Skip to main content

Lessons from Kenya: Community-Based Conservation is Key

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications

Editor's note: Elizabeth works in the content and creative team here at Woodland Park Zoo, so you've probably read her work in MyZoo magazine, on this very blog and many places between. She is a self-described bird nerd, a passionate animal protector and she holds an M.A. in Biology from our Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP) with Miami University. Elizabeth recently traveled to Kenya with several zoo colleagues to witness firsthand the conservation work she so loves. We are eager to share her experience:

A male lion in Kenya's Maasai Mara reserve. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher

When people ask why I work at Woodland Park Zoo, the answer is easy. It’s the mission. I’m passionate about conservation and I’m fortunate to work at a place where that view is widely valued, supported and shared. Recently, I was lucky enough to travel to Kenya with several zoo colleagues who share a passion for that mission—animal keepers, educators, docents, volunteers and donors. I expected it to be amazing, inspiring, beautiful, raw and eye-opening—and it was! The pictures alone show that. But what they can’t show as easily are the real grassroots connections between conservation efforts in Kenya and the people who live there.

The landscapes at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy are breathtaking! Photo: Elizabeth Bacher

It’s one thing to say you support conservation. It’s another to see what that really looks like on the ground where it makes a difference for wildlife and for people. What I saw in many conservancies, national parks, reserves and animal-orphan sanctuaries around Kenya reinforces my belief in three things that give me hope for wildlife: community-based conservation, the mission of modern zoos like Woodland Park Zoo, and the benefits of simple actions we can all take that will help save species and wild habitats.

The people of Lewa know that a future for rhinos and other wildlife is in their hands. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher

Kenya’s success with community-based conservation

I used to think that conservation was about setting aside pristine and untouched places so that animals would have their own spaces. But that’s sort of an outdated view now. It separates nature from people. When you put those two things at odds with one another, you risk creating resentment among people who feel that conservationists are ignoring them and their needs. 

Growing human populations and shrinking wildlife habitats mean that people need to learn to share land with wildlife. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher

Unfortunately, there aren’t many truly “wild” places left on our planet. Shrinking animal populations and growing human populations have made that clear. The truth is we need to learn to share the habitat. Whether you live in the Northwest with bears, cougars and coyotes, or in Kenya with elephants, rhinos and lions, the most successful conservation programs for wildlife are those that focus on getting the buy-in and support of local people. Helping people to find solutions that save animals and protect livelihoods is what true community-based conservation is about. 

Visiting places like Lewa provide opportunities to better understand community-based conservation. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is one of the places we visited and it is a model of community-based conservation. It’s in the middle of Kenya and covers more than 62,000 acres of land. Since the 1920s it was managed as a cattle ranch that also offered opportunities for wildlife tourism. But you can’t have wildlife tourism without wildlife. By the mid-80s, poaching for the illegal wildlife trade had devastated Kenya’s rhino populations and Lewa’s leaders knew that action was needed to save them from extinction. It was clear that in order to survive, even these wild animals needed to live under some form of human care and protection. 

White rhinos in Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher

An endangered Grevy's zebra nurses her calf at Lewa. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher

When you protect one species, other animals that share its habitat are also protected. Today, the Lewa Conservancy serves as a safe refuge for the critically endangered black rhino and the endangered Grevy’s zebra, as well as elephants, white rhinos, lions, giraffe, leopards and other iconic wildlife species. My group and I were privileged to meet some of these protectors in Lewa and the neighboring Borana and Il Ngwesi Wildlife Conservancies. These dedicated and highly trained people—most from local Maasai tribes that share their land and their mission—risk their lives every day, protecting endangered wildlife. 

Tracker-dog units can find poachers before they cause harm to wildlife. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher

Wildlife rangers use a combination of instinct and sophisticated technology to monitor the location and welfare of rhinos and elephants that live in the conservancy. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher

Maps and charts help to make sure all the animals they protect are accounted for. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher

We spent several days at these locations learning how the guides, field rangers, radio operators, tracker-dog units and anti-poaching teams do their jobs—providing a first line of defense against poachers who profit from the illegal sale of ivory, rhino horn and other endangered animal parts. This is a 24-hour-a-day operation, with some teams spending long days looking for rhino tracks that tell them which direction the animals were moving, and others deploying at sundown to spend the night in the bush, equipped with radios and high-powered rifles. Each team has a list of individual rhinos and elephants that were last spotted in that teams’ zone. It is their job—using a combination of instinct and sophisticated technology—to make sure each of these animals is accounted for and appears healthy. It is also their job to report back on any animals that appear to be ill or injured, or to alert other units in other zones to be on the lookout for any individuals that haven’t been spotted for several days.

Members of the anti-poaching patrol receive their daily briefing together before deploying in teams. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher

Some teams work during the day, while others are deployed for an overnight shift in the bush. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher 

Their work is paying off. None of those conservancies has lost a rhino, or an elephant, to poaching in more than 7 years. The directors of these organizations know their success is based on relationships, collaboration and partnerships with local people. They invest in these communities—the same communities where many of their employees’ families live.

