildlife and culture—our heritage.

For further information, please contact Lisa Rolls