Conservation & Culture in Northern Kenya

This once-expansive forest in northern Kenya was once a range for wildlife, which now must somehow navigate their way through an ever-expanding checkerboard of farms.

My first week in Kenya was a whirlwind tour (on a small prop plane with a few people from the Northern Rangelands Trust) of the remote, mostly unpopulated northern part of the country. It’s a harsh lands where armed violence and conflict have been the norm for eons, where every single rhino was poached as well as most of the elephants. Though things have been getting better in the past decade or so thanks to excellent community development work and conservation. More on this another time.

I am humbled by the challenges of protecting wildlife and habitat alongside the humanitarian goals of helping people live in peace. I’ve seen how ecotourism can be done well but also how frequently it goes horribly, painfully wrong.

Key lesson: Don’t mess with something you don’t deeply understand. Don’t assume anything.

First, we flew from Nairobi to the Kenyan coast. Being in a small plane allowed us to fly relatively close to the ground, making it easy to spot wildlife. And, unfortunately, to witness the endless patchwork of small slash and burn farms, cutting into the forests where animals once roamed. I felt the pain of this loss and of the difficult lives of the people who live on the poverty line.

We arrived on Manda island on a grass runway flanked by ancient baobab trees. We were near the old town of Lamu, an area undergoing massive changes, which is probably most known around the world for the 2014 terrorist attacks by Al-Shabaab that killed about 30 people. Now, although safer for humans, the ecosystem is suffering as much of the once-beautiful corals and rich marine biodiversity have disappeared as a new port is developed. There are signs of hope, however. The communities, which largely rely on fishing for survival, have adopted proven strategies of self-governance for conservation to restore fish populations. In meeting with people on Pate island, I saw so much strength, love, and dignity in these people despite them being very poor. Quite a lesson.

Community conservation work near Lamu, Kenya.

I visited Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, where I went on some game drives and saw the rhino that I helped adopt almost four years ago. I also met the two high school students whose high school education I’ve sponsored. I learned as much from them as they did from me. I’ll write more on Lewa in a future post.

At Il Ngwesi (which means “people of wildlife” in Maa), I learned about a conservancy and eco-lodge that is completely owned and operated by the Maasai community. As we walked within 30 feet of two enormous rhinos, I felt the intensity of being near an animal that could have killed me in two seconds and then moved on with its life without concern. The Maasai guides were so in-tune with nature and tracking the wildlife… I hope to return as an apprentice someday. I felt so much inner peace observing elephant herds for a few hours. I need more of this! (Update: I returned, and will write more about this in a future post)

Walking with rhinos at Il Ngwesi.

At Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, we watched orphaned baby elephants feed from bottles, then run around playing together. I put my hand on their heads and trunks… love at first sight! This is a candidate for the cutest, happiest moments of my life.

Meeting an orphaned baby elephant at Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in northern Kenya.

At Kalepo Camp, I saw a brand new, very small eco-lodge being built that will support the local community. We visited the village and I could appreciate how I know nothing about these people. They live in such poverty that us westerners would call it torture if we had to stay there, yet the people are generally happy and have few of the aspirations I’d expected that material wealth could buy them.

A local community lives in conditions that westerners would call torture, but they generally seem pretty happy. I know nothing… don’t forget that.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions and I can’t comprehend how much untold damage has been done around the world by western people who wanted to help the poor.

Moonshots for nature and innovative philanthropy. Senior Tech Fellow at Conservation Int’l. Formerly Google X & Maps, founding CEO of Oceankind. On my own path.