photo: Geoff Livingston
For years, the land between Tsavo East and Tsavo West national parks served both as home to a slowly failing cattle ranch and as the main migration corridor for local wildlife moving seasonally between the two National Parks. By the time we first encountered Rukinga, the community and the wildlife were at odds. Rukinga was a bruised, balding land, barren of wildlife and overflowing with despair. Cattle had grazed the fields into dust, poachers slipped on and off the ranch with ease, and trees were being clear cut along the area's critical rainwater basin.
Elephants in this area have always been poached for their ivory but the demand has increased dramatically again as developing nations economies grow. Prior to European colonization, scientists believe that Africa may have held as many as 20 million elephants; by 1979 only 1.3 million remained -- and the census reveals that things have gotten far worse since.
According to the GEC, released in 2016 in the open-access journal PeerJ, Africa's savannah elephant population has been devastated, with just 352,271 animals in the countries surveyed -- far lower than previous estimates. (source)
In 1998 we convinced the local community to let us implement a plan to establish the Rukinga Wildlife Sanctuary on 80,000 acres of the corridor and did three things to transform the land into a wildlife sanctuary:
established a community works project providing the locals with an alternative income stream in place of poaching and clear cutting
began training local men as wilderness guardians to perform unarmed patrols to remove any snares set for wildlife
got the owners of the cattle to remove the cattle from the land to reduce conflict over resources
In 2009, we expanded our conservation reach by implementing the world's first verified REDD+ project, which increased our protection area to over 500,000 acres of dry land forest covering the whole corridor between the National Parks.
Every day we see proof that our conservation efforts are a success. The elephants returned first, followed by the ungulates (animals with hoofs like buffalo and zebra) and then the predators. We now have a very balanced ecosystem, with 50 large mammal species, over 300 species of birds, important populations of IUCN Red List species such as African elephants, Grevy's zebras, cheetah and African hunting dogs and more than 20 species of bats!
Among the 11,000 elephants within the Tsavo ecosystem, as many as 450 elephants now call Rukinga home year round, but their numbers can swell to an estimated 2,000 towards the end of the dry seasons in October and March, when it's not uncommon to see elephants and other wildlife congregating around Rukinga's numerous water holes and tanks. For this, The Kasigau Corridor REDD project was awarded the additional distinction of Gold level status by the Community Climate and Biodiversity Standard for exceptional biodiversity and climate benefits.
Our success depends on the collaboration with and support of the surrounding community members. Our work impacts 165 villages and over 116,000 residents, who now see the wildlife more valuable alive than dead.
Wildlife Works was the subject of a docu-series about the poaching crisis.
Watch it on Amazon.