Wednesday, 20 Mar 2002

IL N’GWESI, Kenya

Ecotourism is proving to be one of the few ways that indigenous groups in Kenya, such as the Maasai, are managing to hold onto their traditional communal land ownership system, known as a group ranch, which is the cornerstone of their way of life. The Maasai have been under increasing pressure from the Kenyan government to subdivide their land into individual plots, which would not only end their pastoral existence, but would also be a conservation disaster. (Maasai land is home to the majority of wildlife in Kenya.)

Il’Ngwesi wilderness conservation area.

Ecotourism is one way the Maasai are responding to this pressure. Simply put, the government is eager to promote economic development and fully aware that wildlife-based tourism is one of the mainstays of the economy. That kind of tourism cannot exist without open land. Neither can the Maasai way of life.

Shampole, which I discussed yesterday, is one of Kenya’s latest examples of successful community-based ecotourism among the indigenous Maasai, but it is neither the first nor the best-known. That title goes to Il’Ngwesi Group Ranch in northern Kenya, one of the most successful examples of community-based ecotourism in Africa. I first heard of Il’Ngwesi in 1995, when the project was just getting underway. Faced with growing insecurity in the area from cattle rustling, the decimation of wildlife from outside poaching, a lack of economic opportunity, and unmet basic needs such as education and medicine, the Maasai of Il’Ngwesi turned to ecotourism to protect their land and generate local benefits.

A rare black rhino at Il’Ngwesi.

And it’s working. Since the Il’Ngwesi ecolodge (which is 100-percent owned and managed by the Maasai) opened in 1996, it has received a number of ecotourism-related awards and about 1,000 visitors per year. In 2000, these visitors generated some $85,000 in ecotourism income for the local community.

Kipkori Nteere, the Maasai manager of Il’Ngwesi, was born and raised here and has been involved with the project from the beginning. “When several of us, including some of our elders, first began discussing the idea of ecotourism with the 8,000 members of our group ranch, many people were worried that the outside organizations who were willing to help us get started would take our land away,” he said. “It took time to build trust among our people, but once that trust was established, the entire community supported the project. They began to see the results and they liked what they saw. Security has returned to our land, income is coming in from the ecolodge to help pay for schools fees, and poaching is gone.”

Il’Ngwesi ecolodge is a conservation success story as much as it is an income-generating project. In recent research, John Wathaika, one of Kenya’s leading ecologists, reports that wildlife inside the Il’Ngwesi conservation area has increased 500 percent in the last six years. Of the 19 large mammals native to the area, 17 are now found within Il’Ngwesi, including increased numbers of Grevys zebra, one of the worlds most endangered species. By comparison, only 4 of the 19 native mammal species are found outside of the conservation area. “The Il’Ngwesi ecotourism project has resulted in a dramatic increase in biodiversity within the community conservation area,” John told me at a meeting we both attended with Il’Ngwesi Maasai elders and the community project management committee.

Costas Christ with John Wathaika.

Perhaps the greatest measure of Il’Ngwesi’s success can be found among the local Maasai themselves. When I arrived at Il’Ngwesi, another Maasai community called Kalama was meeting with Il’Ngwesi community members to ask for advice and support to start a similar project on the nearby Kalama Group Ranch. Il’Ngwesi has already helped two other Maasai communities in the area to establish ecotourism projects; all three communities work together in an informal ecotourism network called the North Kenya Community Ecolodges. This is a great example of direct Maasai-to-Maasai assistance and knowledge-sharing, and of how indigenous people in East Africa are directly benefiting from ecotourism.

There’s no question that Il’Ngwesi’s ecotourism accomplishments are the result of cooperation and hard work. Donor support was sought and secured early on and local Kenyan NGOs, including the Africa Conservation Centre and Lewa Downs Nature Conservancy, assisted with community training and capacity building. That is the meaning of partnership. But at the end of the day, this is a Maasai community ecotourism project, and the real success rests with the integrity and initiative of the Maasai of Il’Ngwesi.

Back from a walk through the African bush where a young Maasai warrior was teaching me how to track lions though the rocks and sand, I pause and look out at the wilderness extending for miles around me and feel privileged to be here. Successful ecotourism is challenging work, but examples such as Il’Ngwesi are helping to chart the way.