To the west of Laikipia County, bordering the Rift Valley and Lake Baringo is the vast Laikipia Nature Conservancy, also known as Ol Ari Nyiro, whose territory sweeps from the arid bushland of Baringo to the hills of West Pokot.
The 365-square-kilometre wildlife sanctuary owned by renowned conservationist Kuki Gallmann is Kenya's largest private reserve.
The conservancy that was bought early in the 1970s by Kuki and her husband Paolo Gallmann, is home to substantial populations of elephants, buffaloes, zebras, cheetahs, waterbucks and lions.
After the Gallmanns bought the ranch, they built a house and stocked the ranch with thousands of Dorper sheep and Boran cattle. They bought a plane and built an airstrip.
Paolo would die in a road accident on March 19, 1980, leaving his pregnant wife to manage the 98,000-acre Ol Ari Nyiro.
To the east was Gilbert Colvile's Ol Morani Ranch and Lariak, which was later sold to the Laikipia West Land Buying Company.
The land buying company was fronted by the late Laikipia senator and longserving Laikipia West MP GG Kariuki, who was then an assistant minister in the Jomo Kenyatta government.
Kariuki saw thousands of members of the Kikuyu community settled in the area. Now, they own the land under the Laikipia West Farmers and Mutukanio Cooperative Society, spread across Ol Moran, Wangwachi, Ndindika, Kirima and Mwenje areas.
Theatre of violence
Today, the Laikipia Nature Conservancy and the areas around it have become the theatre of violence in Laikipia as armed gangs invade the land, kill, maim its occupants and steal their livestock.
The area has been declared a troubled zone and a curfew imposed.
At Charles Maina's home in Wangwaci village, we are welcomed in whispers.
Preparations are in top gear for his burial. Not even smoke can be seen at the homestead; the residents feeling not safe enough to bury their dead.
Maina is the latest victim of the clashes between herders and residents bordering the vast conservancy.
He was gunned down last Wednesday afternoon as he and his friend herded their cattle a few metres from where the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) were digging a trench along the conservancy's boundary.
"I have been left widowed by a man who was not ill; that I depended on solely. The forested area has been a curse to us, we have lost our people and livelihoods," cried Beatrice Murugi, his widow.
According to Beatrice, the bandits come with powerful and sophisticated weapons, which seem better than those used by security forces.
"The bandits seem to be enjoying the protection of the police doing operations here. We hear bombs being blasted in the conservancy, but the herders still roam freely, and come out to attack, steal from us and later drive our livestock to their hideouts in the conservancy," she says.
Out of the 21 cows that were stolen from her husband the day he was killed, only eight have been recovered by police reservists at the conservancy, she adds.
"We are told that if our animals enter the conservancy, they are lost forever. We only watch helplessly as they drive the herds away towards Baringo," says Mzee Joseph Kiarie, who neighbours the Laikipia-Baringo valley.
It is painful to see armed criminals killing residents one by one, to displace them from their land, he says.
"We bought these lands through cooperatives, where we saved money and got allocation according to our shares. It is painful to see these people kill us and move us out in the name of cattle rustling," noted Mzee Kiarie.
Normalcy yet to return
Though the government has deployed security agents to flush out the bandits, normality is yet to return to the communities bordering the conservancy, who say the recent attacks are due to laxity in security operations.
"Is the government fighting itself? Why should we be caught up in fights?" asks Paul Njoroge, an elder.
He adds: "During the 2016/17 operations, the government managed to flush illegal herders and criminals out of the ranch in weeks, unlike this one that has lasted more than one month. We are wondering what is so special about this one."
Despite the government saying that thousands of animals have been flushed out of the conservancy, the conservancy's management says there is still a big number of cattle grazing illegally in the conservancy.
"We still have a substantial number of cattle inside the Laikipia Nature Conservancy. Aerial surveillance conducted between September 24 and 27 estimated the animals to be between 7,000 and 10,000," the conservancy's security manager, Mr Allan Bandi, tells the Nation.
"The illegal herders that the government claims to have escorted out of the conservancy have been here for over three months and have caused wanton destruction of our property, killed and maimed. It is ridiculous for the same government that is mandated to protect lives and property to escort criminals and allow them to walk scot-free," says Mr Bandi.
The conservancy's management says that property worth Sh18 million, including a fence and buildings have been destroyed by the illegal herders.
