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Luca Belpietro - The Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust


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Posted 17 April 2007 - 10:48 PM

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Luca Belpietro was born in Italy, and with his family has been a part of Africa since 1969. With his father, he toured Africa on many sporting safaris. He has divided his youth time between Italy and Kenya. He has a degree in economics and wrote his thesis on Sustainable Development and Environment Conservation: Wildlife as a Natural Resource in Kenya. Following this, he had a successful career as managing director of a financial consulting firm.

However, he never forgot his dreams of Africa, and stayed involved in wildlife conservation in Kenya. In 1996, Luca Belpietro and his wife, Antonella Bonomi, built an eco-tourism lodge, Campi ya Kanzi, offering a unique wilderness experience to its guests as well as providing shared revenues and employment to the local Maasai. Built in a completely eco-friendly manner, Campi ya Kanzi was selected as a finalist for the 2004 Word Legacy Award (supported by the National Geographic Society and Conservation International); Campi ya Kanzi won the Skal Ecotourism Award in 2005, the Tourism for Tomorrow Award in 2006 (supported by the World Travel Tourism Council and sponsored by various organizations such as British Airways, BBC World and Newsweek), and was awarded the 2006 Eco Warrior Award (supported by Ecotourism Kenya).

Luca speaks fluent English, Italian and Kiswahili. He is an adamant conservationist and founder and managing director of Luca Safari Ltd.

Details of Luca's conservation projects can be found at both www.maasai.com (Campi ya Kanzi's website) and www.maasaitrust.org (Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust's website).

You have a varied background but were involved in Africa from an early age: what made you finally settle in Kenya?

Love for nature and the unique beauty of the Country and its people.

In creating Campi ya Kanzi what bureaucracy did you face and how did you arrive at the idea of creating a eco tourism lodge within Maasai owned territory?

I did not find the bureaucracy to burdening. I choose Maasailand as I was adamant to create a long term conservation project involving a community

How did your relationship with the Maasai develop?

How many years do you have for me to start explaining this?.... It is still developing. Maasai World is one of its own and if you were not born a Maasai there are no doors for you to enter it, I am glad some windows open for me to look into it once in a while.

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How does your presence benefit the local community?

Tremendously, though employment (130 people work for the Trust and the camp), through sustainable development, through join forces and trying to make sure Maasailand and Maasai lifestyle do have a future in the 21st Century

In the area in which you are based – is the life of the Maasai traditional and what hardships / social problems do they face?

It is still traditional, but land subdivision threaten the ability to remain true Maasai

In respect to the traditional way of life of the Maasai people – is it something you can see remaining or will it slowly adapt to the modern day demands of Kenya? In fact by your presence within their land has that in anyway changed their existence locally?

Maasai feel they are the elected people of God. They feel superior to other human beings. Having an ecotourism lodge in their land, it helps them valuing their traditions. Therefore the lodge presence is in fact defending the Maasai lifestyle. Threats are not tourism, tourism is an opportunity: real threats are the triplication of Kenyans human being population in the last 40 years, therefore a strong demand for land. No land, no Maasai, exactly like it happened for the North American Indians.

What changes, both positive and negative have you noticed in the area since your arrival? Both in terms of the wildlife and habitat.

Thanks to our efforts wildlife has not reduced as dramatically as somewhere else, even if predators are being wiped off. Our compensation project is helping protecting lions. Subdivision of land and external farmers coming to farm below subsistence have created huge problems - The Maasai have traditionally engaged in pastoralism (raising and herding of livestock) as a way of life for hundreds of years in the region. The necessary low human density of this semi-nomadic existence and the culturally rooted tolerance of wild animals have allowed their harmonious coexistence with wildlife. However, recent changes in land-use and the corresponding increase in population are threatening the ecosystem.

Over the past several years, agriculturalists, both contemporary Maasai and immigrants, have settled into the region. This phenomenon has resulted in diversion and pollution of water by fertilizers and chemicals used in agriculture, reduction of land available for wildlife and narrowing or closing of wildlife migratory corridors (Githaiga et al, 2003). In addition, these land-use changes are also changing the traditional Maasai view toward wildlife, since agriculturalists face more significant threats from crop-raiding animals then do traditional pastoralists. Furthermore, while the Maasai generally understand that small subdivided plots of land are viable for neither livestock grazing nor agriculture, they are proceeding with obtaining private title deeds, undermining the group ranch ownership concept in the process (Croze et al, 2006). While the concept of subdivision is relatively new at KGR, some of the Maasai group ranches in the area are well on their way of being completely subdivided amongst their members. Once subdivided, the owner of the deed can theoretically do whatever he (women are seldom given a title deed) chooses with the plot of land, including selling it to outsiders. It is important to note that there are no established land-use policies in Kenya.

