In Kenya, conservation of the natural resources and wildlife and the involvement and development of local communities go hand-in-hand with the sustainability of the camps and the ability to provide authentic experiences. Follow our journey as we explore seven properties that offer unique experiences for their travelers, are committed to conserving Kenya’s natural resources and wildlife, and are intimately involved in the development of their local communities. To see all of the posts from this multi-part series, click here.
Big Life Foundation partners with ol Donyo Lodge and Great Plains Foundation for the Maasai Olympics. Today we’re interviewing Craig Millar, Head of Security at Big Life Foundation.
How did you get involved with Big Life Foundation?
I first got involved with Big Life Foundation (BLF) in 2010/11 while at University, doing combined work experience and research for my dissertation. The 3 months I spent in the area working with BLF made me sure I wanted to work in conservation and that BLF was an organization that, should an opportunity present itself, I would love to be involved in. Amboseli and the Chyulu Hills, in particular, are an area that I love. After finishing University I worked in Nairobi in a Private Security firm to gain experience, concentrating on the field of conservation. During this time I heard that BLF were recruiting for a Field Coordinator and I applied, within two weeks I was on site and working!
What is the best thing about your job?
There are many things about my job that I love, I struggle to pick the top 5 let alone the number one! Among the things that motivate me the most are that I get to live in one of my favorite places on earth full-time, that the job never gets boring as there are always new projects and focuses as we adapt to a rapidly changing world. But more than all these is a simple fact that we are making a difference. The elephants here are among the safest in Africa, both lion and elephant populations are growing, these are indicators of how effective BLF is. There are hardly any other areas in Africa that can cite similar successes. In a world that is increasingly out of balance, it’s amazing to be part of something that is successfully working towards rectifying the natural order of things. Elephants and lions are important, but it’s the entire picture that is truly important. Keeping a functioning ecosystem viable has ramifications well beyond local wildlife and contributes to the health of our planet- the single biggest issue we are all facing.
Describe a typical day at Big Life Foundation?
There isn’t one! Things are always changing as conditions change, wildlife and people move around and the impact of what we do affects things. Every day we have 36 different units who do a patrol, in an area over 1.5 million acres in size. The average unit will patrol just under 20 km’s each day, at the same time we have 12 vehicles doing logistical and security duties. An average day will have the arrest of one or two suspects for a variety of crimes- from cutting wood to trophy dealing (ivory or rhino horn) and twice a month a treatment or rescue of some species of animal is needed. Other units will be concentrating on Conservancy management, preventing trespassing and controlling grazing as per grazing plans and conservancy by-laws (including the Ker & Downey Kitirua conservancy). Rangers report everything they observe, from a dik-dik being sighted to 100 elephant browsing in a certain area. Everything is recorded and entered into our database. The radio room is constantly busy, with three different channels all on the go. Dedicated Intelligence officers collect intel, sometimes going undercover for weeks. Once all is ready units are called in to make the arrest. All of this is done with the support of KWS and other stakeholders (David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for example).
At the same time as all this, we will have 4 motorbikes with 8 people verifying predation incidents and issuing PCF (Predator Compensation Fund) claims to people who have had livestock killed by predators. An average of 8 -10 claims are verified a day, in general, this stops any retaliation but when times are tough rangers will be forced to break from their patrols and prevent retaliation from happening, this is increasingly rare but there are still close to 20 attempted hunts a year. Often these originate from areas which are not covered by PCF (compensation) or the Maasai Olympics, but these boundaries mean nothing to wildlife and predators. On each of these incidents (poaching or PCF related), BLF has canine units and security aircraft on standby ready to react if the situation warrants it.
While all this fieldwork goes on the HQ continues as normal, with students coming to collect cheques for bursaries, education officers taking field trips or visiting local schools and conducting a class. Meetings with community members on planning for Maasai Olympics or discussing HWC happen 2-3 times a week, at the HQ or at warrior manyatta’s. Vehicles are being serviced, schools facilities constructed or improved, ranger outposts repaired and logistics such as supplies/rations, salaries are arranged. Permaculture projects are ongoing, and fences are being constructed to protect crops. When evening comes the duty cycle rotates, HQ quietens down, unless you are near the radio room where nothing changes apart from the personnel! Different rangers come on duty – in areas of high threat or where intel indicates a potential problem rangers go into ambush, or set up observation posts for the night. Other rangers start to move into position to intercept wildlife heading towards crops using the reports from the patrols to guide them on where they will be needed most. As the evening turns to night these rangers start responding to reports from farmers, helping them to remove wildlife from their crops safely, minimizing damage to the crops and preventing injury to both the farmers and the animal culpable.
The fences mean we can concentrate on areas yet to be fenced, but only 25% of the estimated area where fences are needed and suitable has been completed, and there are many more areas where fencing isn’t possible but rangers still need to help. Rangers will intervene in an average of 5 incidents of crop raiding a night. The next morning it starts all over again, there are no breaks, it’s a year-round operation and a massive amount of work, involving many different projects. But this is our greatest strength and the reason behind our success. The reality is that compensation without security won’t work, education without administration and fundraising won’t work. It is the combination of all this that has an effect and gives us the momentum needed to change things and have the support of the local community. Even more than this, there are many other stakeholders contributing to the overall objectives, including lodges, Amboseli Trust for Elephants, DSWT, Lion Guardians and KWS. The community doesn’t single each organization out in respect to conservation driven benefits, they are interested in the entire picture, not snapshots.
Where did the idea for the Maasai Olympics come from?
Like the Compensation program, the idea came from the local community. A group of local elders (called Menye Layiok which means “fathers of the young”) who culturally are in charge of educating the warrior (Moran) age groups in the warrior way of life came to BLF and said that in order for warriors to begin to truly understand that killing lions, retaliating against other wildlife and other traditional warrior duties (raiding other tribes or clans, or protecting their own clans) were no longer necessary or acceptable they had to be given other duties and things to do. As a warrior’s status was derived from the performance of these things it was important that the new activity, whatever it was, touched on this in a major way. Sport was chosen as the best substitute, and the Maasai Olympics founded.
How successful has the Maasai Olympics been in deterring warriors from hunting lions as a rite-of-passage?
Hugely successful, in combination with PCF lion killing has declined by over 90%. The lion population has gone from less than 20 to over 140 in 15 years. This increase in unprecedented in the whole of Africa, let alone outside of protected areas.
What is Big Life Foundation’s greatest success?
Both the above (lion population) and the almost complete eradication of elephant poaching in the ecosystem. With a population of close to 2000 elephant in the area, we work in there have been less than 3 elephants poached each of the past 3 years, in 2015 and 2016 combined 2 elephants were poached. That’s less than 1 percent, there is almost no other ecosystem in Africa with statistics as impressive.
Thanks, Craig! Be sure to join us tomorrow for our last post in our series of Kenya’s top properties and conservation partners.
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