“Mamma Cheetah!” someone shouts at us from the crowds of people strolling through the dusty streets. The Action for Cheetahs in Kenya team just filled up the truck and is pulling out of the rough–n-tumble town of Isiolo. Whoever enthusiastically shouted out to the cheetah team was never seen, but it was not entirely unexpected. ACK is well-known in these parts for focusing on community engagement, bringing in the locals to take part in saving this enigmatic, beautiful cat.
Our destination is the Meibae Community Conservancy in Northern Kenya, where Samburu pastoralists live alongside zebra, elephant, leopard, and yes, the cheetah. The long drive from ACK’s base in Nairobi is about to get rough. Past Isiolo, we hang a left at Archers Post where the pavement ends and the wild begins. After hours of teeth rattling road we start to see more people, livestock (goats, camels and sheep) and manyattas (homesteads made of natural materials). The region is dry and rocky, a beautiful quintessential African landscape of acacia trees and reddish earth.
Meibae is a new study-site for Mary Wykstra’s (Director for ACK, otherwise known as Mamma Cheetah in Isiolo) cheetah conservation project.
Why the Meibae Conservancy?
According to Mary, “ We chose Meibae because the previous years of Northern Rangelands Trust data showed the highest repeat sightings of cheetahs in this area with families of eight cheetahs being reported several times (probably the same family moving across the area) in 2008/9.”
ACK employs three young men from the community who monitor the cheetah movements and predator conflicts. Senior Field Officer, Chris Lentaam, also acts as an interpreter and liason for Mary’s researchers when they visit the study site. With the support of the rangers who welcome the team to camp with them at their outpost, and by employing locals ACK is building a solid reputation in the area.
Conservation is about people.
If a wildlife-focused organization wants to save a magnificent cat like the cheetah, they have to ask what the people in the region need. Right now, it is nurturing the next generation. This part of Samburu is one where the parents need their children to stay in the field herding livestock. Promoting education is a focus, with children learning through songs about wildlife and bringing their knowledge home to their parents.
That support brings us to the Lekiji Primary School. A small building atop a hill next to a shady tree where the school began beneath its leaves with just a hanging chalkboard. ACK’s field officer, Kinosi Moses, is also a teacher here.
Mary says “Our involvement with the school is in developing awareness of the different predators and their importance in the area, the role that tourist income brings into the country, and the mitigation of loss. Many of the kids attending this school are from families that want to keep children in the field herding. These are the kids who would not be sent to school if it were not for this teacher (Moses). We want to help the kids to learn from him, and to see that education has a strong role in the community.”
When we arrive we’re greeted with an outstanding welcome in English, Samburu (Maa) and Swahili. We’re treated to an afternoon of enthusiastic schoolchildren singing and reciting poetry. The mothers watch their children with pride and the teachers and elders give overwhelming speeches of thanks.
Where does the cheetah fit in to all this? When a community struggles for survival, when hardship outweighs conservation, a predator is on shaky ground. Land for grazing in times of drought and lack of economic prosperity will put the cheetah on the bottom of the list. But with education, stable herding practices and security is possible. With education there is room to discuss co-existence.
“In the short time we have worked there the community support has been great. The cheetah is a respected animal, but the level of tolerance for livestock loss varies among community members. If there is a livestock loss, the tolerance goes down exponentially with the number of livestock killed. However, they also recognize that the cheetah rarely attacks livestock.”
What is next for Action for Cheetahs in Meibae?
“Holistic rangeland management implemented by the Grevy’s Zebra Trust and Wildlife Warrior programmes planned by GZT and the Ewaso Lions Project are engaging people in conservation at the community level. ACK community projects will work in collaboration with these programmes to evaluate herding strategies that will compliment the Samburu culture and the other new programmes in the Meibae Conservancy. Community stakeholder meetings will begin in early 2014 using the results of cheetah monitoring combined with the cultural needs of the community.
If the cheetah is to have a future in these communities, the answer lies in human tolerance and in cheetah adaptations to their changing world.”
All photos & text: Marcy Mendelson © 2013 / Cheetah-Watch.com