“You cannot save animals without saving the community” Dr. Winnie Kiiru
Winnie Kiiru, with Ph.D. in Biodiversity Management recently in hand from University of Kent, United Kingdom, is a Kenyan woman who is a savvy leader and protector of elephants, along with all of Kenya’s human and wildlife treasures. She has a proven track record of know-how and success working on international, national and local scenes. Whether she is speaking at a United Nations conference, to a band of paramilitary anti-poaching trainees, or to a group of impoverished farmers, her words are respected and result in positive actions.
Besides all of that, Winnie is a charming and fun person with a smile that won’t quit. I met her in March 2012 at the Elephant Summit sponsored by Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), and was immediately drawn to her down to earth and clear visioning. She was a speaker among many, who told the audience about the organization she founded, Conservation Kenya, and how it was helping to mitigate human-animal conflict. She exuded strength and confidence.
After several chats and an impromptu wine party with other elephant advocates in her room, I was determined to go visit with her in Kenya and learn more about her and her work.
In our jam-packed three-day visit, Winnie went to great lengths to educate me about her organization and also about many surrounding NGOs that she is and has been involved with. I was astounded to learn of her background and work with the Kenya Wildlife Service, Born Free, Amboseli Trust for Elephants and many other organizations. She is a regular delegate at the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), speaks on a first name basis with ministers of the Kenyan government, and consults for elephant advocacy groups around the world.
And she has a husband, James Kiiru, and two teenage sons, Samuel (currently at Princeton) and Allan, a high school student in Kenya who was at the time attending a high school exchange in Boston. James is a family man and loves to be home and take care of the kids. “If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t be able to go on so many adventures away from home. I wouldn’t leave them…” James’ biggest fear is that her path will lead to politics. As an outsider I can see why this is a possibility.
It’s hard to imagine there are many others with more experience and effectiveness today who could help lead Kenya in a positive sustainable direction. And knowing Winnie’s drive to be ever more effective in her pursuits, I can see how this might become a reality some day. I can’t think of a better person to give Hillary Clinton (former US Sec of State and [hopefully] future President) an earful!
Winnie’s recent studies at the University of Kent centered on the human-animal conflict in Kenya. Winnie realized from her work at the Kenya Wildlife Service and Amboseli Trust for Elephants that with the recent population explosion in the country and the intrusion of humans on traditional wildlife migratory routes and habitats, wildlife was encroaching on the encroaching humans, and domestic animals and crops were becoming a new source of food.
Elephants started coming into Amboseli Park showing wounds from spears and poison arrows, the retaliations of humans who felt wronged. This is taking a real toll on the elephants. (Today this same population is vulnerable to the poaching gangs who are devastating the wildlife population in Kenya.)
Investigations showed that elephants were being speared by herdsmen whose animals had been killed by elephants. So the Amboseli Trust for Elephants started a program of consolation payments to placate those who had lost animals to elephants and this helped which has cut down on the revenge killings, and yet no such program was in place for the farmers whose crops had been raided.
On further investigation, Winnie discovered there was not even a good system in place to keep track of the problems between farmers and animals and so really very little was known about it. Where were the hotspots? How bad is the damage? What is the attitude of the farmers towards them?
In 2005 Winnie undertook a formal study by going to individual farmers around Amboseli National Park, and doing surveys of the type an insurance agent might do assessing damage. In doing so, she learned a lot about the farmers and their problems, and also learned about the elephants.
She found it necessary to return a few times as conditions change every year. The intent of the original project was research and to introduce simple solutions as those used in Zimbabwe (where she earned her masters degree in Tropical Resource Ecology) such as chili and tobacco based deterrents, fireworks and noise.
Although elephants are seen mostly as the culprits when it comes to destroying crop fields, she learned that their damage only amounted to 5-7% of the crop—not a significant area versus the total amount of production. A few instances the damage was 80-90%. The perception of the farmers had about the elephants was wrong—informed by news of those few terrible incidents.
The damage suffered from elephants is not comparable to the damage suffered from smaller animals The squirrels who steal seeds were more pesky as they were ever present. Baboons and the monkeys also go after crops and will be there the whole day and children had to stay home from school to chase them away.. They are likewise difficult to chase.
The elephants, she learned, with their wisdom and intelligence, are not just eating, they are also planning and strategizing on mitigating risk. They eat at the borders, away from the settlements and close to riverine vegetation , not random, and only when the crops are mature. Winnie, a fellow admirer of elephant intelligence and wisdom, concludes, “Elephants exhibit real signs of risk management.”
