• Efforts to protect wildlife and landscapes have generally been shifting away from “fortress conservation” toward more inclusive approaches. Among these latter approaches are community conservancies, which have been expanding around the world, but have especially gained traction in East Africa.
  • According to John Kamanga, the founder and director of SORALO, community-based conservation initiatives in East Africa got a boost in the mid-1990s when Kenya Wildlife Service launched its “Parks beyond Parks” program and international donors started channeling more funds toward communities.
  • Over that 25-year timeframe, Kamanga said that local peoples’ interest in conservation has grown, while the international community has become more cognizant of the role communities play in protecting and managing wildlife and natural lands.
  • Still, the resources allocated to community conservation have not reached a level commensurate with their impact, the conservation leader told Mongabay during a September 2021 interview.

Efforts to protect wildlife and landscapes have generally been shifting away from “fortress conservation” — where local people are excluded from the lands they’ve traditionally managed — toward more inclusive approaches. Among these latter approaches are community conservancies, which have been expanding around the world, but have especially gained traction in East Africa.

According to John Kamanga, the founder and director of the South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO), community-based conservation initiatives in East Africa got a boost in the mid-1990s when Kenya Wildlife Service launched its “Parks beyond Parks” program, which allowed locals to start directly benefitting from wildlife tourism, and international donors started channeling more funds toward communities.

Kamanga said these developments “really started the conversation around community conservation” before “the formal legal legislation came to support the movement.”

Those legal frameworks would culminate in the Wildlife Act of 2016, which “legally recognizes community conservancies and the community conservation movement” in Kenya, according to Kamanga, who has been recognized for his efforts with accolades like the Tusk Award for Conservation in Africa.

John Kamanga. Phot credit: Johann du Toit
John Kamanga. Photo credit: Johann du Toit:

Over that 25-year timeframe, Kamanga said that local peoples’ interest in conservation has grown, while the international community has become more cognizant of the role communities play in protecting and managing wildlife and natural lands.

Still, the resources allocated to community conservation have not reached a level commensurate with their impact, said the conservation leader.

“I see a lot of imbalances in investment in conservation,” he told Mongabay. “So much investment goes into formally protected areas, like national parks and reserves but there is limited support for communities who perhaps live further from these places. Sometime people who seasonally need to move an area close to a formally protected area may then suffer from conflict with wildlife but receive no support or benefits from that wildlife.”

“Most of Kenya’s wildlife lives outside of formally protected areas, on these community lands and yet there is little or no investment in these areas in comparison,” Kamanga said. “Historically we have also seen imbalances when investors and tour operators operate businesses on community land and the community receives relatively little benefit.”

SORALO, which Kamanga founded in 2004 to represent several Maasai communities living across a vast area of wildlife-rich lands, is working to change that.

“We are trying to change that relationship to be more of a partnership between the community and investors,” said Kamanga.

John Kamanga at a community meeting. Photo credit: Guy Western
John Kamanga at a community meeting. Photo credit: Guy Western

Kamanga says that conservation is a core part of the traditions and culture of many communities, including the Maasai. That gives them a vested interest in conservation and makes them natural partners in conservation efforts.

“Conservation has been part of the lifestyle of our communities for a long, long time,” he said. “It was essential for survival to have a healthy and stable environment. We live off the land and so you really needed to protect it. Therefore, conservation is a central concept to our communities and they know how to use their environment in a sustainable manner. There are again rules and governance structures which have guided this, and allowed that over time they have protected their land and the resources on it.”

“The argument is therefore that we should build conservation today from what these traditional systems were and support these going forward into the future,” he continued. “Conservation should not be seen as something new and scientific, but seen as what communities have always done.”

Kamanga discussed these issues and more during a September 2021 conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

John Kamanga. Photo credit: Guy Western
John Kamanga. Photo credit: Guy Western

Mongabay: What originally prompted your interest in wildlife and conservation?

