Kenya: Lewa Conservancy a Haven for Wildlife


By Nduta Waweru, The Star

Date Published
Wildlife has faced various kinds of threats, from poaching to human encroachment into their habitats, and this has led to the reduction of their population, so much that some of them such as the Grevy’s zebra and the white rhino are endangered. It is with such a background that the Lewa Conservancy was set up in 1983 as a rhino sanctuary.

Over the years, it has become a place where different kinds of animals have been placed to be protected from the dangers surrounding them. According to the CEO, Mike Watson, the conservancy has employed a variety of technologies to not only make it safe but also to benefit the community around it.

“The security we employ here is underpinned on what we do, and we are trying different skills including 21st century technology to make the animals secure. In terms of capacity, we have trained our people and equipped them with enhanced skills to do their work,” he says.

The conservancy has a track record when it comes to the protection of animals, even in the mid eighties when there was the first huge crisis in poaching. During that time, the number of rhinos reduced from 20,000 to only 200, and the government moved in to protect the animals. From then, the conservancy did not lose any rhinos until the end of 2009. From 2009 to 2012, a total of 17 rhinos were lost. This statistic led to the enhancement of security in the conservancy.

One of the ways to intensify security is the use of digital communication technologies to not only keep the animals secure but to also monitor their behavior. The system is operated from the operations room in the Lewa Conservancy headquarters under the chief security officer John Pameri.

“Our ops room is open 24 hours and has a team of security officers working in eight-hour shifts each. They report on a variety of animals including the rhinos, elephants and Grevy’s Zebra on a daily basis, and this number will be compared to the annual tally, which we conduct every February,” says Pameri.

The have also used radios, whose signals are indicated on a big screen in the ops room. Depending on the colour of these indicators, the team in the room would know the status of different radios at different times of the day, as well as the locations of these radios.

“The green indicators show that the radios are on in terms of communication and GPS setting, the blue indicate that the radio’s GPS is off but the communications in on, while the gray ones indicate that the radios are not accessible either because they have been switched off or they are on a different channel,” he says.

Pameri added that the software comes with a variety of features that allows them to keep track of the conversations held over the radios as well as record the movement of the radio, which makes it easy for them to conduct the security operations in the area. The benefit of the software is that it is password protected and comes with a remote way of controlling radios in the field.

“In this way, we are able to kill the communication of the radio if it is stolen or ends up in the wrong hands,” he adds.

To further enhance the protection of the animal, especially the endangered species, some animals have been collared, and others, like rhinos, have chips inserted in their horns to monitor them. The movement of these animals and their behavior are then monitored from a different section of the screen, which allows the security officers to monitor the behaviors of the animals. They have also employed the block system, which divided the conservancy into different blocks, which are monitored by a team of three to ensure all data about the animals are recorded on a daily basis.

Specifically to the Grevy’s Zebra, different methods of protecting them are employed because of the ecology of these animals. According to Mary Mwololo, who is in charge of research and monitoring in Lewa, Grevy’s Zebra are the most endangered herbivore in the world.

“There are only 2,680 Grevy’s in the world because of their ecology. They are threatened by habitat loss due to degradation of their habitat as well as competition for resources with livestock. They are also victims of predators such as lions, which are in abundance in Lewa,” she says.

One of the ways they ensure the continuity of these zebras is by population breeding to restock them as well as carrying out monthly patrols to monitor them, and recording data in a national database.

“We do this by taking note of each Grevy’s zebra using the right rump, then carry out a count of the total population. We also monitor the activities of the prey to find out what they are killing and record it for decision making processes. In collaboration with KWS, we have also considered translocating lions as well as bio-manipulation to keep the numbers of the zebras.”

However, according to Watson, these security measures are nothing without the involvement of the local people, and that is why they are trying so hard to make sure that the community surrounding Lewa benefit from the wildlife and the conservation efforts.

“We make sure that what we do is relevant to Kenyans by making them see the tangible values of wildlife. We recognise the intrinsic value of wildlife to the people and we want to uplift the livelihood of the community and support the work they are doing,” he says.

According to Pameri, poaching is driven by money, and it was discovered that people within the system were the ones who gave information to the poachers. It is with this information that bringing in the community is a priority.

“We want the community to be our first defense line,” he says.

The passing of the Wildlife Act by parliament is welcome by the Lewa conservancy as it indicates political will by the government.

“The new law shows that the government is committed to protect wildlife. The penalties are energising. However, the loopholes and the capacity gaps in arresting and persecuting the offenders as well as the enforcement of the penalties indicate that we have a long way to go,” says Watson, adding that it will enable conservation at the ground level.

The conservation of the different animals in the conservancy has relied on the donor base that Lewa has, including the Safaricom Marathon, which has contributed $4.2 million (Sh365.4 million). The marathon, to be held on June 28, will be marking its 15th year, and has attracted quite a large number of people who are looking forward to not only participate in the marathon but also to experience what Lewa has to offer.

“It is a Kenyan event for Kenyans by Kenyans as Kenyans are extraordinarily robust in dealing with any situation,” concludes Watson.