There is overwhelming evidence that closing of wildlife migratory corridors due to factors such as farming can have a profoundly negative impact on an ecosystem as a whole. Recent depletion of wildlife numbers in Nairobi National Park in Kenya and Tarangire National Park in Tanzania are two sobering examples (Dougherty, 2003) (Rodgers et al, 2003) (Nelson, 2005). In both cases, the park boundaries did not include protection of much of the migratory/dispersal areas, and land-use changes and population pressures outside the national parks rendered much of the migratory corridors and dispersal areas unsuitable for wildlife. Fortunately, the integrity of the ecosystem comprising KGR and the adjoining group ranches, Amboseli National Park and Tsavo West National Park are still largely intact, however, the threats are severe and imminent.

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What is The Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust – its objectives and how are these being achieved?

MISSION STATEMENT: Preservation of the wilderness, Maasai land and culture through community-based conservation projects by providing an economic stake in conservation to the Maasai landowners of the greater Mt. Kilimanjaro ecosystem.

Kuku Group Ranch (KGR) is 280,000 acres of Maasai-owned land located in Southern Kenya. With views of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the neighbouring Tanzania merely miles away, the ranch is bordered by Chyulu Hills to the east, and it serves as an important wildlife dispersal area between Amboseli National Park and Tsavo West National Park. The MWCT was founded in 2000 in order to carry out extensive long-term conservation and humanitarian projects on KGR. The Maasai Foundation of East Africa (MFEA), a 501 ©(3), assists MWCT through fund raising in the United States.

KGR is unique because it is privately and collectively owned by several thousand Maasai, and is located outside of government-run national park. The eco-tourism and conservation projects at KGR are, therefore, initiatives founded by the local Maasai and MWCT. Some of MWCT’s ongoing projects include providing an education for the Maasai children, funding local medical facilities and employing game scouts to perform anti-poaching tasks, among others:

DESCRIPTIONS OF MWCT’S CURRENT PROJECTS

Game Scout Program

Wildlife meat poaching targets any and every animal, including animals in prime breeding years. Consequently, uncontrolled meat poaching can have devastating effects on animal populations. Commercial meat poaching has increased dramatically in Kenya in recent years, especially on the peripheries of national parks. Poaching for elephant ivory and rhino horns, while under control in Kenya, remains a threat.

The presence of game scouts is the most effective deterrent to poaching. MWCT currently employs 37 game scouts to carry out anti-poaching duties. The scouts are also instrumental in monitoring game movements within KGR and carrying out the Simba Project (see below). The game scout program provides immediate income to underemployed young Maasai men in the area, and it serves to highlight the tangible benefits of wildlife to the Maasai.

During the period of 2003 to 2006, the game scouts confiscated 98 snares, 20 machetes, 23 bicycles, and 5 firearms, and arrested 109 poachers. While the program has no doubt been successful, it is inadequate in light of KGR’s vast 280,000 acres that must be patrolled. The presence of game scouts needs to be increased in important wildlife corridor areas; also, their numbers need to be increased in Chyulu Hills in order to prevent wild fires that are periodically set by poachers to control movement of game.

We seek to increase the number of game scouts by 20-25 trained and properly equipped men. If we are successful with establishing a rhino sanctuary, it will require another 15 scouts. Each additional game scout will be equipped with approximately $1,500 of equipment. The salary level is approximately $150 a month per scout. An additional vehicle will be needed for patrol.

General Education and Medical Facilities

We believes that education is key to the Maasai becoming the primary guardians of their wilderness, whether one wishes to abandon his or her traditional way of life or continue on as a pastoralist. In addition to providing modern education, Maasai elders are often engaged in teaching at the schools in order to pass on traditional beliefs and values. There are currently 14 primary schools located on KGR. In all of the schools, MWCT directly pays for at least one teacher.

There are no secondary schools at KGR, but MWCT currently pays for a total of 14 secondary school scholarships, which include school fees and room and board, and aims to pay for at least 4 new scholarships every year. Luca and Antonella have personally paid for one scholarship, for a period of 4 years.

