For more than 10 years, the Zoo has partnered with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly to lead graduate courses that take educators into the field to experience community-based conservation, participatory education and inquiry firsthand. This year, I had the fortunate opportunity to co-facilitate Earth Expeditions Kenya: People and Wildlife in Integrated Landscapes with Dave Jenike, the Zoo’s COO. We took 17 educators with us, including formal classroom teachers as well as informal educators from zoos and similar institutions. This is the second post in a series about our experience. Read the first post in this blog series here.
Day 4 (continued):
We arrived at the Lale’enok Resource Centre in the early afternoon. As soon as we stepped out of the vehicles, we were greeted by a welcoming committee. The Olkirimatian Women’s Group welcomed us with a beautiful song once we made our way into the shelter that would serve as our home base for meals and meetings throughout the week. The Operations Manager, Joel Ngongo, then introduced us to the Centre’s staff, researchers and community members that were there.
We received a quick orientation to camp, including very important safety information such as always be alert; there was a venomous snake spotted in camp earlier that day. Near the tents, they had set up temporary sand pit toilets and showers that basically consist of a bucket of water with a spout that you open and close. Water is a very precious resource here in the South Rift Valley, especially during the dry season, so we kept showers to a minimum and were sure to turn the water off when soaping up.
We returned to the shelter for a conversation with John Kamanga, Director of SORALO (South Rift Association of Land Owners) and Chairman of Olkirimatian Group Ranch. He shared with us the history and background of the Maasai culture and how the Lale’enok Resource Centre came to be. The Maasai have coexisted with wildlife as nomadic pastoralists that herd livestock for thousands of years. However, as times change and their culture evolves, the traditional Maasai way of maintaining that coexistence must also adapt. For example, there is growing pressure to subdivide the land and build fences, which would prevent wildlife as well as people and their livestock from migrating to find good grazing areas. Also, many of the young Maasai men who traditionally protect livestock from lions now go off to school, leaving their herds more vulnerable to attack. The community-based research and programs conducted out of Lale’enok aim to solve those issues and support both wildlife conservation and thriving livelihoods.
To that end, one thing the community has done is to designate three zones of land use on the group ranch. The first is a settlement and grazing zone occupied by people and livestock for much of the year, particularly during the wet season. The second is a buffer zone into which people and livestock migrate during the dry season. Lastly, there is the conservation zone that serves as a wildlife refuge and is only used for livestock grazing during drought conditions. Following this structure ensures sustainable land use and preservation of the savannah ecosystem.
We happened to arrive on the last day before the community would be allowed to migrate across the river into the conservation area in response to the current drought. It was a great opportunity for us to visit the conservation area and see it unoccupied; later in the week, we would see it occupied with people and livestock. It was also our first chance to game drive, get the lay of the land and look for wildlife. We split into three groups, each with a guide and headed out in the cruisers.
First, we visited an unoccupied boma, or homestead. Peter, an elder who is on the Conservation Committee, explained the set up of the boma and pointed out which corral was for cattle and which was for shoats (sheep and goats). We also peeked inside one of the manyattas, or huts, in which the people cook and sleep. The entire boma is surrounded by a fence of thorny branches.
Then we continued our game drive until after dark, spotting a diversity of wildlife from zebras and wildebeest to baboons and giraffes. It’s so amazing to think that the Maasai, their livestock and all this wildlife – including lions and other carnivores, even though we didn’t see them on this first game drive – share the same space. Sure, here in Cincinnati we share our backyards and cities with birds, squirrels and deer, but even so, we still think of it as “our” space. We’ve eliminated our large predators like wolves and cougars and are generally nervous when potentially dangerous animals like bears are spotted in the area. What could we learn from the Maasai about living with wildlife rather than separated from it?
It was a very full first day in Olkirimatian. Exhaustion and the much hotter, drier climate caught up with me after dinner so that I retired to my tent and fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. We had five more days of adventure and exploration ahead of us.
To be continued in a future blog post. Check back soon!
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