Ian Craig swears by two things: safe wilds and conservation. The director of Lewa Conservancy, the home of Northern Rangelands Trust, has dedicated 50 years of his life to the conservation of wildlife, notably the black rhino and the endangered Grevy’s zebra.
The Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) is a group of 43 conservancies covering 63,000 kilometre square in northern and coastal Kenya. Craig serves as its director of conservation.
Born in 1952 to a farming Irish family in Meru, Craig went to school in Nanyuki, Eldoret, and Ireland. His family looked after cattle in Lewa, while mingling with wildlife. This exposed him to “intact nature” as a child, sparking his interest in conservation.
This hardnosed conservationist who has spent most of his life in the wild is soft-spoken and does not overexert himself during a conversation.
But when he speaks, you start to see him as a man on a mission bigger than himself.
What has more than 50 years in the wild taught him about people and nature? He tells me he was privileged to have experienced nature in the rawest form.
“I have deep friendships with people who were born and lived with wildlife herding cattle. This cross-pollinated my mind to appreciate how animals live and why wildlife is part of us.”
Craig has lived through every episode in Kenya’s conservation journey, growing up at a time when “there were free-ranging rhinos” in Kenya and witnessing first-hand as a young adult the carnage of the 1970s when rhinos and elephants were decimated by poachers.
From 25,000 rhinos in Kenya to only about 200 now, he says this was the bloodiest episode in the history of wildlife in the country.
“The rhinos would come to Lewa to seek refuge, and over time, the numbers started growing,” he says.
This would be the genesis of the conservancy in Meru County, which he established by converting the family’s 62,000-acre cattle ranch into a rhino sanctuary.
To Craig, looking at conservation through the prism of tourism has been a “stale, shallow and fickle” approach that he insists must change. Away from tourism and herding cattle, Craig notes the future of conservation is the sale of carbon credits.
“It’s a game-changer. This is what will change the dream of conserving Kenya’s wildlife to making the interconnection between land planning, land use, wildlife, and consumer economy on a scale that will transform everything.”
He emphasises the need for practices that are compatible with the land for maximum socioeconomic gain.
“I have sat in government bodies and what seems to lack is how to derive social value for communities from wildlife. We need to make it possible for our people to conserve. What are others doing elsewhere in Africa? What incentives are they giving their people to conserve?”
But this approach has its complexities, with competing interests. Craig, though, believes the strength is in establishing institutional structures that allow the actors to speak in one voice.
“The government and NGOs listen when communities living with wildlife are well organised. Ultimately, communities are stronger guardians of wildlife than the government can ever be,” he says, noting that such societies can obtain bilateral funding for education, healthcare and other projects.
Craig’s grandparents arrived in Kenya in the 1920s. His mother, who passed on last year, was born in Kenya.
“My wife was born in Sri Lanka. Our son and a daughter work here. We have five grandchildren, some are in school in Gilgil and others in the US. We are a Kenyan family.”
Upbeat as he is about recent gains in conservation, Craig does acknowledge, though, that corruption and “an abundance of illegal firearms” set efforts back.
The north of Kenya is a frightful place to work. Craig calls it a lawless territory of ethnic conflict and banditry.
“It’s a pretty deep problem, but we work and live here. It’s like we are in a different world. How do we bring decency and sense into this society? I ask our government that question.”
Last year, he and his wife came under serious gunfire from bandits in an ambush in Isiolo.
“It was the New Year and we were just enjoying ourselves in the wild. I told her: ‘we are not coming out of this one alive.’ We survived by grace.”
Conservancy leadership, he notes, is critical to addressing some of these challenges. How practical is this for an institution with more than 40 member conservancies?.
“Our leadership changes every two years so that people do not get entrenched in positions to allow corruption to get rooted within those societies.”
Earlier this year, one conservancy was suspended from NRT for poor governance, he says. “The money was being poorly managed and there was no audit trail. There is a big message in that.”
Is Kenya on course now to restore rhino numbers? Craig beams for the first time.
“Kenya is doing very well. We’re leading in Africa. Rhino poaching has drastically reduced. By the first quarter of this year, 83 rhinos had been killed in the KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa. It’s different here,” he says.
On whether private conservancies are the future of conservation in Kenya, Craig says these are only doing well in their capacities.
“They play their part. If we didn’t have Solio Ranch, for instance, we would have practically no rhinos in Kenya.”
He, however, notes that private conservancies have their limitations, adding that the movement of elephants from Marsabit through Samburu and Isiolo counties to Meru National Park is hard to contain.
“You need a safe passage for these animals to move. To do this, you need peace between communities. For peace to reign, there must be economic benefits in place for the people.”
His proudest accomplishments as a conservationist? The restoration of Sera Conservancy in Samburu County tops the lot. Home to rhinos, elephants, lions, and buffaloes, Craig says Sera will be a prime tour destination in 10 years.
“This has been done and fully supported by the local community. There are no third parties here.”
It is because of milestones such as these that he wants to remain in the wild for the rest of his life.
“I didn’t wake up one morning with a vision. I saw an opportunity and seized it. I have met people with money who were willing to support me to do what I love.”
At 70 years, what kind of legacy is he crafting for himself?
“I would like to test the NRT model outside Kenya. We have already started some work in northern Uganda. This isn’t a project. It’s a movement. I don’t want anything more in my life.”