ACT - Volume 9 Issue 2 

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The History of Conservation in Amboseli National Park

By Amanda Lewis

Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya embodies many of the critical issues conservationists address today. Located at the base of the northern slope of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the park has year-long springs critical to the existence of wildlife, and the Ilkisongo Maasai residents of the region. The swamps provided dry season watering for their cattle. For the past 70 years, it has been a popular site for tourists viewing the teeming wildlife watering at the springs, particularly during the dry season. Today, community-based conservation beyond the park boundaries has brought more financial benefit to the communities, human-wildlife conflict mitigation and environmental awareness to local people.

Lewis with stakeholders in Amboseli. Photo credit: Amanda Lewis

Amboseli was part of the southern Reserve, created by the colonial government in the early 20th century as a place to relocate Kenya’s Maasai in order to open up land in the Great Rift Valley for white settlers. Soon the government envisioned the southern Reserve as more than a space for Kenyan Maasai but also as a place for the management of wildlife for hunting and tourism. In Amboseli, the government installed a warden and rangers to patrol for poaching, which was on the rise and would reach catastrophic proportions by the mid-1950s.  A new focus on the preservation of wildlife and wild spaces in East Africa led to the 1945 National Park Ordinance, creating national reserves and parks in Kenya. In 1948, Amboseli was formalized as a National Game Reserve, initiating decades of conflict over the management of the dry season watering area. Many believed the springs were overgrazed by Maasai cattle, and a small 30 acre sanctuary was established to protect this water source.

On the eve of independence, the Kajiado African District Councils took over the management of Amboseli National Reserve in 1961. The District Council, which became the Kajiado County Council (KCC) at independence, was tasked with managing the reserve. They collected tourism revenue, thus “making wildlife pay” and giving the Maasai community a more direct stake in Amboseli’s administration. Revenue was supposed to support local development of clinics, schools, and water sources. Thereafter, power struggles between the KCC, local and national politicians, and international conservationists over Amboseli’s status continued for over a decade. There was a groundswell of international support in transforming Amboseli into a national park .The New York Zoological Society offered to underwrite the costs of gazetting, including installing permanent water sites outside of the park boundaries for the Maasai livestock. In 1974, President Jomo Kenyatta created Amboseli National Park by a decree, marking a new beginning for Amboseli.

Beyond its borders, where the Maasai have settled and taken up agriculture, community involvement in conservation has greatly improved. Those concerned about wildlife and people’s relationship with the environment have found ways to reconcile the needs of the community with the long-term survival of wildlife. In the early 1990s, members of the Kimana Group Ranch formed the Kimana Sanctuary, a small parcel of land near the Kimana Wetlands with amazing wildlife diversity. They wanted to have a truly community-based tourism facility that supported conservation and employed locals. The business side of the sanctuary has since ended, but the land is still a protected space, excluding agriculture and cattle grazing.

There are several organizations that work on the human dimensions of conservation in Amboseli. The African Wildlife Foundation has been involved for many years on various conservation and development projects ranging from wildlife monitoring to the protection of water sources from pollution. Smaller organizations such as the Noomayianat Community Development Organization work with local communities on food security through efficient water use and educating the Maasai community about environmental sustainability. The Amboseli Ecosystem Trust serves as an umbrella organization, bringing together the many Amboseli stakeholders in order to integrate the needs of livestock owners with conservation and community development. They also coordinate with local game scouts who patrol the ecosystem to deter poachers and try mitigating human-wildlife conflicts. 

Amanda Lewis is a PhD candidate at Michigan State University, pursuing studies in African history, with a focus on the history of pastoralists and wildlife conservation in East Africa.