Written by Andrew Buckley
Back in the 1990’s on the corridor between Mount Kenya, the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and Samburu National Park was a stretch of over-grazed pasture land, short of water, with the local population struggling to make ends meet and provide for their future.
The elders of the Il Ngwesi people took a leap of faith and set aside over half their land to wildlife conservation. The Il Ngwesi are part of the Il Laikipiak group and have lived in this area for many generations. The elders realised that their traditional pastoralist life was under threat and that a new direction was needed to secure their future.
Community-owned conservancies earning income from ecotourism are quite common in Kenya, but Il Ngwesi is different. The usual route to access the tourist dollar is by leasing the land to private investors who build and manage the lodges and then pay a bed-rate to the community.
Il Ngwesi took a different route. With some help and support they built the lodge and trained their own team from the community. Virtually all the lodge staff are working on their own land, the rangers were trained by Lewa Conservancy and protect their own land from poaching and other threats. All the profits from tourism go straight into the community. Il Ngwesi conservancy and lodge is unique in Kenya in this regard.
Kip Olepolos, who worked in the lodge in the early days and is now chair of the Il Ngwesi Lodge board talks of his disbelief as a child when his grandfather shared stories of rhino and other wildlife.
Once the cattle and goats were excluded from the new conservancy, the wildlife returned. The community now live in partnership with wildlife again as the Maasai have always done. The benefits to the local villages are easy to see.
We visited Il Ngwesi for four days earlier this year and after flying into Lewa Downs drove for an hour or so to the lodge. The access road passes through some of the villages and our guide, David, talked us through what has been achieved as we passed. The two new schools, the health centre, the permanent water supply for grazing and irrigation.
The jobs supported by tourism; in the lodge and protecting the conservancy, growing vegetables, traditional Maasai beadwork for sale, working on infrastructure including roads and drainage.
There are 6,500 owners of Il Ngwesi group lodge and conservancy and the pride in this ownership was obvious in everyone we met. Kip talks of not believing he had a future when young but now many people find they have a future, directly and indirectly, through the advantages that tourism has brought to the community.
And the wildlife has a future. Except for the two heavily protected white rhino, the rest of the wildlife just came back. A large elephant population has returned, along with all the plains species that live in these northern areas, with good numbers of Grevy’s zebra, gerenuk, lesser kudu, reticulated giraffe and the more commonly seen species.
Predators are more elusive but lions, cheetahs and leopards are around. The wild dog packs are regularly seen, even from the lodge. There are both striped and spotted hyena and an aardwolf has recently been spotted as a new resident. On a night drive we saw a lot of the nocturnal and more elusive residents including aardvark, genet, honey badger and jackals.
Il Ngwesi Lodge is stunning. With just six guest rooms built around a small hill it is quiet and a perfect place for safari. The buildings are made from local materials with thatched roofs and there is a lovely swimming pool with views over the landscape. I spent hours just sitting and watching, there was always something coming and going from the waterhole in the valley below the lodge.
My abiding memory, though, is the people I met. The pride in their lodge and conservancy and the knowledge of the community benefits. Is this the future of a real partnership between land owners and wildlife? I would like to think so – Il Ngwesi is something very special.