So therefore, if you understand elephant strategy, “Just raise the risk a little so it won’t be worth it to them.” Winnie’s research uncovered some simple solutions that should be able to be used with the farmers—but putting these into practice isn't.
Three thousand farmers with random plots can do little by themselves. Winnie realized that if they were to accomplish anything they have to learn to work together in an organized way. Land management has been almost nil in the area, and the majority of the farmers are descendents of poor farmers who are uneducated and unused to thinking outside the box.
Farmers include immigrants from central and eastern provinces of the country who have heard about the rich volcanic soil near Mt. Kilamanjaro. “This is a widespread problem due largely to the inability and lack of government commitment to address land use planning issues in total,” she explained. The government inaction includes allowing agriculture in a wildlife area without educating the farmers about the benefits of wildlife. Many attempts at a land management plan have been introduced by scientists and the KWS. A master plan would make it easier for people like herself to come and work out solutions. But there has been no commitment and a plain lack of political will. Winnie believes that the leaders prefer to keep the people poor. (80% of the population is rural and poor) It is these impoverished citizens who will vote for anyone who is willing to give them a modest cash handout.
Through her group Conservation Kenya, Winnie developed a strategy for the farmers. It teaches life skills, educates about the importance of wildlife, gives them political clout, and introduces new ideas on ways to farm sustainably. She has organized the farmers to come together for community meetings to discuss their common issues and all contribute towards common goals. The group model is a minimum of 15 people in each hot spot. Each group registers itself with the Ministry of Social Services, which gives them a certificate that they are a recognized society. The group then joins forces with other groups she has organized into an umbrella group with elected president, secretary and treasurer. This strategy has “proved a complete winner,” she says proudly.
When crop raiding by elephants occurs, responsibility is shared for people to lookout from the watchtowers that have been constructed by the community groups in all the hot spots. Other preventative measures shared include chili-tobacco rope to repel elephants and fireworks and torches, which scare them away. Having a large registered umbrella group also puts them in a position to receive possible grants, such as free seeds, from the government. At the meetings Winnie often together with her associate of 14 years, Jim Nyamu of the Elephant Neighbor Center, talk with farmers and share ideas for new projects. For example, they suggest planting a tree nursery after the harvest to make more money, the possibility of beekeeping (which also repels elephants), and keeping goats and chickens.
Conservation Kenya is registered with the Kenyan government and can raise funds to help community-based groups with conflict mitigation, training and education. Fundrasing still remains the most challenging task for Winnie and her colleagues. Community work is slow in showing results and donors are more interested in projects that provide quick results and great photographs in the short term.
Winnie has recently purchased some land outside of Amboseli where she has built a cabin. This will be used as a headquarters for Conservation Kenya. This place will be a resource center from which she and others will be able to continue to get to know farmers, and do social research and focus-group discussions.
It so happened that this season there was crop failure due not to animals but to climate change, and has left the farmers in greater poverty. Because her organization is already in place, it is easier for people like Winnie to approach the farmers, influence their lives and help them find other sustainable occupations. With continued education perhaps the widespread devastation of the beautiful wild forests and animal habitats will stop and people will find a way to come back to living more in harmony with the bountiful nature that is ours.
The poaching crisis in Africa has reached worrying levels in the last 5 years. As a delegate at the upcoming CITES meeting in Bangkok, Thailand in March, Winnie will be lobbying member countries to ensure that there will be no trade in ivory in the near future. She will also be lobbying for increased funding support to African countries to help them battle the poaching menace. Winnie can count on the support of the 26 African countries in the African Elephant Coalition.
Winnie remembers attending CITES in 2000 and 2004 and recognizing just how difficult it was for some African countries to articulate their concerns to the conference, due to language constraints and lack of proper briefing. She worked tirelessly with likeminded colleagues to bring together these 26 African countries under the umbrella of the African Elephant Coalition. The countries were assisted in preparing better for the Conference of Parties. The African Elephant Coalition is now a real voice in the CITES conference. They are able to explain what it means for a country like Gabon or Togo who can ill afford law enforcement to have the ivory trade lifted.
Winnie, millions of us are counting on you to help stem the murderous tide of "blood ivory". We have your back and believe in you. For if anyone should be in the forefront of this battle, I would nominate our esteemed colleague and friend, a true African queen—Dr. Winnie Kiiru.
Video of farmers showing how they prevent elephants from destroying crops, as taught to them by Dr. Winnie Kiiru of Conservation Kenya (please forgive sounds of wind)
Georja Umano is an actor and animal advocate.
You can contact Dr. Kiiru at:
P.O. Box 16730-00620
Mobil Plaza, Nairobi, Kenya