There are four rudimentary medical facilities at KGR. They are currently staffed by paramedics who are qualified to administer only basic care. We employ a full-time doctor at one of the medical facilities. By providing the doctor with means of transportation, we will be able to serve the distant parts of KGR and its greater population of approximately 7,000 people. The Kenyan government has agreed to provide some drugs for treatment. In addition to routine medical issues, HIV/AIDS remains a very real threat, and we are seeking donors for antiviral drugs. The full extent of HIV/AIDS in the area is not quantified. However, the remoteness of KGR has, to some extent, protected the Maasai there from the full extent of HIV/AIDS realized in other areas.

Tell me about the Simba Project.

The lion, perhaps the most emblematic African species of them all, is in serious decline. In Africa, it is estimated that there are only about 18,000 lions remaining today, down from about 200,000 merely thirty years ago. Kenya presently harbours perhaps one-tenth of the total African lion population. Worse yet, the lion population is becoming increasingly isolated in pockets, perhaps leading to the loss of genetic diversity and subsequent susceptibility to disease. It is estimated that presently there are 15 to18 lions in KGR, down dramatically from approximately 50 lions just a decade ago; it is estimated that the lion population in Amboseli National Park and the surrounding six group ranches is around 50 to 70, down from over 300 just a decade ago (L. Belpietro, pers. comm.).

Traditionally, Maasai have killed lions for ceremonial purposes and for limiting livestock losses. Ceremonial killings of lions now occur very rarely, however, lion-livestock conflicts rage on. Lions are intelligent, adaptive predators. Once a lion is successful in livestock predation, it tends to repeat such actions. The Maasai have traditionally hunted and killed such problem lions. In Amboseli and the surrounding group ranches, over 100 lions have been killed since 2000 (Hill and Bonham, 2005) (Maclennan et al, 2006). KGR has lost 23 lions to killings since 2004, when it began official counting of lion losses.

The Simba project has two main goals: (1) to prevent predator-livestock conflict and (2) to compensate the Maasai monetarily for the loss of livestock in return for not killing the predators. The game scouts associated with the Simba project monitor the movements of lions within KGR and educate the Maasai regarding better herding and boma-building techniques. In cases of actual livestock losses verified by the Simba Project Committee, the following monetary compensation per head is given to the livestock owner: cow – Kenyan shillings (Kshs.) 13,500 (approximately $190); sheep or goat – Kshs. 2,000 (approximately $28); donkey – Kshs. 6,000 (approximately $85)

Although the lion-livestock conflict is highlighted here, all livestock losses due to conflict with other wild animals (such as hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, elephants, etc.) are considered for monetary compensation.

There are early signs of success for the Simba Project. There were 9 lions and 10 lions killed or suspected killed in 2004, and 2005, respectively. When the compensation scheme was discussed in 2006, only 3 lions were killed. The Project has been officially launched in January 2007. With the recent commencement of the compensation phase of the project, we anticipate future lion losses to be minimal or none at all.

Your conservation activities, namely the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust and Simba Project are supported in part by actor Edward Norton. How did this relationship develop and how does having someone of his reputation help in gaining publicity for your cause?

Edward came as a guest, we became friends. He is a true conservationist. I am sure his support raised our profile.

For your degree in economics your thesis was “Sustainable Development and Environment Conservation: Wildlife as a Natural Resource in Kenya” How have you applied this Campi ya Kanzi and your conservation projects?

Entirely: the only way to protect wildlife is making it profitable for the Land lords.

What is the best way of changing the Maasai’s perspective towards the lion – in terms of the coming of age ritual of killing them, and by seeking revenge over livestock loss by placing poison baited carcasses which not only may kill the guilty lion but affect a number of other wildlife species as well?

Revenge is the wrong word, self defence is the appropriate one. Lions are killed as they tend to prey more on livestock: question is why. Answer is fewer lions in less land with less wildlife prey more on livestock.
So lion killing has nothing to do with Maasai getting their manhood or in revenging, it simply has to do with the need of the Maasai to defend their pastoral way of living.

Solutions? Conservancies where to limit access of livestock and compensation for livestock killed by predators.

If lions will effect your economic life, as they do to the Maasai, you would look at lions in a very different prospective.

How does the tradition of lion killing conflict with your idea of conservation?

It does not: this is Maasailand, there has always been room for wildlife and Maasai to live in harmony. We need to find a new harmony, trough economic income used to compensate for losses caused by wildlife to livestock. I have absolutely no problem with an old lion, preying constantly on livestock as he cannot longer hunt wildlife, in being hunted and speared by a group of moran. I actually think this is my ultimate goal: having an healthy lion population that allows traditional lion hunts.

