A balance of life and livelihoods

GIS helps preserve livelihoods and conserve wildlife in Kenya

David Williams

Faced with difficult choices, a Maasai community in Kenya was able to get an accurate picture of their land resources with the help of conservationists and GPS receivers.

Situated at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and just 10 km south of Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, Elerai has a lot to offer tourists. The region’s woodlands and savannah are home to lions, cheetahs, leopards, antelope, buffalo and giraffe, plus a wealth of birdlife. The land is owned by the Elerai Maasai community, who live and tend their livestock throughout the 5,000 acres.

But with less access to open, undeveloped lands for grazing, the Elerai community face a difficult problem; do they continue with their traditional pastoralist livelihood, which is increasingly constrained, or, like many Maasai, do they reluctantly turn the land over to agriculture? Fortunately for the Elerai community, there is was an alternative: create a way to benefit from the wildlife they live alongside.

The people of Elerai worked with the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) to develop an ecotourism model for their land, and turn Elerai into a conservancy. This included an improved land management strategy that has allowed the community to keep their land open for both livestock and wildlife.

The project began in 2004, and an initial priority was to find out exactly what resources were available on the land, how they were being used, and to identify possible areas of conflict between the wildlife and the local population. To achieve this, AWF worked with the community and technicians from local NGOs and government authorities to conduct a resource mapping survey. This involved collecting data on the existing infrastructure and assessing community land use needs.

AWF trained community members to use handheld GPS (global positioning system) receivers to record the exact location of households, water points, grazing lands, wildlife sightings and other significant features. By combining their local knowledge with advanced mapping tools, the resource mapping teams efficiently collected a wealth of data in a relatively short space of time. In fact, more than 95% of the mapping was conducted in about six days.

At the end of each mapping day, AWF staff downloaded the data onto laptop computers and compiled the results with GIS (geographic information system) software. Using A3 printers, they printed large maps for the resource mapping teams to review the next day. Community members helped to annotate GPS observations and identify gaps for further mapping.


Following the completion of the survey, AWF collated and analyzed the data to present to the community. The community used the information to develop a land use plan, featuring management zones that will meet their future land needs while also securing valuable habitats for conservation. The plan contained guidelines for the effective management of the zones, which included wildlife and tourism, cultivation and settlements, and livestock grazing areas.

Armed with a detailed overview of their land, the Elerai community chose to work with a safari operator to develop an ecolodge in the Elerai Conservancy, in an effort to provide sustainable income from tourism. The ecolodge also gave the community an interest in protecting the wildlife and the habitat. The lodge operators pay an annual rent to the community, plus conservation and overnight fees from every visitor. Under the lease agreement, all unskilled labour will be sourced from the Elerai community, and if there are any skilled positions, they will get first consideration.

The operators will also work with the community and pay for the construction of a Maasai cultural village, which will generate further funding through visitors fees and the sales of crafts and other locally produced goods. All parties have agreed to set up the Elerai Community Wildlife and Development Trust to finance and promote community and wildlife conservation development projects within and around the Elerai Conservancy.

With the creation of the Elerai Conservancy, the growing communities avoided a future of farming dwindling plots of marginal land. Instead, they are keeping most of their land open for wildlife tourism and their traditional pastoralist way of life.

By itself, Elerai could not sustain large wildlife populations; the site is not big enough to be a viable conservation area on its own. But the region’s high density and diversity of wildlife depends on the ability of the animals to move between a network of adjoining land units. Although relatively small, Elerai has added an important piece to a matrix of public and private conservation lands that span the border between Kenya and Tanzania.

Elerai now forms part of AWF’s Kilimanjaro Heartland, which links neighbouring national parks, privately-owned land and community-owned land into a conservation network of more than 7,600 km². This larger-scale conservation area, one of nine AWF Heartlands, secures critical wildlife habitats and movement routes, and introduces opportunities for a more sustainable tourism sector that respects regional cultural heritage. The mobility and open space may also help to allow wildlife and pastoralists to shift their range in order to adapt to climate change impacts on their habitat.

Perhaps more importantly, Elerai served as a conservation model that AWF has since replicated elsewhere. The success in Elerai has proved that this approach, of combining wildlife conservation with the preservation of community livelihoods, is a viable alternative to the subdivision, fencing and expanding cultivation of lands seen in similar settings.


David Williams is the director for conservation geography with the African Wildlife Foundation ( www.awf.org)

26 November 2009

Copyright © 2016, CTA. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (ACP-EU)