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Interview with Amos Kipeen:
"Tell Us About Conservation Today in the Maasai Mara"

by Mohcine El-alji

Mohcine El-alji talks with Amos Kipeen about community-led wildlife conservation in the Maasai Mara and how Amos became inspired to choose this path in life. Mohcine is a member of the OliveSeed team in Morocco, a university student, and an environmental advocate. Amos is a lifelong naturalist and community activist in Talek, Kenya; program manager for Basecamp Foundation Kenya; and board member of both Friends of Maasai Mara and OliveSeed Foundation.

Mohcine El-alji:

Hello, Mr, Kipeen. Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me. Please tell me about yourself.

 

Amos Kipeen:

Sure. I’m the program manager at Basecamp Foundation Kenya. I have a B.S. in Environment and Natural Resource Management; I am currently working with communities in the Maasai Mara to implement empowerment programs that will create a balance between wildlife conservation and pastoralism while also creating livelihoods for the communities living around the Maasai Mara.

 

Mohcine:

Please tell us, when did you first become fascinated by elephants? 

 

Amos:

I’m a native of the Maasai Mara, which is one of the best and most visited wildlife game reserves in the world. The reserve is located is in Narok County, in the south of Kenya. I grew up in a village within the dispersal area of the larger Maasai Mara Game Reserve so interaction with wildlife was part of everyday life. I grew up seeing elephants walking by my village. The day I saw my first real elephant, I marvelled at its size and was awed by its walking style, trumpet-like trunk, big ears, and rumbling, thunderous sounds. Then I encountered a baby elephant. It was cuddly, clumsy, and so tiny compared to its giant mother. I wanted to keep one of these babies as part of my livestock, but of course, I couldn’t do that. Seeing this elephant calf up close, knowing it would one day grow up to be one of the Mara’s giant elephants, is what made me love and want to care for them. 

Region of wildlife reserves in the Maasai Mara

Mohcine:

And what was the turning point that made you decide to devote your life to protecting the Maasai Mara wildlife, especially elephants?

 

Amos:

I decided to devote my life to protecting wildlife in the Maasai Mara when I realized that wildlife tourism is an important resource that creates livelihoods and the possibility to improve the lives of my people, including scholarships for local kids to attend school. For example, I received support to attend high school from the Koyiaki Wildlife Trust. More importantly, as elephant poaching became increasingly rampant, threatening the very livelihoods of my people, I felt obliged not only to be part of conservation of the animals I love, but to protect the livelihood of my people by standing strong with the rest of the world against the poaching of elephants and other wildlife.  

 

Mohcine:

Tell me why the Maasai Mara region is so special?

 

Amos:

Maasai Mara has been voted several times as the best game reserve in the world. It is home to the highest concentration of mammals in the world, including lions, elephants, and black rhinos. The Mara is also known as the seventh world wonder because of  the annual “great migration” when millions of gnus, wildebeests, and other angulates cross the Mara river by the thousands. In addition, the Mara is inhabited by the Maasai people, famous all over the world for their culture and traditions. 

 

Mohcine:

Is it true that 25% of the wildlife in Kenya lives in the Maasai Mara? What is the secret about this miracle?

Amos:

The secret is the efforts by various stakeholders who are dedicated to protect Maasai Mara. First, Maasai are nomadic pastoralists, and their cattle share the same space with wildlife. In addition, Maasai do not eat game meat because of our religion, so we don’t hunt the wildlife. Our local and county governments have joined non-governmental organizations in their conservation efforts. Most importantly, Mara is part of the biodiverse Serengeti ecosystem, and therefore Mara wildlife roam freely throughout Serengeti. In addition, the extension of dispersal areas through Conservancies around Maasai Mara has given wildlife a bigger space to thrive and operate. 

Mohcine:

Is it true that elephants in the Mara are in jeopardy today?

 

Amos:

Yes. If we don’t stop the ivory trade, it will wipe out the entire population of elephants. During the past three years in East Africa alone, poachers killed more than 20,000 elephants. 

 

Mohcine:

Do you have any idea about who is buying the ivory, transporting it, and profiting from it?

