Kenya: Laikipia Conservancies in Race to Beat Climate-Triggered Biodiversity Loss

Nanyuki — A thriving herd of antelopes ranges across a freshly regenerated grassland forming part of an extensive savannah at the foot of Mt Kenya in the Laikipia plateau.

Vibrant antelope flocks alongside an equally impressive wildebeest and zebra population are part of a treasured ecosystem at the Borana Conservancy, a 32,000-acre wildlife protection area, on the north of Kenya's equator town of Nanyuki.

A quick glance across the valley reveals an emerging threat - patches of dry grassland dotting the landscape - against which a wide variety of endangered species including the black and white rhino strive to endure.

"Dry spells stretch as long as three years here before significant rainfall is recorded," Kip Ole Polos, a seasoned tour guide and Chairperson of the Laikipia Conservancies Association (LCA), accounting for 60 percent of Kenya's black rhino population, explains.

Ole Polos notes Laikipia's cumulative conservation area accounting for 40 percent of the county's land mass has only registered a 7 percent decline in wildlife population over three decades compared to a national average of 68 per cent.

Laikipia's single-digit figure is unrivalled with second place Taita Taveta posting 41 percent and West Pokot (99 percent) losing virtually all its wildlife population.

LCA, a member-led coalition bringing together twenty-eight conservancies including eight community associations and twenty privately-owned wildlife protection areas, has been on the forefront in efforts to support regeneration of pastureland to mitigate the impact of drought.

Conservancies achieve this by curtailing access to depleted portions of conservancy land to species such as elephants to allow regeneration of pasture, particularly shrubs.

"Elephants flatten shrubs leaving behind a bare field. Keeping them off over time helps the bushes grow back into existence," he says.

Water supply

Alternative water sources such as boreholes provide critical support to wildlife when dams run dry.

"Strategically placed water troughs replenished by solarized boreholes provide wildlife with the much-needed support when waterholes run dry," Ole Polos illustrates, pointing to a trough dozens of yards from a dam at the floor of a valley.

Our overland truck detours from the trail we followed from base camp making its way to a thicket nearby where it stops next to a tour van led by a spotting guide.

"Quiet guys!" Ole Polos whispers pointing to a shrub. "We have lions over there. It's a couple, certainly on their honeymoon."

The sleepy pair - a lion and a lioness - is awakened by camera clicks as photographers aim their lenses.

Unperturbed by the frenzy, the lioness rolls into the bush back to slumber as the lion stares curiously.

"The lioness is pregnant. The two will spend seven to ten days together during which period they will hardly move from their current location," Ole Polos explains.

"They will occasionally join the pride for meals and return. This period is characterised by frequent mating," he adds, noting that the lion may not necessarily be the father of the cubs given the highly promiscuous nature of lionesses who lure their mates with prey.

Technology-led conservation

Borana has developed automated systems to monitor the movements of the carnivores and other endangered species in the savannah including through periodic geo-tracking using advanced wireless networks such as the GPRS embedded in walkie-talkies assigned to its rangers.

Military-grade GPRS forms part of technology deployed to monitor lion movements particularly when they veer off the conservancy into human settlements as part of efforts to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts.

At the base camp, LCA Grants Manager Moses Nokisho illustrates the use of the Military Grid Reference System (MGRS) to report the location of lions and rhinos on a 24-hour cycle.

"We've mapped the conservancy into four sectors each assigned three rangers who report on activities within their domain," he says, pointing to a 32-inch display dotted with coordinates showing the movements of rangers in the conservancy.

"This system sends a ping (signal) every minute reporting the location of its bearer (the ranger). We're able to check the area covered by the ranger and the last sighting of any species of interest," Nokisho adds.

Borana's web of tracking technology is entirely offgrid, powered by solar energy produced at the camp. A few metres from the control room a newly-built 25kWh solar array is taking shape.

Clean energy

"This system which includes a battery bank and inverters will bring to our grip sufficient power to optimally run our operations," LCA CEO Peter Matunge remarks.

Solarized operations form part of Borana's carbon offsetting ambitions to achieve carbon neutrality, a key pillar of an aggressive campaign to reverse biodiversity loss.

Matunge notes that conservancies in Laikipia are also conscious of other significant threats to ecological diversity including population pressure, poverty-driven conflicts, policy and enforcement gaps and poor education.

He however adds that LCA, working with member conservancies, has adopted mechanisms to promote awareness among communities neighbouring conservation areas.

"We take students from neighbouring communities on routine game tours twice a week," LCA Grant Manager Nokisho states. "We've done over 500 visits in under two years."

And although the task ahead is daunting, Nokisho notes that policy and legal frameworks around conservation are far more favourable compared to the past, signalling hope for conservation efforts going into the future.

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