Thorn in the flesh
The conservancy has been a thorn in the flesh of the residents and the proprietor, Kuki, together with her family.
Kuki's daughter Sveva Gallmann speaks of her dream to conserve local biodiversity together with the community.
"We have several projects, including the eco-charcoal project that has the potential to employ 700 people.
"We have witnessed a spike of violence every pre-election year, that for several months, we live in fear as some people move in from Rift Valley, killing people and stealing livestock," says Sveva, known to the locals as Makena.
She tells of massive destruction of livelihoods as the bandits use the conservancy as a launch pad for raids and then as an escape route.
"We have lost a lot of infrastructure to these bandits and it's our wish to work with the government to ensure more lives are not lost and security is restored," regret Sveva, one of the conservancy's directors.
Her family has paid a heavy price, with her mother nursing gunshot wounds twice.
In May, Kuki was shot in the leg when she encountered an armed gang of cattle raiders near Ol Moran. She was also shot in 2017.
"The bandits have not been killing and maiming the members of the community neighbouring the conservancy. We are part of the community and we have been suffering the same fate.
"My mother is one of the dozens of community members who have been wounded or killed in recent months in Laikipia West. Tragically, my 78-year-old mother was shot through the leg in May by a gang of cattle raiders while driving alone near Ol Moran. I am still nursing her back to health," says Sveva.
For several years, she says, the conservancy has been providing structured grazing for community members during the dry season without any problems.
"Why should they come with guns for grass? They have in the past negotiated successfully. What has changed this time around?" she asks.
Until March 2021, the conservancy was providing high-quality grazing for 1,500 community livestock, fattening them for the market. This was due to be scaled up to 4,000 over several months to the end of the year, she says.
"We are happy to be part of the system that has worked a sustainable grazing management plan. We are happy that our grass bank has gone a long way in fattening cattle so that there is less pressure during the dry season as we use our grass to create grazing patterns," notes Sveva.
However, with the invasion of the ranch by men with more than 15,000 cattle from other counties, the conservancy management has stopped the fattening scheme.
Sveva says the local cattle are no longer able to access the grazing lands due to insecurity.
"Many areas of the conservancy no longer have any grass left at all and local pastoralists' livelihoods are at stake," she adds.
In a recent visit to the ranch by the Senate Committee on Security, the members recommended that the conservancy be surrendered to the government. The senators said the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) should move in to secure the wild animals and manage the area.
Is the finger being pointed at the wrong person?
"If all these security forces have been here and are yet to contain the situation, how will KWS manage?" asks Sveva.
The Nation has established that the KDF and the General Service Unit (GSU) also have permanent camps in the conservancy.
Local politicians have been pushing for a government takeover of the land and it appears that the salivating for Kuki's conservancy will not end soon.
The Nation has also established that powerful individuals in the government have been making offers to the conservancy management to buy it.
The director notes that armed bandits from Baringo County who usually engage mainly in livestock theft are a constant threat to life and property in the area.
"The violence element here is not just about grass -- it is more than that, as the destruction is massive and lives have been lost. The boundary of the massive conservancy and Baringo's Tiaty Constituency has worsened the situation," adds Sveva.
On August 19, the conservancy suffered a blow after its Laikipia Wilderness Education Centre was attacked by bandits.
The centre that was built in memory of Mrs Gallmann's son Emanuele, is a research centre visited by ecologists, students, and conservationists.
The education centre also serves pupils from the communities around the conservancy.
Ms Dafin Maburi, the project lead at Land of Hope Pre-Primary School regretted that no children were coming to school after they fled with their parents.
The current conflicts had hampered multibillion-shilling projects being undertaken by the conservancy, says Sveva.
The conservancy has multiple tourism and education facilities, which since their establishment, have served more than 10,000 students. The conservancy also offers a series of courses in wilderness survival, leadership, and documentary filmmaking, as well as creative camps for youngsters and teenagers at the centre.
In total, the projects will contribute more than Sh700 million to the regional economy annually and provide reliable employment to more than 1,000 people, while also engaging the broader community in the vital battle against climate change, land degradation, and the resultant regional instability.
At the expansive conservancy lies Mukutan Retreat Lodge, with executive suites that are patronised by foreign tourists. In 2017, the lodge was burnt down by armed herders.