At Loisaba, a 56,000-acre conservancy in central Kenya, they are betting the best ways to save elephants is to fatten cattle.
Set up in the heart of the expansive Laikipia plateau 18 months ago by conservationists and a local rancher, its managers are taking a novel — and longer-term — approach to protecting the world’s largest land mammal in which tackling poaching is only a part of the solution.
“Just say we stop poaching,” says Max Graham, one of Loisaba’s founders and the chief executive of Space for Giants, an elephant protection organisation. “Then you’ve got all these elephants. How are you going to deal with them?”
A particular concern is ensuring that elephants are not seen as competition for livestock farmers who are rearing an increasing number of cattle to feed the burgeoning population.
Loisaba’s response is the Livestock to Markets programme. With backing from the Nature Conservancy, a US charity, Loisaba buys farmers’ cattle, fattens them up and sells them at a better price directly to butchers, thereby cutting out the middlemen. Profits are then shared between the conservancy and the farmers, who might otherwise fight over territory.
“The key is to share the wealth so they co-own the benefits of conservation,” Mr Graham explains.
Or, as Tom Silvester, a longtime rancher who is Loisaba’s chief executive, puts it: “The elephant in the room is the cow.”
Finding ways to coexist with elephants is a central theme at the inaugural Giants Club, a three-day meeting hosted by Uhuru Kenyatta, the Kenyan president, that began on Thursday. The club’s four members — Kenya, Uganda, Botswana and Gabon — are home to more than half of Africa’s remaining elephants. The gathering will culminate on Saturday with a bonfire of more than 100 tonnes of illegal ivory.
Senior officials from other African countries — some of which like Tanzania are considered to be havens for poachers — are also attending, along with donors, scientists, conservationists, philanthropists and businesses. Part of the agenda is to build on work done at places like Loisaba to identify new revenue streams for conservation.
The need for creative thinking is urgent as wildlife numbers continue to shrink. Kenya, for example, estimates that 80 per cent of its fauna has been lost in the past 40 years and 60 per cent of the remaining fauna live outside officially protected areas, which make up less than 8 per cent of the country.
Pressure for land across Africa is mounting while demand for poached ivory and rhino horn in Asia remains robust. An estimated 25,000 elephants a year are poached every year in Africa for their tusks; the total population is estimated at fewer than 500,000, only 40 per cent of what it was 25 years ago.
Tourism and philanthropy, the traditional financing sources for conservation in many parts of Africa, can no longer foot the bill as costs mount and foreigners holiday elsewhere for fear of Ebola and terrorism.
That has generated added interest in Loisaba’s Livestock to Markets programme. Now in its third year, it is expecting to fatten several thousand cattle this year and hopes to reach an annual target of more than 10,000. Barachoi Lebeneyo, a farmer who also works for the conservancy, says farmers are earning up to 55 per cent more per cow through the scheme.
In areas where communities are working with conservationists the results are already visible by monitoring elephants’ movements through tracking collars.
“Elephants can sense when they’re in potential danger and so they create these unmarked boundaries of fear that they do not cross,” Mr Graham says. “The area that is elephant habitat but they’re too frightened to live in is most of Africa. But where communities have been engaged those boundaries have been broken down.”
Even if its outlook is less certain than it once was, tourism is still part of the financing equation. Loisaba, for instance, has built an upper-end tented camp that formally opens this weekend and has other accommodation and a camp site.
It is also expecting to run training exercises for the British army that has a base in Laikipia and is setting up its own endowment fund. Elsewhere in Kenya the Nature Conservancy is planning to set up solar farms to meet local power needs and sell it to utilities.
In other African countries, such as parts of Namibia, limited game hunting is allowed as a means of engaging communities in conservation.
Replicating such initiatives will not be easy. Not all areas are as naturally beautiful as Loisaba, for example, and are therefore less suitable for tourism. Meanwhile, criminal cattle barons who trespass in areas designated for wildlife are now considered a greater threat than poachers because of the environmental damage they cause.
Even the best-designed programmes can be undermined by corruption, which remains rampant across most African countries, and limited budgets.
Still, Dr Graham is undeterred. “It isn’t going to be easy but what’s the alternative?” he says. “No elephants.”