By Linet Minayo
Big Life Foundation, a wildlife conservation community outreach organization, is changing lives among communities in the Amboseli ecosystem.
It is partnering with communities to protect nature for the benefit of all the communities.
Samar Ntalamia, Big Life Foundation Programmes Officer, says using innovative conservation strategies and collaborating closely with local communities in the Amboseli has enhanced its work in increasing wildlife population.
“We are collaborating with local communities, partner with NGOs, national parks, and government agencies as we seek to protect and sustain East Africa’s wildlife and wild lands, including one of the greatest populations of elephants left in East Africa,” said Ntalamia in an interview recently.
Ntalamia said being the first organization in East Africa with coordinated anti-poaching teams operating on both sides of the Kenya and Tanzania border, Big Life recognizes that sustainable conservation can only be achieved through a community-based collaborative approach.
“This approach is at the heart of Big Life’s philosophy that conservation supports the people and people support conservation,” Said Ntalamia during this interview at his office in Imbirrikani.
He said Big Life has established a successful holistic conservation model in the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem that can be replicated across the African continent.
It is not enough for Big Life Foundation, he says, to just address immediate threats, like poaching and habitat destruction.
Communities, that host wildlife on their communal lands, bear a lot of costs, costs that range from elephants invading farmlands, killing people, to predators killing livestock and herbivores competing for scarce resources like water and pasture, the programmes officer said.
In view, of these losses he adds, Big Life Foundation works hard to generate tangible economic benefits, from wildlife conservation to the local communities envisioning a world in which conservation supports the people and people support conservation.
Besides employment, Ntalamia said, the foundation uses the wildlife scholarship and education program as a platform for improving the local communities’ livelihoods through education, by sponsoring bright students from resource challenged families to go to school.
“We sponsor students from the primary school, all the way to masters and Ph.D. levels. Currently, Big Life actively sponsors over 220 students on full-time scholarships and has given one-off scholarships to over 120 students,” the officer said.
Under the Wildlife Scholarship and Education program, Big life Foundation says it works in15 local schools to improve the quality of education.
“We go to a school and we find the teacher-pupil ratio is over 1:70 and we come in and hire additional teachers to enable schools to have manageable class sizes,” it said.
In this regard, Big Life says, it has helped hire over 30 fully trained and Teachers Service Commission certified teachers. It also helps schools connect to grid power, improve access to water to put up infrastructure projects like teachers’ houses and dormitories.
For example, at Olbili Primary School which is within their area of operation, the terrain is very difficult and with a lot of elephants. Students walk over 10 kilometers to and from school and risk bumping into an elephant along the way and getting killed.
For that matter, in a bid to assist the school, the Big Life through an “individual donor” helped construct two teachers’ houses and two dormitories.
“This enables the students and teachers to have more quality private study time and evening tuition, as well as significantly reducing the risks of children being killed by elephants on the way to school,” said Ntalamia.
Ntalamia also said Big Life also runs a career counselling, guidance, and mentorship program, that aims at helping students chart out their career path at an early age, as help reduce the wastage in the education system, by assessing students and help them identify other talents, besides academics.
Ntalamia argued that; “For a long time, the Kenyan education system has operated from the position that any student who turns up at school is an academician and should be moulded into an ‘A’ student and those who do not make this cut are condemned as failures”.
As a result, he said, a lot of useful talents like hands-on– skills in carpentry, masonry, and mechanics have gone to waste, because of the narrow-minded focus on academics.
Talents like entrepreneurial skills, athletics, sports talents are identified at an early age and students are nurtured in these areas, especially for those students whose aptitude is not an academic, said the programmes officer.
Ntalamia said Big Life also runs the Predator Compensation Program that addresses the threat predators face as a result of their killing livestock and livestock keepers’ retaliating.
This program, the officer said, together with the Moran Education Initiative, that addresses the threat that lions face from the Maasai culture, which is warrior age–set based has produced tremendous results into wildlife conservation.
In the Kajiado, every fifteen years, a new warrior age group comes into power and this has been the Maasai culture for the young people who are full of energy, to want to prove their bravery, win leadership positions and win girlfriends.
One of the ways to achieve the above goals was to hunt down and kill lions.
The Moran Education Initiative, working with Menyelayiok (the fathers of the warriors) and local communities came up with cultural conservation sports to help channel the young warriors’ energy away from hunting lions to hunting trophies under the Maasai Olympics program, whose patron is David Rudisha.
Rudisha, Ntalamia said, inspires the young warriors to realize that they can do something amazing with their lives through sports, which is sustainable, unlike lion hunting, which besides destroying local communities, is not sustainable.
The current warrior age group, the Iltuati is the biggest in Maasai history with over four thousand plus warriors.
Big Life programmes officer said there are just over two hundred lions in the entire ecosystem. “Even if the warriors killed all the lions, only two hundred of them will have lion names for a given year,” added Ntalamia.
What will the Warriors do in the coming years?
Sports, unlike lion hunting, Big Life says also bring economic benefits in terms of prizes, besides many opportunities like scholarships and competing in the New York Marathon.
Pristine natural habitats with free-ranging wildlife species are declining, globally by the day, as human populations grow and eat away at wildlife habitats.
With the majority of the human population, becoming urban dwellers the demand for people from all over the world to come and experience the spiritual peace of seeing a giraffe browsing, a leopard chasing an antelope will grow hugely.
Communities with such natural pristine wildlife habitats are sitting are, therefore, sitting on gold mines or should we say elephant mine.
These communities will charge a premium price for people from all over the world to come and visit these areas.
Ntalamia finally said Big Life dreams of growing the income streams from wildlife conservation to the local communities to a level they will compete with livestock production.
“Should we ever, get there then, the future of wildlife conservation will have been secured,” added the official.