Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Living Landscape

Kenya's Laikipia District is a place where people and animals coexist--and a new frontier for Zoo research.

By Valerie May

Fascination with the creatures around us, whether as food, objects of fear, or sources of wonder, is part of our being human. For thousands of years, that fascination has played out through the impulse to collect animals for viewing. The remains of one menagerie, excavated in Egypt, date back to 3500 B.C.E. It included elephants, hippos, baboons, and antelope known as hartebeests.


(Ryan Valdez)

Zoos remain popular today, of course. Yet their focus has shifted from merely collecting animals to conserving them. The Smithsonian’s National Zoo has been a leader in this effort—launching, last year, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI). Its director, Steve Monfort, describes SCBI as “the scientific arm of the Zoo.”

SCBI gathered under one umbrella the Smithsonian’s global efforts to study and preserve Earth’s biodiversity and to train future generations of conservationists. “It is our role,” Monfort says, “to bring people together across the Smithsonian in an interdisciplinary manner in the practice of conservation biology.”

Conservation biology, Monfort notes, can encompass “a wide spectrum of natural and social sciences,” including landscape ecology, wildlife ecology, plant ecology, behavioral ecology, wildlife health and disease, evolutionary biology, conservation genetics, community relations, conflict resolution, livelihood development programs, educational outreach, and more. Conservation biologists strive not only for the preservation of individual species but for successful maintenance of natural ecosystems.

This pioneering work has taken SCBI scientists far beyond the Zoo’s gates. “SCBI exists wherever our scientists are working. At the Zoo, at our labs in Front Royal, at field sites in 25 countries,” says Monfort. “We are not a location-specific enterprise.”

Incredible Place

Today, a doctoral student named Ryan Valdez is taking SCBI’s pioneering mindset to a new landscape: the Laikipia District in central Kenya. Laikipia is a like a page out of National Geographic. Acacia-studded grasslands spread out against the distant backdrop of Mount Kenya, and Maasai and Samburu pastoralists tend their cattle cheek by jowl with private and tribal ranches, ecotourism lodges, and a research center.


Scientist Ryan Valdez flanked by guards at a wildlife conservancy in Kenya. (Ryan Valdez)

Vast herds of elephants shuffle quietly along centuries-old wildlife corridors. Spectacular, endangered Grevy’s zebras share grazing lands with prized cattle. Wild dogs romp beneath acacia trees while reticulated giraffes reach for the highest branches. Lion prides bask in the equatorial sun. This is the landscape that a widely disparate group of people have pulled together to try and preserve.

“It is an incredible place,” says Valdez. “You are surrounded by an amazing variety of wildlife. If you were to take my hometown in South Texas and plunk it down in the middle of Kenya, you would still feel right at home among the acacias, grasses, and cattle. But then you have this charismatic wildlife and a terrific group of conservation biologists to work with—like those at the Mpala Research Centre, who have been important mentors for me during my Ph.D. research.”

In Laikipia, large quantities of wild animals roam outside protected areas. Unlike traditional conservancies where vast fenced areas are set aside for wildlife, the landscape is largely unfenced and privately owned. “The best way of preserving wildlife here,” says Mpala director Margaret Kinnaird, “is to find a way to create a win-win situation for everyone on the landscape.” She refers to the wildlife as well as the pastoralists who move herds of cattle across the horizon, the private ranchers who have bred a unique and expensive breed of cattle called “boran,” and the nongovernmental organizations that have partnered with traditional pastoralists to create ecotourism lodges as well as ecologically viable and economically fruitful agricultural endeavors, such as honey production

The ethic of coexistence and respect for the wild animals and wilderness landscape has historical roots among the traditional pastoralists and private landowners. It finds expression in the Laikipia Wildlife Forum. This group comes together regularly to thrash out the complex issues of the day. “You can’t look around and say that everybody is wildlife-friendly, but most of them are,” Kinnaird says. It’s a group dedicated to human-wildlife balance. “We come together to hammer out the issues. It’s a lot of hard work to move ahead, but we do.” Swahili, English, and Maa are all spoken at the meetings, and typically one sees everything from “beads to blue jeans,” says Kinnaird.

Lands in the Laikipia District are managed as vast, working wildlife landscapes, and land stewardship is rooted in science. Research points to the interconnectedness of the entire ecosystem. For example, controlled cattle-grazing supports healthy grasslands and cuts down the rodent population. With fewer rodent hosts, ticks—and the diseases they carry—become less widespread.

Laikipia’s ecological balance, researchers have found, must include large herbivores. If elephants and giraffes are eliminated from the landscape, for instance, acacia trees stop producing sugar. Sugarless trees fail to attract ants, which protect them from destructive boring beetles. Devoured by beetles, trees die. That, in turn, can have a negative impact on the grasses that cattle need for grazing.


