Journalist Peter Martell on How Conservation Brought Kenyan Communities Together

The “Flowers for Elephants” author discusses how warring neighbors set aside their differences and found common ground by creating a wildlife sanctuary.

Journalist Peter Martell on How Conservation Brought Kenyan Communities Together

Kenya’s many unique habitats, animals, and people are on the front lines of the climate change crisis.

Photo by Peter Martell

Peter Martell is a British reporter who spent the past two decades as a correspondent for the BBC and Agence France-Presse, covering war, famine, and climate change across East Africa. His second book, Flowers for Elephants: How a Conservation Movement in Kenya Offers Lessons for Us All (March 2022, Hurst Publishers), includes many of these themes—but in a fresh and inspiring way. It tells the incredible story of how communities across northern Kenya worked together to create a network of protected lands across an area larger than Switzerland.

The story is not an obvious one: the region is at the front lines of climate change, it is dealing with massive habitat loss, and it has nearly been a war zone many times. It shows how, despite all odds, it is possible for humans to come together in the face of climate change.

Martell now covers North Africa and the Middle East for AFP. His first book, First Raise a Flag: How South Sudan Won the Longest War but Lost the Peace, about how South Sudan plunged into civil war shortly after gaining independence, was named a Book of the Year by the Economist and the Spectator in 2018.

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The Samburu people are sometimes called the “butterfly people” because of their colorful clothing.

Photo by Peter Martrell

How did you decide to turn this story of community conservation into a book?

I was a journalist and reporter in East Africa for the best part of 15 years. And during that period, I spent a long time in northern Kenya, which was essentially one step away from civil war at times. I watched this area, which had been written off as bandit country, turn itself around into a place where communities were building peace between each other. Conservation was one of the tools that helped bring archrivals together.

I had heard all these glossy reports of how this community conservation movement was really improving lives. The journalist in me was deeply skeptical, and I said, “Well, you know, let’s go and see what is happening.” So, I packed my car with a tent, mosquito net, and some food. The question I was trying to solve, I suppose, was whether humans and wildlife can coexist. And the answer I found in northern Kenya was a definite “yes.”

You are right on the front lines of our changing world. There is climate change and a drought going on as we speak. The wildlife is decimated both through loss of habitat as well as poaching. And yet at the same time, there are people who saw these incredible challenges and said, “Let’s come together.”

So often what resonates with us is the terrifying story that environmental change and collapse is going to drive us further apart. What I saw there instead was people coming together and saying, “We might have been enemies or rivals or distrusted each other in the past. But now that we’re facing these challenges—rising levels of crime, banditry, ethnic violence, cattle raids, poaching of wild animals. How can we create a system that will better manage our lands for the benefit of all?”

And with that, they created a structure not much more complicated than a community council. They created an area of land that was owned by all and therefore must be managed by all. That really inspired me. Too often, regions like this are written off by foreigners like me as hopeless cases.

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Warring Kenyan communities have put aside their differences through the power of wildlife conservation.

Photo by Peter Martell

For people who haven’t read the book, can you give a basic overview of how these communities came together in this kind of way?

It started from what had been a dusty cattle ranch called Lewa. It turned itself from a ranch that was a failure every time there was a serious drought to helping protect endangered rhinos by creating a sanctuary for them. That in turn brought back wild animals like elephants and giraffes and lions—essentially, they were rewilding the area. This idea then expanded onto a Maasai-run community area called Il Ngwesi.

This group of people asked themselves, “How can we, as a democratic community, organize the land for us all?” In practical terms, that meant setting aside a small area for a community-owned tourist lodge. The money that came through the tourists would be reinvested into the lodge, to the staff, and a percentage would be plowed back into whatever the community decided to spend their money on—water, wells, education, roads, or what they thought was the most valuable in that budget year.

Most importantly, this isn’t a project about fencing off lands. It’s not like creating a national park or a reserve, where there are fences to keep people out. What they did was help to manage the cattle grazing. By using this community council, they were able to essentially map out grazing areas and routes that wouldn’t lead to overgrazing.

This helped the wildlife return—it provided income and it provided employment opportunities. When there was a problem, they were able to come together in an organized fashion. Truthfully, it is a fairly ancient way of managing the land. This wasn’t something radically new. But what it did do is create a modern framework and interface for people to be able to interact with donors, with security forces, with the government, and with politicians.

Can you talk a bit about the difference between Kenya’s national parks and community-run conservancies?

The national parks cover roughly a tenth of the country. These are government or local council-owned, and they’re areas where people are pretty much prohibited from living, unless you are working there as a ranger or guard. They’re slightly artificial because they’ve been created.

