Il Ngwesi: How to milk an elephant

Il Ngwesi Conservancy in Laikipia. [Ferdinand Mwongela/Standard)]

 “We learnt how to milk an elephant.” This is the analogy Samuel Tema, Il Ngwesi Community Conservancy Rangelands Coordinator thinks aptly describes his community’s way of life.

His colleague Daines Kiperus agrees. He says the only way an elephant would make sense is if they could milk it and drink the milk, so they found a way. Conservation and tourism.

Not surprisingly, the Il Ngwesi Maasai of Laikipia are a people of firsts.

One of the very first groups to embrace the concept of community conservation nearly 30 years ago, they are also among the first groups in Kenya to start reaping benefits from carbon trading.

They were also among the founder members of the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) in 2002. NRT is an organisation that brings together community conservancies from across the country. 

Initially mostly centred around the northern parts of Kenya, today NRT has members conservancies from the Coast and North Eastern belt.

Back to Il Ngwesi, their turning most was 1995 when, Kiperus says, they embraced the concept of community ranching. 

To do so, the community had to come up with a land management strategy. Thus included designating settlement and conservation areas, and a grazing plan.

Il Ngwesi Conservancy in Laikipia. [Ferdinand Mwongela/Standard)]

In 2018, with a new land law in place, they were also among the first to register as a community land.

They have 21,000 acres in total and 70 per cent of this is designated as a conservation area. Nearly 15,000 acres. 

The remaining more than 6,000 acres more than enough home for a community of about 3,000 members.

For their vision to succeed, some people had to move if their settlements fell in conservation areas. A sacrifice Arundu Kinyaga says was worth it.

Speaking at the Il Ngwesi Cultural Mayatta in Ol Churai village, Kinyaga, like many here, speaks fondly of “pesa ya carbon”, literally “carbon (trading) money”. 

Ol Churai is one of the seven villages of Il Ngwesi.

The community and conservancy have after all received Sh36 million (in three phases) so far from the NRT carbon trading programme. 

The money received is divided between community development and conservation. The community gets 60 per cent and conservation efforts the remaining 40 per cent. 

For Il Ngwesi, this would translate to about Sh22.6 million going to the community so far. 

This has gone towards things like bursaries, building dispensaries and getting piped water. 

In a semi-arid area with little in the way of reliable water supply, they turned to the only permanent water source near them. The Ngare Ndare River that flows through the conservancy,  but turns into a mere trickle in the dry season. 

It is here that Il Ngwesi has tapped water and is piping them to villages in the community.

Along this river, there is also a little farming activity. The small patch of greenery along the river stands in stark contrast to the brown of the land all around. But the people here make the little they have work for them.

Now they also do not have to travel all the way to Isiolo for health services, with several health centres now built. A trip to Isiolo Town from Il Ngwesi is eaily Sh1,500 by bodaboda.

The unforgiving terrain is the home of the Landcruiser. If you hear a hum here, it is either the comforting roar of a Toyota Landcruiser, the whine of a low cc bodaboda or a plane coming to deposit deliver tourists.

One of the other enterprises here is the Il Ngwesi Eco Lodge, the jewel of the conservancy. 

The eco part of the lodge’s name is important, says Kiperus. It denotes sustainability, both in construction and operation.

It sits on a small hill like a sentry, overlooking the tri-border area of Laikipia,  Meru and Isiolo.

Sitted at the lodge on one end, the land spreads out as far as the eyes can see. At once both calming and mysterious.

This is after all the start of what many have described as Kenya’s wild North. With the Mukogodo forest to your back and Mt Kenya far behind it, this is the start of a region many only see in the news.

The lodge was built in 1996, a joint effort between the community and partners, among them the Kenya Wildlife Service.

Exclusive is probably the best way to describe Il Ngwesi Eco Lodge. With only six rooms and maximum capacity of less than 20, it is a niche facility. 

And it is a testament to the clientele it attracts that there is an airplane landing strip built nearby to serve the lodge.

Britain’s Prince William is among the visitors who have slept under the stars in Il Ngwesi’s open cottages. The walls of the thatch-roofed cottages do not enclose the whole space, allowing the room to blend in with the environment and offering impressive views from the bed. 

Sleeping here takes some getting used to, the only comfort being that the cottages hang over the edge above the land below. That and the fence that keeps away wildlife, most of it at least.

And unlike many hospitality facilities around here, this one is run entirely by the community. They have resisted overtures by investors seeking to manage the lodge, for a good reason.

Many locals have gained experience here and gone on to work elsewhere in the country.

But conservation is not a new thing to the Il Ngwesi. Il Ngwesi literally means people of wildlife, says Kiperus.

Different clans have wild animals as their totems and would not harm them. After living side by side with animals all their lives, entrenching conservation was only a logical next step.


Related Articles