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As a non Maasai, living with permission within their land, how were you accepted initially and how are you accepted now, especially with a young family?

As you can see from my answers I am getting very Maasai... so I am very much accepted, as much as a non Maasai can

What have you learnt from them, and in turn what have they learnt from you?

I have learnt to be humble and that as Westerners we are raised with a lot of prejudices.

I have learnt we are the results of our Mother culture and that we are thefore blind to many things happening in front of our eyes.

They may have learnt that there is a future for Maasai land if all work together for it.

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In your opinion, how does the mentality towards wildlife sustainability and habitat preservation differ between the different generations of Maasai you have contact with?

Younger generations may be more sensitive.

Since your conservation project was launched, what have been the instances of poaching, and by whom are they committed?

Poaching is committed by desperate farmers, who failed to have crops. Or by farmers who learnt there is more money in game meat than in farming. Whatever the case we have poor people trying to go along and live. There are no bad poachers, simply hungry people. Give them a good alternative, you will not have any poaching.

Have your combined efforts with Maasai led to a reduction in the level of poaching within the Kuku Group Ranch? What legals powers do you and the Maasai possess to deal with poachers and how can you enforce laws on this land?

We employ 37 scouts. We act together with the Government and we liaise with the Government. Our presence has limited poaching tremendously.

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How do you see the future of wildlife and habitat conservation / eco tourism developing in Kenya – and likewise how do you envisage the future of the Kuku Group Ranch in which your lodge is based?

I believe it is a responsibility of the developed Countries to help other undeveloped Countries to look after their natural resources. If we accept that there may be a good future for Conservation in Kenya. I believe in entrepreneur approaches, assisted by non profit organizations.

I do have great optimism for what we do in Kuku Group Ranch and in the possibility to extend our model in the greater Kilimanjaro eco-system.

DESCRIPTIONS OF MWCT’S FUTURE PROJECTS

Conservancies

Kuku Group Ranch, like many surrounding group ranches in the area, currently lacks sensible, comprehensive land-use policies. This has allowed continual overgrazing of certain areas and commencement of ill-conceived agriculture schemes as described in the “Challenges and Threats” section above. The resultant diversion and pollution of water, reduction of land available for wildlife and narrowing or closing of wildlife migratory corridors are the most critical issues facing KGR today.

MWCT has been active in seeking agreements with the Maasai group ranch members to establish conservancies in ecologically critical areas within KGR. We are currently in verbal agreement with the group ranch members over a 3,700 acre area around the safari lodge, Campi ya Kanzi. In return for $10,000 a year (50% paid directly to the group ranch members and 50% paid in community projects), the Maasai have agreed to no livestock grazing and no bomas (temporary or semi-permanent Maasai housing structures) within the conservancy. Negotiations are ongoing to potentially add another crucial 600 acres to the conservancy for an additional $1,400 a year and perhaps even another 1,200 acres for an additional $2,900 a year. The conservancy will be structured as a land lease to MWCT with a renewable 15-year term.

MWCT is in negotiations with the Maasai group ranch members over two other potential conservancies within KGR. The two proposed conservancies are wildlife migratory corridors that are absolutely critical to the ecological health of KGR and the greater Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem.

One of the proposed conservancies is on the western edge of KGR and serves as a vital migratory corridor between Amboseli National Park and KGR for elephants, zebras, wildebeests, elands, among others, during the wet season. This area has recently been overgrazed and over-settled; an establishment of a conservancy, which would entail removal of livestock, relocation of bomas and abandonment of farms, would have an immensely positive impact on the ecosystem. We believe this is the most suitable area within KGR for a rhino sanctuary (see “Rhino Sanctuary” below). We project the costs of the lease to be approximately $28,000 a year for the 10,000 critical acres.

The other proposed conservancy is on the eastern edge of KGR and serves as a vital migratory corridor between Tsavo West National Park and KGR. In addition to the elephants, zebras, wildebeests and elands which disperse into the area from Tsavo during the wet-season, locally important species such as lesser kudu, gerenuk and fringe-eared oryx are often found here. There are verbal reports of roan antelopes, now down to single population of approximately 50 in Kenya, seen in this area in the past. The conservancy could make the reintroduction of the roan antelope possible. The area also contains streams, swamps, springs and wetlands, by-products of rainwater catchments from Mt. Kilimanjaro and Chyulu Hills. The corridor to Tsavo West National Park is naturally narrow due to the presence of a long stretch of volcanic rock, unsuitable for wildlife. The recent proliferation of agriculture is threatening to close off the corridor and damage the hydrology of the land. The negotiations for this essential conservancy in the area are in preliminary stages.