That 10 percent is a huge amount of the country. But for a country like Kenya, with an incredible richness of biodiversity—it’s a very loose statistic, but roughly two-thirds of the wild animals are said to live outside national parks for at least some part of the year. They might move to the park and go back outside again.

These are grasslands where people graze their cattle, their camels, and their donkeys alongside elephants and giraffes and zebras and the whole range of what you might expect to see on safari. This is not a national park where you go in and the only people you’ll see are other tourists. These are areas where people are living in a manner as they have done for time immemorial: alongside the wildlife in a symbiotic relationship.

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Once they’re strong enough, animals at the sanctuary are released back into the wild.

Photo by Peter Martell

How does the community-run aspect of it change how the land looks and feels?

These are people’s homes. The leaders are democratically elected by the community in a way that allows them to potentially tap into donor funding to support and create shared resources, such as a community tourist lodge, or a campsite.

It’s essentially bringing the community into the modern world, to face the challenges of the modern world. That means they’ve got an email address, a bank account, accountants who can manage their finances—and all of this is overseen by the community themselves, which gives them strength and power.

It’s not just about creating a tourism lodge; it’s about the management of the whole land. Conservancies are about people: They are about community, and at the same time, they are massively benefiting the wildlife. The animals have space to breathe and the protection to travel longer distances. You can see through elephant collars that their range is starting to expand across areas that haven’t been seen since the 1950s and 1960s.

What’s the most surprising thing that you’ve learned while researching this book?

I think it would be the story behind the title of the book. I was out in the mountains in northern Kenya, in an area called Namunyak, with some Samburu guides. They were showing me how they moved the cattle in areas where they were huge herds of elephants, which is a pretty terrifying thing to do when you’re on foot and up close to them. They’re not benign or gentle animals—just based on their size alone, they can be frightening.

As we were walking, my guide showed me a huge elephant skull. He told me that when an elephant dies, all the other bones are carried away by hyenas and vultures and whatnot. But the skull is so heavy and large that it essentially remains where it died. And as he walked past, he bent down and he snapped off a green branch with a beautiful blossom, and he stuck it in the eye socket and the socket of the trunk, as a kind of offering.

It’s exactly what the Samburu do to their own dead. When they pass the grave of a relative and it’s covered in stones, they’ll either stick a green twig into it, or they might put a dollop of tobacco on as a gift. No other animal is accorded this level of reverence. And it’s this sign that there is this respect between people and wild animals, especially elephants.

It’s so easy to denigrate people—that they’re poachers, that they kill all the animals. When in fact, there’s this age-old important connection that we’re not just connected to nature, but that we humans are part of nature.

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A Samburu warrior places green branches into an elephant’s skull—a funerary practice usually reserved for people.

Photo by Peter Martell

What are the biggest threats right now facing the area?

In terms of northern Kenya, the big threat would be drought, at the moment. On a wider level, the region is on the front lines of climate change. There’s still a problem with banditry, there are still automatic weapons, it’s still a place with enormous challenges.

There are also critics of the community conservation movement. There are many Kenyans who see it as a sort of way for international organizations to “greenwash” or steal the land. That was one of the reasons I wanted to go up there, to investigate for myself. And I didn’t find these allegations to be true. What I found was by and large that the community was running their land for themselves. Yes, they had international aid to help fund some of it, and yes, donors helped bankroll some of it until they could get off the ground and become more sustainable after a few years of operation.

I was really impressed with the way people were working and coming together for themselves. And yeah, there are many, many challenges ahead. But at least they’re standing on their own two feet and are able to confront whatever comes at them.

My last question for you: What are your top recommendations for someone who wants to visit northern Kenya?

Camping on top of Mount Ololokwe is my top recommendation—the horizon keeps going, and the point when you think it’s going to stop, it keeps going. The elephant orphanage at Reteti is phenomenal. And Sera is an incredible conservancy where they’ve been breeding the rhinos and are starting to return them to areas where they’re extinct from.

It’s such an extraordinary, beautiful place and it’s got such huge diversity. You’ve got Lake Turkana, a giant inland sea, and you’ve got snow on top of Mount Kenya. You’ve got these incredible “sky islands,” these ridges of mountains. On the bottom, it’s just baked dark red earth with dry, crackling grass. And you climb up into them, which might take you a day of scrambling, and you’ve suddenly got cool misty rain forests and oak trees. There are these incredible sacred forests up there where the elephants go, where the rhinos used to go before they got killed, and where the cattle herders go during the dry season. And northern Kenya is one of the last places where elephants have that space to just roam.

>>Next: This Lion Safari Gives Travelers a Deeper Look at Wildlife Conservation in Africa

Sarika Bansal is the editorial director of AFAR Magazine and editor of the book Tread Brightly: Notes on Ethical Travel.
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