2014 Tang Prize laureate in Sustainable Development, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, is often lauded for her lifelong effort to foster public awareness of sustainable development. During recent years, her attention has also been turned to the conservation of Africa’s animals and natural environment. For this purpose, part of her Tang Prize grant, NT$5 million (approximately US$160,000), was allocated to Kenya’s Milgis Trust for the protection of local wildlife, ecosystem and indigenous cultures.
Spanning five years (2015-2020), the program run by the Milgis Trust represents an extraordinary achievement, in that elephants, which used to shun human beings and only come out at night for fear of being hunted by poachers, can be seen at any time of the day now, drink, bathe or just meander leisurely in the open, even though there are people and their livestock close by. It paints a beautiful picture of a harmonious relationship established between mankind and animals.
A natural habitat for African elephants
Kenya’s Milgis ecosystem is composed of an area of dry bush savannah located approximately 400 km north of the equator and 100 km south of Lake Turkana, encompassing the Matthews and Ndoto mountain ranges.
These northern mountains, home to thousands of elephants in the early 1900s, witnessed rampant poaching in the 1970s and 80s, so much so that by the beginning of the 90s, there were no elephants left in the area north of the Milgis Lugga (“luggas” are seasonal rivers that crisscross Kenya), but thanks to years of conservation efforts, this area has become the migration route for the second largest elephant population in Kenya. The Milgis Lugga is a migration corridor situated between Samburu and Marsabit to its north.
A community-based conservation program
For more than a decade, the Milgis Trust dedicated itself to community-focused activities to protect African elephants by securing the ecosystem of the Mathews and Ndoto mountain region in north Kenya as a sustainable elephant habitat, with the firm belief that wildlife can live peacefully alongside pastoral people without fences. The Trust understands that the most effective way to achieve their conservation goals is to engage local communities, and from 2004 to 2015, it had helped increase the number of elephants in that area from 400 to 800. However, different threats, such as human-wildlife conflict, poaching, droughts, and habitat destruction, still loom large.
The fund from the Tang Prize has enabled the Milgis Trust to give fresh impetus to its conservation program in three main aspects: the increase of scouts’ patrol operations, the development of community awareness, and the investigation and resolution of human-wildlife conflicts. As a result, during the past 5 years, human-wildlife conflict has been reduced by 75%. The scouts’ presence has also deterred illegal loggers from cashing in on east African sandalwood. Apart from the conservation work, the scouts were also assigned the roles as liaison officers for the humanitarian projects that are carried out in their respective communities, supervising activities such as ensuring that water resources for humans as well as the wildlife are used sustainably, teaching students about conservation, helping vaccinate canines in the area against rabies, and identifying local residents who need emergency medical care.
The symbiosis of human-elephant relations
These pachyderms are an essential part of the Samburu people’s lives. For example, newly-weds must use baby elephants’ dung as fuels to light the first fire in their homesteads. When a herd of elephants lumbers through thick bush, their massive bulks flatten undergrowth and therefore clear paths for animals and humans alike to navigate difficult terrains. The pools they bathe in collect water when the rains come, thus benefiting other beings gathering around these little depressions to quench their thirst. In droughts, elephants know where to find a reliable source of water in an otherwise dry lugga.
The past five years have seen severe droughts in the Milgis area. Scant rainfall left the wildlife there with no access to water other than the deep wells dug in the sandy riverbed by pastoralists. However, the depth of these wells also means that adult elephants struggle to reach water with their trunks and baby elephants often slip into them and drown. Moreover, the wells can collapse due to the size of these huge mammals, prompting tribal warriors tasked with digging wells to open fire as a way to discourage them from sourcing water in the area.
To resolve this issue, the Milgis Trust employed the warriors to build and maintain ramps leading to the water in wells. Now elephants have learned how to walk down these slopes specially made for them and drink safely without damaging the wells, which successfully defused the tension between local communities and the wildlife.
This Tang Prize funded program also enabled the Milgis Trust to provide emergency veterinary services to elephants in need of them. Therefore, even though 12 elephants succumbed to their diseases in 2018, since the Kenya Wildlife Trust and the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust collaborated with the Milgis Trust to give sick elephants medical treatment, the number of elephants dying from poor health has diminished.
Other significant accomplishments include the frequent sight and sound of lions whose existence in the past could only be detected by the tracks they left. These majestic creatures are still considered a vital part of pastoral traditions and ceremonies. Under the patronage of the Milgis Trust, students from deprived backgrounds are able to receive decent education and have also become ambassadors for the wildlife. With people receiving the medical care they desperately needed enjoying good health again, and people no longer living under the threat of rabies, more have devoted themselves to the conversation of Milgis’ ecosystem.
Continuous effort into conservation
Helen Douglas-Dufresne, trustee and honorary warden of the Miligs Trust, expressed her gratitude to the Tang Prize for its support for the conservation work carried out in northern Kenya, pointing out in her email correspondence that “incredible progress” has been made in the last five years and they have also started to see the rewarding results. Digby Douglas-Dufresne, sustainability coordinator for the Trust, also wrote to inform us that “the overall impact (of this project) on the area’s elephant population has been enormous,” while promising to keep us updated on their future work as “it is all connected to this five year project that has just been completed.”
Click the link below to download the 5-year final report from the Milgis Trust:
To learn more about the Milgis Trust, go to https://www.milgistrust.com/