Space to Call their Own: Protecting Eselengei, Kenya

Encompassing over 200,000 acres, Eselengei is the northernmost tract of intact wilderness in the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro (Greater Amboseli) ecosystem in southern Kenya. With every year, its importance and the need to conserve it is growing. Over the years, Big Life Foundation’s rangers have played a central role in controlling poaching and making the Greater Amboseli ecosystem a safer place. As a result, animals—especially elephants—are now venturing further from Amboseli National Park and deeper into Eselengei. They are also staying there for longer. This safe zone is not just important for elephants; Eselengei is also a stronghold of the ecosystem’s lion population, as well as home to a wide diversity of other species. However, Eselengei is surrounded by communities that are not always friendly to wildlife. Poachers, targeting bushmeat and sometimes ivory, operate along its northern boundaries, frequently picking off animals in the areas outside of the existing conservancy that lies within Eselengei. In 2018, five elephants were speared to death in a series of horrific events.

In response, Big Life plans to expand its successful wildlife protection and conservation model to Eselengei. This includes adding two permanent ranger outposts, fully equipped and manned by recruits from the Eselengei community, and supported by a Land Cruiser vehicle that will allow for rapid response to emergencies. These rangers will not just work to protect wildlife on Eselengei (often by providing support to the people who share this space), but will also respond when animals cross the invisible barrier into neighboring ‘hostile’ territory.

Also, Big Life will implement its Predator Compensation Fund (PCF) to Eselengei. The fund provides livestock owners with financial compensation for all verified losses of their animals to the ecosystem’s wild predators. This program has been immensely successful over the years, helping to increase the lion population throughout the ecosystem.

 

Elephant protection

ince 2008, there has been a massively increased demand for ivory from China and the Far East. As many as 35,000 elephants a year are being slaughtered, 10% of Africa’s elephant population each year alone.
The Amboseli ecosystem harbours one of the two greatest population of elephants left in East Africa. Until BLF came on the scene in late 2010, Amboseli was experiencing a dramatic surge in poaching. For an ecosystem of such importance and uniqueness, Amboseli was strangely forgotten in terms of wildlife protection, suffering badly from insufficient funding from both government and (the very few) non-profit organizations in the region.
With this in mind, and in order to attempt to stop the destruction of this extraordinary ecosystem and its animals, Big Life Foundation was established in October 2010.
The Amboseli ecosystem became Big Life’s pilot large-scale initiative project, operating on the ground, collaborating closely with local communities, partner NGO’s, national parks and government agencies, particularly the Kenya Wildlife Service.
Multiple fully-equipped teams of rangers have been placed in newly-built outposts in the most critical, vulnerable areas throughout the region. So far, within just two years of inception, BLF has 250 trained rangers, 46 ranger units, 5 mobile units, 13 vehicles, one airplane, 5 tracker dogs, latest technology equipment, and a large informer network.
Since 2010, BLF has made 2438 arrests, seized 3578 poaching tools and poaching rates of elephants were constantly reduced: 7 cases in 2013, 2 in 2014, 2 in 2015 and 1 in 2016.
This new level of co-ordinated protection for the ecosystem has brought about a major, dramatic reduction in poaching of ALL animals in the region. The fact that every ranger comes from the local communities only strengthens that link between Big Life and the communities, with each helping the other in vital ways.

Human Wildlife Conflict (HWC) – Human Elephant Conflict (HEC)

Mayoyo Kutata is lucky to be alive. Last week, the 30-year-old mother of four was herding the family goats in the late afternoon and stopped to chop some wood for the evening cooking. Caught up in the routine of these daily tasks, she didn’t notice the giant shadows.
Too late, she realized that she was surrounded by elephants, and panicked and ran. One of the elephants chased her, knocking her into a bush with a swing of its trunk. The elephant backed off, but turned and charged again. This time she screamed and the sound startled the rest of the herd. Thankfully, they all ran and the charging elephant diverted its course to run with them.
Others have not been so lucky. Big Life has recorded 11 people killed by elephants in the greater Amboseli ecosystem since the start of 2016, including two people killed in 2017 already. This is a tragedy, made even more emotional when the victims are children.
In many cases the community has taken matters into their own hands. Big Life recorded just one elephant poached in our area of operation in 2016, but unfortunately this phenomenal success was tempered by the tragic retaliatory deaths of 19 elephants that happened as a result of these conflicts (many of these were euthanized). This is the biggest future challenge for the elephants of Amboseli – not elephants killed by poachers, but elephants killed by humans in conflict with them.
Violent conflict does nothing for human-elephant relations, already strained due to the economic losses suffered by local farmers losing their crops to elephants. Big Life is doing what we can to help alleviate the pain caused by the loss of human life, working to find employment opportunities for members of the families of the deceased, as well as looking for educational scholarships for the sons and daughters of those who died. Big Life is also working in partnership with all local stakeholders, including government, community, and NGO’s, to put in place rapid response measures, so as to minimize the chances of unnecessary injury or death to both humans and elephants.