While we anticipate the conservancies to be zoned only for wildlife, we believe they can serve as emergency “grass banks” for the Maasai livestock during times of severe drought. MWCT intends to consider such policies as the trustee of the conservancies.

Tarangire National Park in Tanzania has lost an estimated 75% of its wildebeests and 50% of its zebras in the past 12 years (C. Foley, pers. comm..). These migratory herbivores are unaware of any national park boundaries and disperse into the adjacent rangelands during the wet-season. Loss of habitat due to agriculture, human settlement and meat poaching outside the park are cited as the primary reasons for the degradation of the Tarangire ecosystem. The greater Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem has physical, floral and faunal similarities to the Tarangire ecosystem. It is abundantly clear then that the health of the adjacent group ranches, including KGR, outside the national parks is the key to the health of the overall Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem.

Guide School/Catering School

A principle driver of Kenya’s economy is tourism, with annual revenues of approaching $750mm. While the economic benefits are enjoyed by large tourist operators, national parks and various governmental entities, local communities often do not reap such benefits. Many Maasai in the area, having grown up with wildlife around them, are keen observers and trackers but lack the communicative skills to become professional safari guides. For those who seek future employment as safari guides, we hope to establish a guide school which would provide intensive training in the areas of zoology, botany, tracking, vehicle operations and maintenance, and lodge/camp operations. The guide school would employ a qualified headmaster. We intend to not only employ graduates of the guide school at KGR but also to prepare them for employment in other parts of Kenya.

The guide school would be situated on the western edge of KGR near two other group ranches (Mbirikani and Kimana) to draw aspiring pupils from them as well. A semi-permanent, eco-friendly structure would be built to house 20 students and 3-4 instructors. The school would follow standards set by the Kenya Professional Guide Association, which awards bronze, silver and gold level guide certificates. We hope to create an affiliation/exchange program with the recently formed Koiyaki Guide School near Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Southwestern Kenya.

As an adjunct to the guide school, we hope to establish a catering school which would provide basic training necessary for employment at safari lodges/camps. Ecotourism is the largest source of employment in Kenya.

Rhino Sanctuary

The plight of the critically endangered black rhino is well documented. As recently as the 1970s, the black rhino population stood at an estimated 65,000 in Africa and 20,000 in Kenya. Today, it is estimated that approximately 3,000 survive in all of Africa, of which about 400 survive in Kenya. Locally, a small population is present in Tsavo West National Park and Tsavo East National Park. In Amboseli National Park, the black rhino disappeared in the 1990s. There have been infrequent reports of rhino sightings at Amboseli, so rhinos appear to be, at best, periodic vagrants. There are a handful of black rhinos (perhaps 15-20) surviving on KGR and the adjoining group ranches.

At such low numbers, the naturally occurring rhino population at KGR may not be viable. We seek to establish a separate viable population by obtaining black rhinos from the Kenyan Wildlife Service and guarding them in an unfenced sanctuary on the ranch, with a longer term hope of their providing genetic diversity to the naturally occurring population in the area. Approximately 10,000 acres of suitable habitat will be set aside on the western side of KGR and guarded by 20-25 game scouts. The cost of running the rhino sanctuary is estimated at $50,000 a year (including the employment of 25 scouts). The chosen location is currently under threat from overgrazing, and the establishment of a rhino sanctuary would provide the added benefit of revitalizing the land.

A large number of tourists travel by road between Amboseli National Park and Tsavo West National Park. The rhino sanctuary would be an ideal stopping point for such tourists to view the endangered black rhino. Entrance fees paid by the tourists would benefit the local Maasai.

Resident Naturalist/Ecological Monitoring

Kuku Group Ranch has never had any official on-going research and monitoring of the ecosystem. We would like to finance a research and monitoring program with the primary goal of preserving the biodiversity of the land. The resident naturalist and his or her staff would be responsible for conducting periodic game counts, monitoring of faunal and floral trends, and recommending courses of action based on scientific research.

FUNDING STATUS AND NEEDS

MWCT’s operating budget has grown from 16 employees and $22,000 in 2000 to over 80 employees and $245,000 in 2007. Thus far, the majority of the funding has been provided by small, private donors, many of whom are former guests of Campi ya Kanzi. In order to carry out the projects, we are reaching out for more significant funding.

What is it, after having spent so long in Africa, that still inspires and motivates you about living there?

That this is home to my soul.


The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.

All images appear courtesy of © Luca Belpietro


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