Lewa Medical Center serves people in all nearby communities and is ready to offer preventative care, maternity care and treatment for illness or injury. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher
Many of these teens said they want careers in conservation after they graduate from school. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher
The women of Il Ngwesi have access to educational and economic opportunities to help support their families. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher

Many women are part of a beadwork enterprise which enables them to create and sell their colorful creations. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher

The conservancies provide support for things like schools, healthcare, agricultural and social programs, economic development opportunities for women and youth programs. The conservancies also assist villages with community policing to manage disputes and lower crime rates. All of these investments help alleviate poverty and create an environment of trust. In return, the people are motivated to offer their support against poaching or any other crimes against wildlife—and local villages are filled with an enthusiasm for wildlife conservation. In the Maa language of the Maasai people, the name “Il Ngwesi” (one of the conservancies) literally translates to “people of wildlife". This is community-based conservation at its very best.

Sharing the habitat with wildlife means elephants are welcome to come drink from this well. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher
Reticulated giraffe in Samburu National Park, just north of Lewa. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher

Modern zoos as places of conservation

In addition to learning that the people who work at Lewa, Borana and other such places are passionate about saving species, I also learned that they have a special appreciation for conservation-based zoos. The people I met are quite familiar with the name Woodland Park Zoo, and they know that zoos and zookeepers throughout the U.S. and Canada are doing more for conservation than most people realize. The American Association of Zoo Keepers—known as AAZK—has thousands of members across North America and has raised millions of dollars for places like the Lewa-Borana landscape. If you look at the list of its biggest supporters, AAZK is at the top of the list along with other groups that usually get more attention such as The Nature Conservancy and the Tusk Trust, which counts Prince William as its lead patron. Pretty prestigious company!

When it comes to fundraising, zookeepers don’t mess around and they absolutely know how to make it fun. Each year AAZK sponsors fund-raising bowling events around the globe. These events are, not-surprisingly, called Bowling for Rhinos. It is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: a bunch of zookeepers getting together and bowling for dollars that go towards conservation. For those who don’t want to put on bowling shoes, AAZK chapters also hold other fun events across the country such as such as Winos for Rhinos, Curling for Rhinos, and more. There are more than 85 AAZK chapters throughout the US and Canada, and together, they raise more than $600,000 each year for rhino conservation. These funds go directly to places like Lewa in Kenya, as well as other parks and rhino sanctuaries in Indonesia and elsewhere. Why just focus on rhinos when there are so many species that need our help? Some of the money also supports Action for Cheetahs in Kenya (ACK), which shares a portion of its land with Lewa. The truth is, these sanctuaries not only save rhinos (and cheetahs) but also entire ecosystems—from orchids to elephants. Since 1990 the Puget Sound AAZK chapter alone has raised more than $184,000 for conservation!

Our trip leader, Norah Farnham, is an animal keeper and a leading fundraiser for AAZK. She has been visiting conservation sites in Kenya for decades, as evidenced by her 30-year friendship with Maasai elder James Ole Kinyaga. Photos: Norah Farnham

All the zookeepers who traveled with me are very involved with AAZK and are top fundraisers for the organizations it supports. Every year, AAZK animal keepers visit Lewa and the neighboring conservancies—and they bring donors with them to see how the dollars they contribute are turned into concrete conservation efforts. So it’s no wonder that the people of Lewa, Borana and Il Ngwesi are familiar with AAZK, Woodland Park Zoo animal keepers, and keepers from many accredited zoos throughout North America.

Be a catalyst for conservation

You don't have to be an animal keeper to care about animals. Nor do you have to travel half-way around the world to support conservation and the communities that share their habitats with wildlife (although it is an amazing experience). There are lots of actions you can take—big and small—that make a difference here in the Northwest and around the world.

Xerxes and Adia, Woodland Park Zoo's pride. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, Woodland Park Zoo.
Support your zoo! What's your favorite animal? From penguins to pangolins and turtles to tigers, there are community-based conservation programs that support numerous species and habitats. Woodland Park Zoo’s Field Conservation department supports more than 35 wildlife conservation projects in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. Every time you visit, part of your admission price or membership fee goes to support those projects. 

Zookeepers aim to strike out extinction at the 2018 AAZK Bowling for Rhinos event. Photo: Puget Sound Chapter of AAZK

Support animal keepers. The Puget Sound Chapter of AAZK is holding its 2019 Bowling for Rhinos event on Saturday May, 4 at the University of Washington’s Husky Union Building (HUB). All the money they raise goes to support places like Lewa. You can make a donation to the cause, or go cheer them on in person and join in the fun.

White rhino mother nursing her young calf at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Photo: Marian Callahan

Want to learn more? Click on any of the links in this blog to dig a little deeper. Want to learn a LOT more? There are several conservation zoos throughout North America (Woodland Park Zoo is one of them) that partner with Miami University of Ohio to offer Master’s degree programs focusing on biology and community-based conservation. There are online and in-person components, including amazing opportunities for study at key conservation field sites in Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas.

Bottom line, there are many ways you can help save species and protect habitat. Thank you for being an animal enthusiast and doing what you can for these incredible creatures.


Eric walker said…

I just amazed while seeing your content!
Keep Posting like this stuff
Happy Ramadan 2019