 

Amos:

China, Hong Kong, and the Philippines are among the most popular markets for ivory. Transportation is done by a network of smugglers hired by rich and powerful dealers. For instance, recently a woman from China nicknamed “the queen of ivory” was arrested in Tanzania and sentenced to 15 years in jail for smuggling ivory to China. She worked with  one of the largest ivory businesses in Africa that was responsible for killing hundreds of elephants. The beneficiaries of this ivory trade range from the handlers on the ground to the main dealers. 

 

Mohcine:

What about poverty? Does it play a factor in elephant poaching? And how?

 

Amos:

Poverty definitely contributes to elephant poaching. When people have nothing to live on, they will do anything to survive, so poachers take advantage of this by hiring poor people to kill elephants for an income. 

 

Mohcine:

OK. And what other problems are elephants facing in Africa? 

Amos:

Elephants face many threats, such as habitat loss, poaching, human-wildlife conflicts, and snaring. Villagers often see them as a dangerous threat to their lives and livelihoods and attack them even when they are just peacefully migrating. We are now seeing a new threat to elephants from electric fencing that people are creating to protect their land. Elephants are known to walk long distances each year in search of food and water. These fences are restricting the elephants’ ability to migrate freely, which results in inbreeding and weakening of the family gene pool. Rapid human population growth with shrinking land, coupled with poaching — if not addressed — will continue to diminish our elephant population. 

 

Mohcine:

I see. And what is Friends of Maasai Mara doing to protect elephants and other wildlife in the Mara?

 

Amos:

Friends of Maasai Mara works closely with the Maasai community in Mara with the objective of protecting wildlife for posterity. Some of our key programs include radio talk shows, organizing elephant & rhinos global marches, and community outreach to local schools and villages through sponsorship of wildlife exposure trips for school children and screening wildlife films. We have also established the Mara Conservation Centre, for women-owned enterprises such as creation and sale of local beadwork and water enterprises. Recently, Friends of Maasai Mara, in collaboration with OliveSeed Foundation, launched a conservation education program targeting seven Mara Schools and established the first English-language library at the Mara Girls School. We are also in the process of launching the first water enterprise for women in Mara where the women will be selling purified water in our Mara Water Plant. This work is supported by H2Open Doors. The water plant seeks to address the issue of women’s economic marginalization by giving them a steady income of up to 100,000 USD per year.  

Mohcine:

Please tell us what is meant by “community conservation.” How is it different from other conservation programs?

 

Amos:

Community conservation looks at practical solutions that allow humans and other species to thrive together. Rather than barring local communities from conservation activities, they are fully integrated in these activities and the decision-making process. 

 

Mohcine:

Do you sometimes come across any political problems in your journey of fighting for the elephants?

 

Amos:

This happens a lot. Fighting for elephants involves a series of activities that cut across multiple grassroots sectors. In order to succeed at conservation, you must engage both community and government policy makers. Sometimes the key decision makers in parliament make decisions that are not in the best interests of conservation and preservation of the elephants. However, we always have to find ways to engage them constructively to win their support. 

 

Mohcine:

What about your Education Ministry? Did it establish any programs to give this issue a universal illumination?

 

Amos:

The Ministry of Education doesn’t deal directly with wildlife affairs. We have the Ministry of Environment and Wildlife, which is responsible for wildlife conservation. They have education programs, but unfortunately, they are not far-reaching. Often, it’s the non-state organizations or individuals who provide the most support for conservation education.  

 

Mohcine:

And what if someone outside of Kenya, for example in Morocco, wants to help? How can he or she do that?

 

Amos:

People from all over the world are welcome. It’s simple. First, they need to identify the role they want to play, or what support they can provide. They can make a donation to an organization like Friends of Maasai Mara, they can lobby for petitions, they can advocate on social media, or help communities and schools access clean drinking water. In addition, they can hold campaigns like the Global March for Elephants. Of course, new ideas are always welcome. As we say, there is no single formula for community development. It all depends on what works. 

Mohcine:

I just want to say thanks again for everything you are doing in this world. Our blue green planet really needs more people like you, so keep it up.

 

Amos:

We really appreciate your conservation advocacy efforts in Morocco! Thank you so much. 

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