Billy and I were selected to join the Zoo team headed to the South Rift of Kenya, where we spent a week immersed in the Maasai culture. After a bumpy and dusty three-hour truck ride from the capital city of Nairobi, we found ourselves in a land teeming with zebra, giraffe, baboons, and gazelles, with evidence of lions, leopards, and elephants living alongside the Maasai people, their cattle, and their goats. There were no fences, hot wire, trenches, traps, or anything to keep the native wildlife from the livestock. The people that live here have discovered a way to live in harmony with the land through a system of communication between herders and rangers and an incredible knowledge of the land and the animals that live there. Billy and I got to see first-hand how this system works and how both the animals and humans involved benefit from this open range type of living with the land.
We had the chance to spend time with the rangers, whose job it was to track wildlife, forecast their movements, and communicate that information to local herders that could be affected. This extra communication truly helped the people continue to live with carnivores and other wildlife. The people we met on these teams loved sharing stories about the wildlife they would encounter. These rangers are local and truly love the land, the wildlife, and the people that live on it. Everyone understands that a healthy ecosystem benefits everyone: herders and wildlife. This ecologically holistic approach to land management has led to a transformation of the land over the last 30 years. The rangers get excited to share how elephants are now returning to the land where they have not been seen in decades thanks to better nomadic herding practices and vegetation returning to a formerly overgrazed land.
The knowledge of these rangers was truly remarkable. One night, we got to go with the carnivore team and track a new group of lions that had entered the area. They knew these lions were new to the area just by studying tracks in the soft dirt along the road. We spent hours following these tracks, finally locating them because we could hear the lions’ communal calls coming from bushes near the river. While tracking the lions, we also passed multiple groups of cows being herded. This meant that these lions must have passed several herds themselves as they moved through the land. However, because it is so well-managed here, the lions have an abundance of natural prey and don’t usually show an interest in the cows being herded. In a healthy ecosystem, predators seek natural prey, and predation on livestock is minimized. We also got to be a part of conversations about strengthening the Cincinnati Zoo’s relationship with SORALO (South Rift Association of Land Owners) and how the zoo can continue to support this area and the people here.
Billy and I are working on getting the equipment and supplies necessary for the continued success of the rangers we met. We can all learn a lot from the people here and how a true communal approach to land management that includes the benefit to local wildlife can lead to a relationship where wildlife and humans can live in harmony. After returning from this trip, I am inspired even more than ever to continue to share our animals with our zoo guests. Getting to witness first-hand that coexistence with wildlife is truly possible gives me hope. We just have to care first.