As black rhinos return to an area they were once wiped out, conservationist Ian Craig is optimistic about the future for Africa’s wildlife
The Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), a community membership organisation in Kenya, has already been touted as the model which people should be adopting worldwide in order to successfully marry the goals of conservation with those of development. One of its more recent successes – alongside the awarding of an OBE to Ian Craig, Director of Conservation – was the relocation of several black rhinos from Lewa, the original NRT conservancy, where rhinos have been so well bred that they reached the maximum number capable of living in the landscape. With that in mind, the new 350,000ha Sera Community Conservancy, located to the north of Lewa, opened in May 2015 as a brand new habitat for rhinos relocated from Lewa and Nairobi, the returning of the species to its native landscape for the first time in over three decades.
‘When we started Sera,’ says Craig, ‘a lot of people said, “Guys, you’re mad. How are you going to do this? How are you going to fund it? You’re putting rhinos in a warzone!” It’s not a warzone. When you get a community really behind a cause like this, they’re the best policemen that exist. That’s the space that we’re working in now. The threat on rhinos is massive. I just cannot tell you how massive it is. There are people scheming to kill rhinos at every corner. So it’s about good intelligence, it’s about working with government, it’s about good men on the ground, properly trained, properly resourced. It’s about aircraft, it’s about technology. Through Lewa, all these pieces are in place. So I can confidently say these rhinos [in Sera] are as safe as the rhinos in Lewa.’
‘To keep rhinos alive is an extremely expensive business,’ he continues. ‘To set up this sanctuary cost a little over $2million and it costs about $350,000 a year to run. This is a big, brave new move. You cannot keep rhinos alive outside of a fenced sanctuary, there’s simply too many things against them in terms of guns and people and greed. So you have to have a fenced area with high levels of security. That’s what Sera is. My vision, our vision, the community’s vision, is that this is a 30, 40, 50-year horizon to really see what this is going to do. Say the world no longer wanted rhino horn, we’d just remove the fence and these rhinos coukd then percolate across a massive landscape. It’s all great habitat. Of course the reality is the world’s never going to reach that point. But let’s dream a little bit. In the meantime, we need tourism.’
Ian Craig – Q&A
As co-founder of the original Ngare Sergoi Rhino Sanctuary, later renamed Lewa Conservancy, in the early 1980s, Ian Craig has been on the frontline of African wildlife conservation for decades
How does Lewa compare to your vision when you started out in the 1980s? Did you ever think it could grow to what the NRT has become?
Back in the 1980s I had absolutely no idea what the strength of the community conservation movement could be. It’s just awoken an awareness of a whole new window of opportunity that simply didn’t exist before. And it’s not about saving animals, it’s much more about how animals can contribute to people’s welfare and future.
So when did the penny drop that you could actually tackle so many problems at the same time?
I stepped into this trying to keep elephants and rhinos alive, and knowing that the strongest tool to do that job was the community that owned that process and saw those wildlife as their own in terms of bettering their everyday lives. What’s happened is other communities have seen this, they’ve seen the employment opportunities, they’ve seen the tourism revenues that have come in, they’ve seen the livestock revenues that have come in, they’ve seen the employment that has been catalysed beyond the direct conservancy, they’ve seen peace – people that they’ve been fighting tooth-and-nail for generations, suddenly they’re now talking as equals. So it’s just gone like a wildfire. If we wanted to double the size of the NRT tomorrow, if the money was sitting on the table, it could happen.
“We’re not ‘saving rhinos’ and ‘saving lions’. We’re now working in a landscape enabling people to benefit, and conservation to flourish”
So, you were running your sanctuary in Lewa, and began to get so much outside interest that you realised it was about more than just trying to save as many rhino as you could fit in that space?
To be totally honest, that was my personal interest. I wanted to engage communities as equals to keep rhino alive. The other very obvious thing is that there was big international, bilateral funding going into international NGOs to support conservation. So if one could re-configure a community-owned organisation that was locally owned, managed and led, but conformed to international standards on accountability, we’d open up new funding not only for conservation, but also for community development. And that’s what we’ve done! So now this is development funds, doing what they do, and a by-product of it is really good conservation.
How much are you talking to development agencies versus conservation agencies now? Which one comes out on top?
Oh, development agencies, 80 per cent, 90 per cent. It’s massive, we’re now working in a space where we’ve got a big job to do. We’re not rushing round the world looking for money. We’re rushing around Kenya doing what we have to do and recruiting the right people to do it. We’re just working in a space where the funding is available, the cause is wanted, and we’ve got the right people and skills in-house to do it.
Ian Craig, Director of Conservation at the Northland Rangelands Trust (left), with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Nairobi National Park in Nairobi, Kenya (Image: State Department)
I imagine you have a lot of people wanting to come, visit and learn from you?
The NRT model is a common-sense model. If you work with a community, in any society in the world, they’ll have an issue, they’ll have a problem. Might be global warming, might be education, might be security, might be employment. But it’ll be some catalytic thread that connects that entire community together. If you then put it in a structure that can resolve these issues, you’ve got a forum to do business. We’ve tried it in Northern Kenya, it’s worked. We’ve just recently tried it in a marine context – off the Kenyan-Somali coast – it’s flying, absolutely flying. The principle is the same; the community own it, they make the decisions, NRT helps bring in the money and the professionalism, we link with government. It’s a three-way partnership and the thing flies. So yes, we’ve got a big delegation coming from Ethiopia next week, we had a delegation from Zambia three weeks ago. This is completely exportable, across... actually, across the world.
Does that make you quite optimistic?
Listen, I live in a positive space. For wildlife, I’m super optimistic. We’re not ‘saving rhinos’ and ‘saving lions’. We’re now working in a landscape enabling people to benefit, and conservation to flourish. That includes rhinos, that includes lions. Of course, there are isolated challenges with rhinos, but if one looks across a wide spectrum of issues, there’s a fantastic connectivity between people, government, money, and issues. This conservation movement captures them all.
Ian Craig was speaking at the launch of East Africa’s first black rhino tracking walking experience, organised at Sera Community Conservancy by Saruni safari lodges.