Taita Taveta County is one of the six counties in the coastal region of Kenya and covers a total area of 17,084.1km2 with 10,649.9 km2 (or about 62%) being within Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks, a major tourism destination. Lakes Jipe and Chala occupy 106km2 of Taveta sub-county, whereas sisal estates and hilltop forests occupy less than 100 km2. The rest of the area is public and private land such as ranches.
Climatically, the County is dry, except for Taita Hills, which are considerably wet. The vast rangeland covering Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks in the Lower Zone forms the Tsavo Ecosystem, which includes the community (group) ranches made of open savannah, woodland and dryland forest. The ecosystem has a wide array of biodiversity and holds one third of Kenya’s total elephant population.
The ecosystem as a whole does not only provide livelihoods to many communities but supports the Kenyan economy significantly through tourism income. This implies a wide stakeholder base has interests in the ecosystem ranging from communities, civil society and government. The interests vary but also depend on ecosystem health and landscape connectivity within and beyond protected areas.
The County has close to 30 registered ranches and with the main land use in the ranches being wildlife tourism and conservation, as well as cattle grazing. The ranches were adjudicated under various categories, including communal (pastoral) group ranches to safeguard grazing grounds and commercial production systems spanning a few co-operative and individual ranches. However, most of the ranches are either private incorporated as a company limited by shares, with 50 shareholders and lease period of between 33 to 45 years or Direct Agricultural Company (DAC) ranches in which the number of shareholders is not limited, but company is limited by the total number of shares. DAC was to facilitate further ownership of land by locals, where the Government allocated companies formed by shareholders drawn from existing administrative units to compensate for land lost by the communities during the setting up of the Tsavo National Parks. These DACs were allocated leaseholds of between 33 and 66 years, with the national government retaining one share and veto power on technical and policy issues on the management of the ranches.
In terms of land-uses, wildlife tourism and conservation, livestock production are the main land uses. However, livestock production was discontinued on most of the ranches in the 1980s and 1990s due to various reasons including unfavourable markets, overgrazing and land degradation, and natural calamities such as drought (Njogu, 2004). Collapse of cattle ranching left most ranches indebted with loans acquired from the Agricultural Finance Corporation to run their ranching activities (Njogu 2004; Veit, 2011). As a result, changes took place over the years with some of the lands either have been sold off resulting in change of designation or the formation of new entities or subdivided.
Lack of clear policy, inadequate coordination mechanism and poor implementation across sectors and absence of major economic activity to incentivize the ranch owners has paved way for encroachment by people practicing slash and burn agriculture and charcoal production. Consequently, there is a general feeling of disillusionment and the sentiment that the ranches are perhaps best subdivided as they see no value from them. Once the ranches are subdivided, the movement of wildlife between the national parks and the dispersal areas will be very limited. There will be loss of open space necessary for maintaining the elephant & other wildlife population. Some of the expected outcomes will further include:
Given the above scenario, there is need for a holistic approach in the rehabilitation and conservation of Tsavo Ecosystem & Dispersal Areas especially, the range of critical landscapes that support the complex of protected national parks and reserves within these areas. Noting the critical role of landscape connectivity that requires actions by land users at source of degradation and along resource flow pathways, development of an ecosystem restoration masterplan that leverages on the communities living within the ecosystem is an assured approach to addressing most of these outcomes.
Building on some of the on-going initiatives in the ecosystem such as the REDD+ Project, wildlife tourism-based projects, there is an opportunity for Save the Tsavo Initiative and its partners to explore other innovative economic tools such as land leases and conservation business ventures be developed to conserve those critical biodiversity areas in the ecosystem such as migratory routes, corridors and dispersal areas and protect them against land degradation while increasing the possibility of achieving sustainable forms of savannah land use.
Innovative instruments such as Forest Bond issued by International Finance Corporation (IFC) in 2016 in support of the REDD+ project, could serve as another viable financing model for forest conservation and livelihood improvement. Besides improving income and economic development for the local communities, the project could serve as a learning centre of how REDD+ projects could operate and be scaled up.
Establishing a consortium to implement a holistic, cross-sectoral landscape approach. The consortium will mobilize performance-based financing to support conservation efforts and agricultural development to protect biodiversity, restore land, and improve livelihoods at scale through the development of the ecosystem restoration master-plan. Five broad components are envisaged for the masterplan:
Key actors expected to play a critical role in moving the process forward include: