The ugly truth about wildlife conservation in Kenya

Kenya’s colonial wildlife conservation system is displacing native pastoralist communities from their historic lands.

Kenya conservancy
A Samburu tribesman and cattle herder looks on as cows walk through a fence destroyed by other Samburu tribesmen in Mugui conservancy, Kenya [Goran Tomasevic/Reuters]

Wildlife conservation is big business in Kenya. The tourism sector, which is mostly wildlife-based, is regularly among the top three contributors to the country’s GDP. As a result, the Kenyan government and the Western media are more than eager to focus on the positive aspects of conservation. But, unfortunately, the real story is not that straightforward.  

In Kenya, there is an ongoing battle between white settler conservationists from the Laikipia plains and pastoralist communities occupying the neighbouring northern rangelands.  

Wildlife conservationists perceive pastoralism as a poor land use method with little economic value, which is detrimental to wildlife. Pastoralists, on the other hand, see wildlife conservation as a large-scale pastoral “land grab”. And as conservationists claim more and more land for “wildlife protection”, Kenyan pastoralists, who had been the true protectors of wildlife for centuries, are swiftly losing their livelihoods.

In the past year, dozens of people have been killed or injured as a ravaging drought hit the pastoral communities and increased tensions between the two groups.

A colonial legacy

Discussions on wildlife conservation and pastoralism in Kenya are always cast in Manichean terms; wildlife conservancy is “good” and pastoralism is “bad”. This framing is rooted in Kenya’s colonial legacy, which the post-colonial African government not only inherited, but also enhanced.

Kenya’s first post-independence development plan, published in 1965, shaped the country’s negative perception of pastoralism. The plan divided the country into low and high potential regions, stating that high potential regions – regions expected to contribute significantly to the country’s GDP – would receive more investment.

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Since Kenya’s northern rangelands and, by extension, pastoralism do not contribute considerably to the country’s GDP, the state limited its investments in this region and sector. By doing so, it placed itself on the side of conservationists against local communities who depend on pastoralism to survive.

Framing the conflict in racial terms

Unsurprisingly, the conflict between white settlers and the neighbouring pastoralist communities has attracted a lot of foreign media attention.

The lack of transparency and adequate information about the manner in which new conservancies are established in Kenya adds to the anxiety of the pastoralist communities who already feel dispossessed as result of past 'land grabs'.


Articles on this issue showed up most frequently in British newspapers, since most of the white conservationists are of British descent. However, the media coverage failed to communicate the reality of the problem, as it was mostly shaped by the views of the well-heeled intergenerational wildlife conservation clique. These untouchable “royals” framed the discussion for their own benefit, using a well-choreographed, sleek PR machine.

For instance, in a piece published by the British newspaper The Guardian, titled “Who shot Kuki Gallmann? The story of a Kenyan conservationist heroine”, the conflict between the ranchers and pastoralist communities is presented in a simplistic and paternalistic way. The article, which is peppered with manifestations of a messiah complex, casts pastoralists as the barbarians at the gate of civilisation, and Kuki Gallmann, whose life was immortalised in the movie I Dreamed of Africa, as a noble white saviour who is keeping the wildlife safe from, by implication, the neighbouring pastoralist communities.

In general, Western media frame this conflict in racial terms, as a battle between the white rancher and the black pastoralist, and blatantly ignores the historical and colonial arrangement that sustains the present private wildlife management system and displaces native communities from their communal land holdings. 

Controlling Kenya in the name of wildlife conservation

Currently, the Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT) is the main driver for the establishment of wildlife conservancies in Kenya.

By some estimates, the NRT controls about 7.5 percent of Kenyan land mass in the name of wildlife conservation, that is, 44,000sq km (or 10.8m acres) of land.

These lands are found in the Rift Valley, and the Northern part of the country, formerly known as the Northern Frontier District.

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Presently, there are 140 conservancies spread across 22 counties.

The conflict between conservationists and pastoralists is not restricted to the plains of Laikipia. For example, the neighbouring Isiolo County is having an even larger problem as a result of the friction between these two groups.

The situation in Isiolo is compounded by two factors. First, Isiolo is the home to several mega infrastructure projects that are part of Kenya’s Vision 2030 national development agenda. To complete these projects, the state acquired huge chunks of land, some of which were historically used by the pastoralists for pasture during the dry seasons.

Second, the NRT has established several large conservation parks in Isiolo, bringing the area under conservancy to more than half a million hectares, massively reducing the land that can be used by pastoralists.

According to the NRT, conservancies in this county are community-led initiatives that help pastoral communities work productively towards Kenya’s conservation and development goals. As some locals manage to secure jobs as security guards and cooks in these conservancies, they argue that it is a win-win situation for pastoralist communities and wildlife conservationists.

Those opposed to the conservancies, on the other hand, see them as a massive land grab from pastoralist communities by wealthy foreigners with local connections. They also argue that these conservancies prioritise wildlife welfare over the welfare of humans and livestock.

Unsung custodians for wildlife

The lack of transparency and adequate information about the manner in which new conservancies are established in Kenya adds to the anxiety of the pastoralist communities that already feel dispossessed as result of past “land grabs”. They view these new conservancy projects as Trojan horses for further annexation of pastoral rangelands.

Conservationists argue that the broader economic gain from wildlife conservancies will eventually trickle down to the pastoralist communities living nearby. Yet, in most cases, there is not enough solid evidence supporting this argument. The overall consensus among the local populations is that conservancies cannot possibly give pastoralist communities the same kind of return that they can get from livestock.

For instance, establishment of a conservancy in Oldo Nyiro in Laikipia led to the loss of community lands. The Massais in the neighbouring Nanyuki, the headquarters of Laikipia County, were forced to graze their livestock by the roadside because all of the formerly common lands that they had been using for grazing had been fenced off. 

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After decades of neglect from previous regimes, many believe that change is finally coming to Kenya through the new devolution model that decentralises power to the county level. There is now hope that newly empowered counties will take action to protect the pastoralist communities against wildlife conservancy.

Pastoralist communities have lived harmoniously with the wildlife for centuries. They are the true but unsung custodians for the wildlife. For as long as they are not placed at the centre of wildlife conservation, Kenya’s human-wildlife conflict will persist, to the detriment of all. 

Abdullahi Boru Halakhe is a security analyst from the Horn of Africa. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.