Tuesday, 19 Mar 2002

SHAMPOLE, Kenya

Six years ago, David Western, then director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, told me about a place called Shampole in the Rift Valley, near the Kenya-Tanzania border. “The area has tremendous potential for an ecotourism project,” he said. “The local people want to find a way to benefit from wildlife on their land and an opportunity exists to create community-based conservation in an area where poaching has been a major threat.”

The local people he was talking about are the Maasai, nomadic cattle herders who are thought to have migrated to Kenya from the Sudan. The Maasai, including those at Shampole, maintain goats as well as cows, but they believe that they have been selected by their god, “Enkai,” to be the keepers of cattle.

Many people around the world have seen Shampole, although they probably do not realize it. Because of its remote location and rugged beauty, the region was used in a scene in the movie Out of Africa to portray unspoiled Africa. Shampole was then and still is today a remote area of rugged beauty. Not surprisingly, after the film’s release, intrepid travelers began to show up in the area, lured by its isolation and by curiosity about the lives of the Maasai. But Shampole had suffered from years of poaching, and the area was at risk of becoming a wild place without much wildlife.

Women at work in the ecolodge they helped build.

The Shampole Maasai, noticing the interest of adventure-oriented travelers, wanted to find a way to make money from the area’s significant natural resources. They approached David Western and his newly formed Kenyan NGO, Africa Conservation Centre, for assistance. Western saw an opportunity to save wildlife in the area while helping the local Maasai bring needed income into a largely impoverished region of Kenya. The key was ecotourism.

As far back as the 1970s, Western had been looking at human-wildlife conflicts in East Africa, and he believed that carefully planned and implemented tourism could be a way to turn such conflicts into opportunities for conservation and community development. When my experiences working in the Samburu Game Reserve in the late 1970s led me to the same conclusions, I went looking for Western. We met for the first time in Nairobi in 1978. Neither of us used the word “ecotourism” in that initial meeting, but we were talking about it all the same — about how to promote a new and more responsible kind of tourism to benefit local communities and achieve lasting conservation.

Today, I am seated next to Western in his blue and white Cessna bound for Shampole. We are joined by Neel Inamdar, the executive director of the Africa Conservation Centre, who has been working with the Shampole Maasai to support ecotourism development. We lift off into a morning sky of low clouds and mist coming off of the Ngong Hills.

Costas Christ with David Western and Neel Inamdar of the Africa Conservation Centre, standing beside the Cessna at Shampole.

As we head southwest, I watch the land go from small farm plots called shambas to wide open expanses of savannah dotted with acacia trees. Recent rains have turned the usually brown landscape green. Dirt roads meander until they disappear into foot paths. Here and there we can see Maasai manyattas, small circular traditional villages surrounded by a thorn bush fence to keep wild animals out and the Maasai and their livestock safely within.

As we approach Shampole, I begin to spot wildlife below us: six zebras around a water hole, a group of wildebeest with calves in the shade of an acacia tree, giraffe and gazelles in an open clearing. We fly over the southern Uaso Nyiro river which forms the boundary of the newly created Shampole Community Conservation Area and a tiny dirt air strip comes into view. Our plane descends as a Land Rover bounces down a dirt track to meet us, leaving a trail of red dust in its wake.

With the help of the African Conservation Centre (ACC), Shampole is emerging as a model ecotourism project, driven by the community’s own initiative. The Maasai of Shampole Group Ranch — a traditional communal system of land ownership — stated their goals quite clearly when they approached ACC and Western for help. They wanted to benefit economically from wildlife while preserving and protecting their own way of life. That did not mean that they did not want outside education for their children or a local health clinic or a permanent well. Rather, the Maasai had their owns ideas of what they wanted and what type of change they would welcome. Most importantly, they wanted to make those decisions themselves.

Talking ecotourism with members of the Shampole Maasai community.

The Maasai, who contributed the building materials, the land, and their in-depth knowledge of the local environment, were one of three key players in the success of the Shampole Community Ecotourism Development Project, as it is known. Anthony Russell and his company, Art of Journeys, invested the funds to build the lodge, employing over 100 local community members, and provided the marketing and management knowledge needed to run it. Finally, ACC helped facilitate dialogue between the investor and the community and supported local training to build the Maasai knowledge of ecotourism and enhance their conservation-management skills. The result is that the Shampole Maasai own 30 percent of the ecolodge with an agreement to become 80 percent shareholders within 10 years. The community continues to maintain all legal rights to the land. They have named the ecolodge “Maaoleng” which means, appropriately, “completely Maasai.”

Shampole ecolodge is perhaps the finest safari facility in all of Kenya — a true five-star wilderness experience. The setting and the lodge are nothing short of spectacular, and the community and its partners are extremely proud of their accomplishment. A 25,000 acre conservation area has been set aside and wildlife is steadily returning to the area, including recent signs of African wild dogs — a critically endangered species. Lion and cheetah have both returned, as have elephants.

The income from the ecolodge goes directly into a trust fund managed by a community board of trustees, with 50 percent designated for community conservation activities, including training of local rangers and anti-poaching patrols, and 50 percent for social development projects, including water, health, and education. In just over two months of operation, the ecolodge has generated $15,000. The European Union’s Biodiversity Conservation Program has also stepped in with funding to create a community-managed conservation trust to further support Shampole’s conservation activities.

Joseph Munge, a Maasai born and raised in Shampole and one of the leaders of the project, smiles as he says to me, “My people now see wildlife as a benefit and not as a threat. The wild animals are returning to our land and we are better off as a result. This is as it should be.” I agree. It is a great example of ecotourism in action — where conservation and local people benefit together.