In rural Kenya, a popular way of collecting honey involves smoking bees out from hollow trees. While this method normally produces nothing except the sought-after honey, it is believed that this was the cause of a bushfire in October 2013 which sent nearly 25,000 acres of virgin African bush up in flames. A combination of dry conditions, thick grass, and strong winds allowed the fire to rapidly spread, engulfing the surrounding vegetation. While no one was hurt, before the fire could be brought under control it had destroyed the safari-running Loisaba Lodge and Loisaba Private House, perched as they were on a 600ft escarpment overlooking Laikipia Plains. With tourism revenues essential to the conservation of local wildlife – including elephants, lions, cheetahs, leopards, reticulated giraffes, and even wild dogs and Grevy’s zebras – the forced closure of the lodge was a major hit to the entire operation.
Earlier this month, on the site of the original lodge, a new camp finally re-opened. Newly named the Loisaba Tented Camp, this modern and chic luxury accommodation is a key component of what is now entitled the Loisaba Conservancy, a picturesque 56,000-acre landscape in central Kenya which serves as a vital habitat and migration corridor for local wildlife. With the lodge destroyed, it was feared that a development featuring housing, roads and maybe even a golf course would be constructed on the site. Instead, the US-based NGO The Nature Conservancy stepped in, supporting the project and, through partnerships with the local Northern Rangelands Trust and NGO Space for Giants, facilitated the creation of the Loisaba Community Trust in 2014, a separate entity which will ensure the long-term protection of the conservancy.
The Loisaba Tented Camp, as well as the newly refurbished Star Beds, also within the Loisaba Conservancy, are now under the portfolio of Elewana, a Tanzanian-based company with properties across Tanzania, Zanzibar and Kenya. ‘The partnership with The Nature Conservancy highlights Elewana’s passion and commitment to conservation,’ explains Elewana CEO Karim Wissanji, ‘one that is reflected in its support, financial and otherwise, for this exciting new project; a project that sits at the very heart of TNC’s community, wildlife and land conservation philosophies and their important collaboration with tourism.’
The Loisaba Conservancy provides a secure habitat to Kenya’s second largest population of elephants, with over 700 individual animals identified, and just as many estimated to be passing through annually. ‘Securing Loisaba is a critical move to protect elephants in this landscape,’ explains Max Graham, Founder and CEO of Space for Giants. ‘As pressure grows, securing large tracts of land is a vital strategy for elephant conservation here.’ GPS tracking has revealed Loisaba to be a key elephant corridor across the Laikipia plateau up to the Samburu National Reserve – one of the longest recorded elephant migrations in Africa.
However, the benefits from tourism to Loisaba aren’t restricted only to wildlife. Thanks to an innovative arrangement with local Samburu and Mukogodo Maasai communities, the Loisaba Conservancy also provides essential grazing land for cattle. ‘Local pastoralists have access to Loisaba as a place to graze their cattle – an activity that is the absolute foundation of their livelihoods,’ explains Charles Oluchina, Director of Field Programs for The Nature Conservancy’s Africa Program. ‘If done properly, sustainable grazing will even help improve habitat for wildlife.’
As the approximate 1,500 community cattle allowed on the conservancy graze, they prevent the grass from growing so long that it becomes difficult for other animals to eat, therefore enhancing the natural environment. Combined with the jobs created directly from tourism and ranching, and through the reinvestment of revenues – such as conservancy fees – into community schools and health clinics, the project gives a clear indication to local people of the economic value which wildlife, and consequently a thriving tourism sector, can provide, beyond basic poaching.
‘Two years ago, this land faced a serious threat,’ recalls Oluchina. ‘Subdividing this large, intact parcel would sever an important elephant corridor, as well as reduce economic and development opportunities for local communities. What the Conservancy did demonstrates the organisation’s evolution since its founding: We don’t own the land we seek to protect. Our generous supporters allowed us to bring funds to the table to keep Loisaba out of the developers’ hands. This is what the future of the wild places in my country can look like – a collaborative approach that protects and improves landscapes, wildlife corridors and people and their livelihoods.’
Crucially, Loisaba provides a case study for the rest of the continent, an example of wildlife conservation and economic opportunities for community development to work sustainably together. ‘The idea is to be self-sustaining, using tourism income,’ emphasises Tom Silvester, Loisaba Conservancy CEO, ‘so that we’re not relying on a huge donor cheque every year to keep going. The expression we always had was “forever” – we want Loisaba to be wild and for elephants to be able to walk across it forever, and I think we achieved that aim. It’s now locked up for conservation forever.’