(Ryan Valdez)

Can a Landscape Recover?

Valdez will study how a “degraded,” or heavily used, landscape responds following the cessation of human habitation and cattle grazing. He’ll chart changes in both plant and animal life. To do so, he’ll compare three adjacent tracts of land in different stages of use.

One locale, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, has an area that has been largely untouched for more than ten years. “This is the model, the control if you like, of what can become of these degraded lands if you allow them to recover from overuse,” says Valdez. “Ol Pejeta has continued to graze cattle there but using a science-based approach that sustains high biodiversity.” Ol Pejeta also maintains East Africa’s largest black rhino sanctuary and is a center of ecotourism. As a nonprofit, it plows revenue back into the community with various outreach programs.

The second site is the government-owned ADC Mutara Ranch. It includes a 20,000-acre expanse that was set aside for wildlife conservation about two years ago.

The third study area, still to be chosen, will be a degraded landscape, where intense human habitation and overgrazing have destroyed the natural ecosystem. It will be a place where megafauna and predators, such as lions and leopards, have largely disappeared.

An interesting twist here is that most research into maintaining biodiversity concentrates on human impact, such as roads and agriculture, on relatively pristine landscapes. Valdez’s work will do the opposite. Can a landscape devoid of wilderness be returned to an ecologically viable property? Can it be recovered and returned to a wilderness that could support ecotourism and sustainable ranching?

Ecological Experiment

Valdez is collaborating with the Mpala Research Centre, of which the Smithsonian is a trustee organization, along with the Kenya Wildlife Service, the National Museums of Kenya, Princeton University, and the Mpala Wildlife Foundation. “We are beginning to explore how we might have a larger role there. We’re just dipping our toes in the water with Ryan’s research,” says Monfort.

Mpala Research Centre supports a well-respected, international research facility with space for about 60 students and scientists. It also operates a cattle ranch that successfully coexists with an abundance of wildlife, runs a primary school for employees’ children, and provides several educational fellowship programs as well as a medical mobile clinic as part of its community outreach. Scott Miller, who represents the Smithsonian on the Mpala board, describes Laikipia as “a big experiment in the coexistence of people, livestock, and wildlife. Historically, it was large, privately held ranches which are now transitioning to multiple land-management models. Much of this is underpinned by the research being done at Mpala.”

“There’s a great sense of pride by community ranch members in their lands and their wildlife,” says Kathleen Fitzgerald, conservation director of the African Wildlife Foundation. Traditionally, wild dogs were considered a menace in Laikipia, killing sheep, cattle, and goats. Now, this region hosts one of the only growing populations on the continent. “I was happy to see the wild dogs,” one tribal ranch member told Fitzgerald. “We know that tourists will come to see them.”

This is not to say all goes smoothly all the time. One morning, her voice suffused with the regret of a rancher who has lost a treasured animal, Kinnaird described the killing of a pedigreed boran bull by two lions. “It put a dent in the breeding stock. In the old days, you might have had the manager set out to shoot the lions. But we want our lions too. And that level of tolerance is very special to this region. So instead,” she says, “we are buckling down on livestock management.”

In this instance, that means paying more attention to the bomas, or movable corrals, that are the traditional holding pens for cattle. People at Mpala are experimenting with metal, movable bomas that latch together and are nearly predator-proof. “The really practical thing we do here, says Kinnaird, “is to help traditional pastoralists and ranchers come up with simple solutions.”


(Ryan Valdez)

Success Story?

Laikipia’s successes are important, because conservationists largely agree that national parks alone will not do the job of sustaining a viable wilderness. In fact, the majority of Kenya’s biodiversity exists outside protected areas. Many see advantages to the vast private lands of the Laikipia District because of the innovative ways they permit people to support themselves in wildlife-friendly ways.

All of the players in this complex landscape are building toward sustainability. This means real pay-off in the day-to-day life of the human inhabitants of Laikipia as well as an upswing of wildlife populations. Kinnaird’s research points to a 15 percent increase in overall wildlife numbers. “This is in contrast to the rest of Kenya—especially in the parks and protected areas—where animal numbers have plummeted over the past three decades,” she writes.

The Laikipia District has the makings of a success story—all too rare in the world of conservation. Here lies a hopeful example of vastly differing constituencies converging on a common goal. Tribal chiefs, Ph.D. students, conservation workers, research biologists, cattle ranchers—they’re all coming together to preserve the wondrous biodiversity and jaw-dropping beauty of this landscape.


Freelance writer VALERIE MAY is a frequent contributor to the magazine.


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Smithsonian Zoogoer 40(4) 2011. Copyright 2011 Friends of the National Zoo. All rights reserved.