John Kamanga: I did not go into it thinking about conservation. Initially I joined a group of entomologists right after high school just for a job. I used to collect, count and sex tsetse flies. We spent a lot of time collecting the pupae from the forest, during these wanderings I learned a lot about insects and developed an interest in butterflies. I started seeing butterflies everywhere, and began to study them and collect them. At first it was just a hobby but I wanted to learn more. I managed to connect with the Lepidoptera Society of London and became a member. At some point they asked me to go and collect endemic butterflies across Kenya. And I was paid to do this which I found amazing.

As a pastoralist I have always connected with nature in my upbringing but not consciously, but having this chance to actually go around and collect rare butterflies gave me the chance to reflect on nature, and understand my own upbringing in a different way through a more active participation. During my collecting I also was able to stay in nice lodges in other parts of the country and began to understand tourism as well.

Later when I became chosen to lead my community at the age of 25, I had the chance to then apply this experience to community development work and I did this by helping to establish a conservancy and invite in eco-tourism into the area.

John Kamanga. Photo credit: Johann du Toit:
John Kamanga. Photo credit: Johann du Toit:

Mongabay: Can you describe the area where you live and work? And what are the biggest issues in terms of conservation, wildlife, and local communities?

John Kamanga: I live in South Rift valley of Kenya, specifically on Olkiramatian community land. The area is used by Masai pastoral communities who live alongside wildlife. Our main challenge is that, being nomadic, we move in search of grass and water for our livestock. As we live in a dry area, we often end up in the last reserves of water and grass and there are big pressures on these resources, and this also drives us to compete with the wildlife we live along side. This can lead to conflict as we try to share those spaces. People can lose livestock to a lion, and lion may be killed in retaliation.

We also border Tanzania and the rules and policies in the two countries differ and people may come across the border to hunt or kill our wildlife.

Mongabay: You founded SORALO in 2004. In your view, what have been the biggest changes in conservation between then and now?

John Kamanga: I think the big change is the level of interest in conservation at the local and national level.

We were one of the first communities to start a conservancy, and there were not many at the time. But now there is the Wildlife Act of 2016 that legally recognizes community conservancies and the community conservation movement.

John Kamanga. Photo credit: Guy Western
John Kamanga. Photo credit: Guy Western

But also, there is momentum of growth by communities interested in conservation. For example, we now have communities inviting us in to help them with conservation in different ways. They want help living alongside wildlife, possibly establish conservancies and providing conservation related job opportunities.

Mongabay: Recent developments have put a spotlight on discrimination and inequity in the conservation sector. Are you seeing any effect of this greater awareness? And does it impact your work?

John Kamanga: I see a lot of imbalances in investment in conservation which I call discrimination. So much investment goes into formally protected areas, like national parks and reserves but there is limited support for communities who perhaps live further from these places. Sometime people who seasonally need to move an area close to a formally protected area may then suffer from conflict with wildlife but receive no support or benefits from that wildlife.

Also, there are huge areas outside of the famous protected areas (like the Mara and Amboseli) which have people trying to live alongside wildlife with little support and investment. Most of Kenya’s wildlife lives outside of formally protected areas, on these community lands and yet there is little or no investment in these areas in comparison.

Photo credit: Johann du Toit
Photo credit: Johann du Toit

Historically we have also seen imbalances when investors and tour operators operate businesses on community land and the community receives relatively little benefit. As SORALO, we are trying to change that relationship to be more of a partnership between the community and investors and a more balanced relationship.

Mongabay: Why are wildlife conservation and livestock management so closely intertwined in East Africa today? 

John Kamanga: In East Africa much of the area is owned and managed by pastoral people who need open spaces to survive. We need to be able to track grazing and water across dry areas. Wildlife benefits from these open spaces too as they need the same thing. Historically, both pastoralists and wildlife have shared space in these areas.

In addition, many pastoralist societies, including the Maasai, also do not kill wildlife. We do not eat them for food, so over time there have been many traditions that have come about to ensure that wildlife remains in those spaces. We have beliefs that we should never kill young or females of any species, and only kill wildlife in severe droughts or those that threaten the family or the livestock.

Mongabay: In a recent “People and Nature” paper you co-authored, you mention taking an ‘inside-out’ approach. Could you explain what this means?


