Letter from the Executive Director - Margaret Kinnaird
Recently, I visited my old haunts in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park (BBSNP) in Sumatra, Indonesia. The park is home to the Way Canguk Research Center, a small but vibrant research center that Tim O’Brien and I built in 1996 with support from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). This was my first return to Way Canguk since signing on as the Executive Director of Mapla nearly 4 years ago. I’d become accustomed to the gloriously cool, dry and relatively bug-free environment of Mpala and had forgotten the intense heat and humidity of the rainforest – not to mention the abundance of blood sucking leeches. It rained 250 mm during my 9 days in the forest which sums up to nearly half a year’s worth of rain for Mpala. The contrast to my daily life on Mpala could not have been starker.
Like Mpala, the Way Canguk Research Centre welcomes students from around the world who are interested in conducting research on tropical rainforest ecology. Students ask questions like ‘Why are there so many different types of trees here?’, ‘What happens if rainforests burn?’, ‘Are forests disappearing and if so, what is causing the loss, and what needs to be done to slow or stop it?’ A personal interest of my own – and the reason for my trip – was to see if these forests are really doing their much-promoted job as ‘the lungs of the earth’. If they are, the trees that make up the forest should be growing at a healthy, steady rate. Trees that are getting taller and fatter are taking in CO2, and using energy from the sun to convert into wood. In scientific lingo that’s called ‘sequestering carbon’, a crucial service of trees in a world that generates more atmospheric carbon than is good for it.
While at Way Canguk, I easily fell into my old pattern of sitting on my veranda after a cold bucket shower watching night arrive and contemplating the day’s work. Each night, I found myself dwelling on the vast differences between Way Canguk and Mpala. There were the obvious things like the rain, the bugs, the heat, even my evening panorama. The vista from my Way Canguk cabin is blocked at less than 2 meters by a dense curtain of chaotic green vegetation. In contrast, my Mpala porch has a sweeping view of Acacia woodlands with Mt. Kenya some 100 km away in the background.
The less obvious differences lie in land use and approaches to conservation. BBSNP is a government established park delineated by hard boundaries, where humans are supposedly not allowed. This is the antithesis of Mpala and much of Laikipia where there are few hard boundaries and wildlife and humans move unfettered across the landscape. That’s not to say that Laikipians don’t recognize and respect property boundaries but there is an enormous effort as a society - pastoralists, commercial ranchers, conservancy owners, researchers, and tour operators alike – to manage Laikipia as a vast, working landscape where wildlife, people and their livestock live side-by-side.
I found myself comparing the successes of the two conservation approaches. Have boundaries and the attempted exclusion of human activities made a difference for BBSNP’s wildlife? Or the surrounding communities? Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is no. There are no more Sumatran rhinos – all having fallen to poachers extracting their horns for trade. Tigers – the iconic animals of Sumatra - are down to less than 50 individuals. Elephants were so rare that I had none of the usual run-for-your-life encounters of the past. Like rhinos, elephants and tigers are victims of illegal hunting. But on top of persecution for their ivory, skins and body parts, BBSNP’s elephants and tigers are also being systematically removed by the Indonesian government as conflict with humans increases along park boundaries. Corruption among park management and the limited ability of local communities to benefit from the park ensures that the communities are far from ‘pro-wildlife’.
I had been deeply aware of all these problems before, and indeed much of our work focused on providing the information to help resolve them. But they seemed more vivid after my recent experiences in Laikipia. I admit to empathizing with the idea that humans should be excluded from some wild areas. I believe this because we so often outsmart, control and ultimately remove anything that is either not beneficial to our needs or is so beneficial that we unthinkingly consume what we desire until we’ve exterminated it. But I am also deeply aware that parks – even where well managed with local human populations benefitting from their presence – aren’t enough to protect the wide ranging animals we care so much about. Only with a combination of strictly protected areas and new approaches to land stewardship – such as what we are attempting across - will this be possible.
As I write, I am watching a herd of elephants grazing calmly near the research centre. Our Boran cattle herd is not far away and just across the river our Maasai neighbors are allowing Grevy’s zebras to share pasture and water resources with their various livestock. My recent analysis of wildlife trends across Laikipia shows a 15% 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 3 decades. Although Laikipia isn’t without conflicts and continues to face enormous challenges, we seem to be doing something right. And that makes me feel incredibly privileged to be part of this unique conservation experiment.
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