Black Rhino Conservation

The Chyulu Hills rhino population is of critical value to rhino conservation at an international level. The population is one of the very few genetically independent populations of Eastern Black rhino (Diceros bicornis michaeli) left in East Africa today.
Of additional significance is the habitat itself, highly suitable to Black rhinos in terms of forage and space availability. The entire hill range represents an opportunity for the growth of the population and offers a significant step in rhino conservation on a national level.
The Chyulu Hills cover an area of over 400 km2, the 4th largest National Park in Kenya, with a huge potential for the future of rhino conservation. This National Park belongs to the Amboseli-Kilimanjaro ecosystem and offers next to rhinos also a large variety of other species feeding grounds during the dry season.
Approximately 80% of the rhinos’ range falls within the Chyulu Hills National Park, a heavily vegetated line of volcanic hills; the remaining 20% falls on the neighbouring Mbirikani Group Ranch, a Maasai collective comprising about 10,000 households and their livestock, which is part of the greater Amboseli- Kilimanjaro – Tsavo Conservation Area. The Chyulus’ rhinos are monitored and protected by rangers from the Big Life Foundation. BLF works in tandem with the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) and has been operating successfully in this area for the past 20 years.
Given the above mentioned facts, the Chyulu Hills represent an exciting opportunity for progress in terms of rhino conservation and growing the Kenyan meta-population to targeted level. During the next year, the aim for the Chyulu Hills is to become an Intensive Protection Zone (IPZ). This step is necessary to facilitate the translocation of other rhino to this unique population and therefore the ongoing survival of the remaining population.

Maasai Olympics – The hunt for medals not for lions

For centuries the Maasai have practiced a traditional rite of passage to manhood: hunting and killing lions. Today, there are too many people and too few lions. Realising that the traditional Maasai way of reaching manhood will not have a future, the cultural “fathers” asked Big Life Foundation (BLF) to eliminate lion hunting from the Maasai culture.
In response, BLF partnered with the Maasai to conceive and raise funds for this first-ever Maasai Olympics, part of the larger initiative to help to shift the attitudes of the Maasai toward a commitment to wildlife and habitat conservation as a preferred way of life in the 21st century.
This larger initiative consisting of two parts, conservation education and sports.
In order to reach a large audience, a film was produced exclusively for this project and used to teach the young generation that lion killing is no longer culturally acceptable and must stop now, as must the killing of elephants and all wildlife species. Failure to follow the “path of conservation” and reap its economic benefits will result in an unsustainable future of the Maasai people.

Competition in sports starts at local level. The warriors receive basic sports training in six events and compete for selection to one of four teams across the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem.
At regional level, each team will compete in organized competitions against the other three villages.
At ecosystem-wide level, the highly important and most wanted Olympic Day is waiting. This highlight takes place before national and international media, celebrities, government officials, friends, family, and tourists. The four villages will compete for event medals, prizes, and for the overall winners a trophy and prized bull. Thousands of people attend.
Girls being the motivators behind warriors wanting to hunt lion, are also potential conservation advocates and are included in the education program and in two competitions at Olympics Day.

Predator Compensation Fund (PCF)

In 2003, in response to an imminent threat of local lion extinction, Maasailand Preservation Trust (MPT) which in 2010 became the Big Life Foundation (BLF), in close collaboration with the local community, conceived a first-of-its-kind predator compensation programme. The intention was to better balance the costs and benefits of living with wildlife and thereby replace conflict and retaliation with tolerance and cohabitation.
This novel conservation strategy remains one of the most far-reaching and effective projects, the first of its kind, implemented in the Amboseli-Kilimanjaro Maasailand ecosystem.
One of many key aspects of PCF is that it acts as an umbrella of protection – not only preventing lion extinction but also providing coverage for other persecuted species, such as hyena, cheetah, leopard, wild dog and jackal.
The raising of livestock in Maasailand is a vital activity for the community’s subsistence. Consequently, predators are under constant threat from livestock owners who view them as a danger to their livestock and kill them in retribution for livestock losses. Retaliatory killing is the major threat to Africa’s lion population. Recent estimates show that 20 years ago 200,000 lions lived in Africa, today there are less than 25,000, with no more than 2,000 residing in Kenya.
The success achieved by PCF in its past years is arguably unequalled in African conservation:
Since inception, lion killing has virtually stopped on Mbirikani Group Ranch, a Maasai community of 10,000 individuals. Only 6 lions were killed by livestock owners during the first nine years of the project. During that same period, more than 200 lions were killed on the neighbouring group ranches where the PCF programme did not (yet) exist. The same community that now protects lions killed 22 in just 18 months prior to introduction of PCF.
A key factor to PCF’s success is the requirement that the entire community must support the objectives of the programme or compensation will cease for everyone.