John Kamanga: Conservation has been part of the lifestyle of our communities for a long, long time. It was essential for survival to have a healthy and stable environment. We live off the land and so you really needed to protect it. Therefore, conservation is a central concept to our communities and they know how to use their environment in a sustainable manner. There are rules and governance structures which have guided this, and allowed that over time they have protected their land and the resources on it.

Photo credit: Samantha du Toit
Photo credit: Samantha du Toit

The argument is therefore that we should build conservation today from what these traditional systems were and support these going forward into the future. We need to under how these systems have worked and how to translate that into the future. Conservation should not be seen as something new and scientific, but seen as what communities have always done. We must not talk about conservation being a separate space or a space for others. This will create an unnecessary rift between everyone involved.

Mongabay: What has been the impact of COVID on communities and conservation efforts in the South Rift area?

John Kamanga: Early in the Covid days, livestock markets had to be closed, and this really affected the ability of the community to sell livestock for money. At the same time, tourism facilities closed and some of the community staff were laid off and income from conservation stopped. There was, in some cases, increased tension in terms of incidences of human-wildlife conflict due to people generally feeling unsettled. People were not allowed also to travel and schools were closed, so much of daily life did change.

Photo credit: Samantha du Toit
Photo credit: Samantha du Toit

Due to the inter county lockdowns, we needed to find ways to work out how to keep supplies to our remote rangers’ teams. We also could not easily travel across our landscape to assist with human wildlife conflict and have the usual meetings and conservations. We had to learn how to work remotely, which is not always the best way when people are used to meeting in person to solve issues.

We also lost significant funding and needed to work very hard to make sure we were able to keep our staff employed and taken care of.

Mongabay: Why has community conservation gone mainstream in Kenya? And what other countries can learn from it? 

John Kamanga: The decision by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to develop a position of ‘parks beyond parks’ allowing communities to start benefiting from wildlife from things like tourism really started the conversation around community conservation. At around this time also, funds from large overseas donors were channelled towards communities who wanted to engage in conservation. This all happened before the formal legal legislation came to support the movement. The legal frameworks came later to support a movement that had already taken shape more organically, and I believe that this is the correct way round.

Photo credit: Samantha du Toit
Maasai women around a fire. Photo credit: Samantha du Toit

The key is that people are still able to live and use the community conservation areas, and this is key to their success. This could be a model for other countries: Where conservancies are seen to be benefitting communities, not alienating them.

Mongabay: How are local conservation organizations like SORALO rising up and playing a greater leadership role in Kenya and the wider region? 

John Kamanga: In Kenya, we have developed platforms at different levels. SORALO is at a regional level, but we have national platforms where we have a common voice through the establishment of the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA) where our voices can be heard at different levels of policy making.

Also, because of devolution, we work more closely with county governments and we have a higher visibility in that way. SORALO is well known in the counties we work it because we have a shorter line to the county leadership structures and they are aware of our work. We also have made a conscious effort to create awareness within these systems.

Photo credit: Samantha du Toit
SORALO team members going for a run. Photo credit: Samantha du Toit

We also publish papers, try to be visible in our work and represent our communities in different forums. We have been able to win international awards and this has brought about more recognition to our work.

Mongabay: What can international conservation organizations and funders do better to support grassroots leaders like SORALO? 

John Kamanga: They can invest in us and trust us. They can recognize that we are more value for money than funding the so called ‘BINGOS’. We generally are able to deliver bigger impacts for far less money.

Mongabay: What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in conservation? 

John Kamanga: Conservation is a ‘labour of love’, and it requires patience, commitment, and passion. It is not something that is easy, and success takes a long time. It is a complex and dynamic space to work in and you need to flexible in your thinking and willing to adjust constantly to changing situations.

Mongabay: How can people outside the region become allies of your work?

John Kamanga: SORALO has formed a network of friends and supporters who have supported us with either resources, time, technical support, advice or creating linkages for us. This is hugely helpful. We depend on people to share our story: The more people get to know about us and our work, the more support that we gain.

Elephant in Kenya. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler.

Our biggest allies to date have also been those who have come in person to visit us and the communities and the landscape. They have come either as donors, students or tourists but this creates the biggest impact and has created a network of allies for us. So, post-COVID, we hope to have more people visit and grow this support network.



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