Following the end of commercial hunting in the region during the 1970s, local people used firearms purchased from Somali refugees to poach wildlife indiscriminately. By the late 1980s, elephant populations had been significantly reduced and rhinos had disappeared. The ecosystem has simultaneously been under threat from deforestation, with sections of the Mukogodo forest cleared for timber, fuel wood, and agriculture. As well as contributing to widespread land degradation, this has also increased local tensions between pastoralists and farmers.
The Il Ngwesi Group Ranch in the central Kenyan district of Laikipia established an 8,645 hectares community-conserved area that aims to balance the needs of local pastoralists with wildlife conservation and the operation of a lucrative ecolodge. Il Ngwesi Lodge was opened in 1996, and caters to the high-end Kenyan tourism market.Il Ngwesi means 'People of Wildlife'.
The group ranch land is divided into settlement and conservation areas. The latter is further divided into a relatively small core zone, measuring 5km² (500 hectares) and a larger buffer zone of 6,000 hectares. Within this buffer zone, pastoralists are permitted to graze livestock during dry periods, making it an important strategy for reducing the impacts of drought.
Il Ngwesi’s work in the group ranch has focused on ensuring the ecological integrity of its conservation area while delivering tangible economic and social gains for its Maasai members. Conservation strategies have included:
- Training and employment of security personnel - the bylaws established to protect the ranch’s 6,500 hectares of conserved land include the outlawing of poaching or killing of animals in the conservation area. Il Ngwesi is not fenced, so nine security personnel have been employed, and given training and weapons by the government’s reserve police force to enforce these bylaws.
- Alternative livelihood activities have been encouraged to decrease the Maasai’s reliance on livestock and increase household incomes. Conservation has been strengthened by the purchase of land outside the Il Ngwesi Group Ranch for agriculture: 2,000 acres were acquired for wheat planting (using US$ 30,000 from the UNDP Equator Prize 2002). Community members have also been encouraged to diversify from livestock to agricultural activities, including the irrigation of land on the slopes of Mount Kenya.
- Infrastructural projects, alongside health and education programs, have improved the wellbeing of the group ranch’s communities.