It is Monday morning in Ol pusimoru, a small village a few metres from the Kenya–Tanzanian border in Masai Mara.
Here, Noorkisaruni Selempo, a 40-year old mother of five has just arrived at the Olkinyei water pan, one of the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature initiative within the vast wildlife conservancy.
With her, she has carried a heap of clothes on one side and some jerricans on the other. She expects to do laundry and thereafter carry some water both for her domestic use and for the livestock.
For the past four months or so, she has been lucky to walk just two kilometres, a 15-minute journey from her home, to fetch water.
Perhaps for many with piped water, a two-kilometre walk to fetch water may seem too much, but Selempo understands well just how lucky she is.
“Initially, I could walk up to 30 kilometres, a journey that would take me up to 12 hours, in search of water,” says Selempo.
Girls miss school
For Maasai women and girls here, one of the biggest challenges they have been facing has been getting this vital commodity, with some being forced to go for a whole day journey, just to come back with a 20-litre jerrican of water and sometimes nothing at all.
The water scarcity, which they experienced initially, came with long-distance travel, and with this, countless challenges. From girls missing out on school especially during menstruation, to mothers being forced to leave their children alone at home for hours, water scarcity posed a threat to many families here.
“My mother would go to fetch water far away, where she would leave at about 8am and return at around 3pm. Sometimes she would come home without any water because there were either long queues at the well, or had been chased away by the owners of the water reservoirs,” explains Jacob Ntaiywo, 20.
Besides the social consequences of the scarcity, there was even more danger. The biggest predicament for Maasai women and girls who traditionally bear the burden of searching for water has been their safety, especially from wild animals.
Neeopil Koitumet, a mother of five says she and her fellow women have encountered wild animals, especially leopards during their dangerous trips in search of water.
“We used to walk in groups, sometimes hitting our jerricans so as to scare the wild animals. There were times when we could encounter them at the water points and be forced to run for our lives,” she recalls.
According to Mathew Ntaiya, a community conservancy liaison officer, tales of women being attacked by wild animals, especially elephants, buffalos and leopards while in search of water, had become a normal occurrence.
But also young men weren’t spared, as many came face to face with the wild animals while escorting the cattle to water points within the Mara.
Main threats to conservation
According to a 2021 UNEP and WWF report, human-wildlife conflict is one of the greatest threats to wildlife species. The report says the problem is as much a development and humanitarian issue as a conservation concern and risks derailing the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals.
In Africa, conflicts between people and wildlife currently rank amongst the main threats to conservation, because wildlife survival needs often overlap with those of human populations.
According to Mohammed Awer, chief executive officer at WWF-Kenya (World Wide Fund for Nature)-Kenya, human-wildlife conflicts are often caused by human population increase, high livestock and wildlife population densities and changing land use and climate.
“These conflicts are typically most intense in human-dominated systems where people, livestock, and wildlife share the same landscapes during severe droughts,” he adds.
A 2020 report of the Task Force on Human-Wildlife Conflict Compensation Schemes in Kenya by the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, indicates that human-wildlife conflict in Kenya occurs frequently in the dryland areas which boast a majority of the wildlife population in the country, with Narok ranking among the top five counties which have had the highest human-wildlife conflict incidences, together with Taita Taveta, Lamu, Kajiado and Laikipia.
Data collected by the Kenya Wildlife Service in Narok between 2001 and 2017 indicates that wildlife species contributed differentially to human-wildlife conflict, with elephants, buffalos, Burchell's zebras, leopards and hyenas occupying the top five positions.
According to the data, the elephant contribution to the human-wildlife conflict was at (46.2 percent), buffalo (10.6 percent), Burchell's zebra (7.6 percent), leopard (7.3 percent), and hyena (5.8 percent).
A research titled Human-Wildlife Conflicts And Their Correlates In Narok County”, published two years ago in the Global Ecology And Conservation Journal, indicated that Narok experienced substantial land use and cover changes between 2000 and 2014.
Agricultural expansion in Narok North and Trans Mara primarily entailed the conversion of wooded and open grasslands to farmlands, thus human-wildlife conflicts increased in the conservancy with increasing area under agriculture.
According to Dr Martin Mulama, Southern Kenya Landscape Manager at WWF-Kenya, one of the critical challenges to conservation is how to enhance and sustain coexistence between people and wild animals.
To deal with the conflict, he says, various mitigation measures have been put in place.
“These range from physical barriers such as electric fences and predator-proof bomas so as to lessen the conflict by reduction of the losses incurred by humans. Currently, we have given out 43 lion lights and 90 predator-proof bomas in the Mara, Amboseli and Tsavo conservancies,” he says.
Moses Karbolo from Tengut village in Olsiteti within the Mara conservancy is one of the beneficiaries of the lion lights.
Before he received the gadgets, he says, wild animals from the Mara would come attack and eat their animals. Their crops were also regularly destroyed by elephants and buffalos which ventured into human settlements looking for pasture.
“But ever since we started using the lights, we have kept the wild animals away and unlike last season where we didn’t plant any crops, we expect to start farming early next year.”
Apart from that, Dr Mulama adds that they have also drilled water pans to reduce contact between humans, their livestock and wild animals. “With this water reservoir, when there’s a lot of rainfall, water can be stored to help the communities in future.”
But even as they come up with solutions, they have to overcome the challenges especially those that result from climate change. For instance, the Olkinyei water pan is almost drying up since it hasn’t rained for quite some time.
According to Awer conservation initiatives have to work within the existing systems of the local communities.
“The conservation priorities in these places must be defined by the people who live within the biodiversity and going forward we will keep being innovative and change conservation tactics, especially in relation with climate change,” says Awer.