Helping Communities Conserve Their Grasslands

Securing Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and expanding community-based conservation across northern Kenya.

Securing Lewa

Ian Craig discusses the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy's history and The Nature Conservancy's role in securing Lewa's future.


Community Action

We're helping community leaders work together to conserve more than 2 million acres of communal lands.


By Ron Geatz

Elephants ahead of me, Grevy's zebras to the west and a group of reticulated giraffes (called a "tower," appropriately) to the east — they all ignore my small plane as it glides onto a dirt landing strip at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy on the northern slopes of Mount Kenya.

This indifferent greeting party is both a hint of the astonishing wildlife I'll experience in the coming week and testament to the security that wildlife enjoys in this special place. Lewa is the epicenter of a community conservation movement that is radiating across northern Kenya — with the expert scientific and conservation planning help of The Nature Conservancy.

The Conservancy's Real Estate Expertise, Applied to a New Continent

Lewa is a former cattle ranch that has evolved over 25 years through the vision of Ian Craig, his parents and siblings — Kenyan landowners for three generations.

Craig grew up in a family that — atypically for African ranchers of the time — valued wildlife on their ranch. In the 1980s, the Craigs allowed a black rhinoceros sanctuary, established by conservationist Anna Merz, to be sited on a corner of their property after poachers had decimated rhino populations nearly to the point of extinction.

Today, The Nature Conservancy is lending its real estate expertise to Lewa to consolidate the Craigs' and other landholdings — an area that totals 62,000 acres — into a single nonprofit ownership for the long term. And it is supporting acquisition of neighboring ranches to secure connectivity across an expansive landscape that sustains historic wildlife movement.

Land acquisition for conservation is relatively new to East Africa, and the Conservancy's conservation real estate experience over nearly 60 years is helping partners maneuver over legal and policy hurdles.

"I know the Conservancy is only doing here what it does on a daily basis elsewhere," says Craig. "But for us, it's magic."

A Vision Inspired by an Elephant Massacre

Craig's vision, however, doesn't end at Lewa. And it's the breadth of that vision — conservation for people and nature — that has turned this former big-game hunter into a global conservation leader.

That vision was born out of an epiphany Craig had while secretly witnessing in 1992 the massacre of an entire elephant herd by foreign poachers north of his property. His sobering revelation was that his family's efforts would do little to keep these animals safe in the long term if protection could not be expanded and embraced by local communities, who also were being victimized by poachers.

So he set about proving a hypothesis that has formed the basis for his conservation success: that security for wildlife equals security for people — and vice-versa.

Schools, Health Clinics, Microcredit and Irrigation

Craig began building community benefits into his conservation efforts. Lewa supports eight schools around its perimeter, funding classroom construction, teachers, student meals and scholarships. And Lewa itself serves as a living classroom for local children to reconnect with their natural heritage.

The project has brought other benefits as well:

  • Lewa-funded health clinics offer local villagers access to basic health services for the first time, with a focus on family planning and HIV prevention and treatment.
  • A women's micro-credit program has funded start-up enterprises as income generators for more than 400 local women.
  • And innovative water projects have resolved people-wildlife conflicts over freshwater supplies, providing secure sources of fresh water for communities, their livestock and wildlife as well.

The result is best expressed in the words of local elder John Kiugu: "Now when I see elephants grazing, I see an irrigation scheme; when I see lions in the grass, I see better security; and when I see a newborn rhino, I see classrooms for our children."

Tourism Funds the Enforcement and the Vision

But key to every aspect of community engagement here is a trained, armed security force sanctioned by the Kenyan government that employs local people to patrol on land and by air to deter — and when necessary detain — poachers.

An important added benefit is that these patrols also curb banditry and resolve squabbles between villages and individuals.

These community services are funded largely by tourists who come to Lewa for its unsurpassed opportunities to commune with Africa's most majestic wildlife.

Accommodations range from luxurious lodges to comfortable tented camps, employing dozens of local people.

Part of Ian Craig's vision is to extend such low-impact, community-owned lodges into the frontier north of Lewa — toward the borders with Ethiopia and Somalia — creating an extended, income-generating landscape of security for both wildlife and people, a vision that is increasingly shared by the diverse communities who live there.

Already 17 such community "conservancies" have been established, with many more in the pipeline. Along with other strategic land acquisitions, these conservancies are piecing together a mosaic of conservation lands now covering some 2.5 million acres.

The Potential of Nearly 10 Million Acres for Conservation

Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) is a Lewa spin-off that is adapting and extending the Lewa model for application across northern Kenya. A council of elders from across the community conservancies governs the process with the precision of a well-run company. The expansion is also resolving conflicts between formerly warring tribes, who now work together on planning councils and security patrols.

"There is the potential to bring nearly 10 million acres into community conservation status," says Tom Lalampaa, a Samburu native from one such conservancy who now is using his community-funded MBA to help NRT conservancies develop land management plans with the aid of Conservancy scientists and Conservancy conservation-planning methodology.

"It is inspiring to see my people bring balance back to the land," adds Lalampaa. And I am proud to be part of the process" (see "Community Action" video above).

"The Lewa/NRT model fits perfectly with The Nature Conservancy's focus on expanding effective conservation across larger landscapes in a manner that also supports the well-being of people," adds David Banks, director of The Nature Conservancy's Africa program.

"And the success we are seeing here has potential to inform community conservation elsewhere in Africa and around the world."


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