Community conservancies are proving increasingly effective as partners in the fight against ivory poachers in Kenya. In the north of the country, conservancies now manage more than 2.5 million hectares of community land, much of it critical range for the African elephant. Operating in areas which are remote, extensive and difficult for government agencies to control, the conservancies are in the front line of the battle against the illegal ivory trade.
Conservancies represent constituent communities who own a defined area of community land, either legally or traditionally. Collectively, the landowners ensure the rights and responsibilities of conservation and share the benefits from conservation among the community. First established in Northern Kenya in 1995, there has been growing demand from communities to set up conservancies since the mid–2000s.
The Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) has been a key player in their development in Northern Kenya since 2005, helping to set up and support 19 conservancies in the north of Kenya. NRT's conservancy approach to tackling poaching is multi-faceted and includes:
- Community rangers
A network of around 400 community rangers monitor and survey wildlife across their conservancies during daily patrols. All are in direct radio contact with national law enforcement authorities, and just over a third are armed. Those who do carry arms operate as National Police Reservists, under the Kenyan Police.
- Mobile rapid-response teams (named 9-1 and 9-2 after their radio call sign)
Three armed mobile rapid response teams - made up of 25 rangers drawn from the constituent communities - cover all NRT community conservancies. These specially trained and equipped multi-ethnic groups are able to move between different tribal areas, operating where traditional law enforcement agencies would not have access.
- Intelligence gathering and social pressure
Increased NRT investment is making intelligence gathering more formal and strategic, and the conservancies maintain a local informer network which complements the Kenya Wildlife Service's intelligence system. Not least of the conservancies’ roles is applying social pressure to expose and shame criminals. Customary punishments, such as cursing individuals, still carry weight in traditional communities.
The cost of all this is significant. The NRT and the conservancies together invest around US $1 million a year in the community policing programme. The government, so far, has given little financial support. However, new legislation, devolving power to county bodies is likely to change this.
Other aspects of the NRT include a Livestock to Market Programme, an NRT trading company and support for women's empowerment and inclusion.
The Livestock to Market program rewards conservancies that have implemented holistic rangeland practices and other important conservation activities. NRT pays fair market prices for cattle, directly purchasing animals from pastoralists in high performing conservancies. Direct purchases of cattle save pastoralists from the arduous process of leading herds to market, which is costly, dangerous and often results in underweight livestock.
NRT Trading is an enterprise development engine that assists community conservancy members in the production and marketing of locally made products such as beadwork and crafts (in 2014, NRT Trading obtained limited company status). To date, NRT Trading has trained more than 900 women in craft making, accounting, marketing and leadership. Women who have successfully completed an accounting class with NRT Trading are qualified to secure a loan through a microcredit scheme. This financing mechanism gives entrepreneurial women a chance to create small businesses and diversify their income. After a two-month grace period, women must repay the loan over the course of a year at 5 percent interest.
NRT encourages the formation of women’s groups in member conservancies. There are around 2,235 women in 135 groups in 12 conservancies. Many of the women’s groups access NRT Trading training programs. NRT is partnering with the Samburu Girls Foundation to hold local workshops to empower women, sensitize communities to harmful cultural practices (e.g. female genital mutilation), provide governance and leadership training, and inspire community members to become champions for equal representation and the education of young girls.