12 Embracing Technology in Indigenous-Led Conservation

Titus Letaapo

I began my professional journey as a teacher, dedicating four years to education. However, it became increasingly evident that our local wildlife, particularly elephants, were facing alarming threats. The land conditions were deteriorating due to unsustainable practices and unfavourable grazing patterns. Witnessing this, I felt a profound calling to step into the  field of conservation and work towards safeguarding our remaining wildlife.

This sense of purpose inspired me to make a significant decision—to leave my secure government position and commit myself to conservation, with a focus on supporting my community in this endeavour. This marked the start of the Namunyak Community Wildlife Conservancy, a pioneering initiative not just in Kenya, but particularly in the northern regions. Initially, I encountered some resistance from the community, as there were concerns that this might be a ploy by the government to establish national parks or reserves, potentially restricting human activities.

Through extensive awareness campaigns and exposure trips to areas where successful conservation efforts were underway, we managed to shift the community’s perspective. They began to appreciate the importance of community-led conservation efforts. We took vital steps in establishing the necessary structures, forming community-appointed boards, and forging ahead with our mission. In 2000, I assumed the role of assistant manager for Namunyak Community Conservancy. At that time, the conservancy employed fewer than ten local staff members.

I continued to work diligently with the team until 2004, when I initiated the Nominal Expansion Plan—a program aimed at extending support to other communities. This endeavour led to the formation of the Northern Rangelands Trust, a coalition of communities dedicated to establishing conservancies. Together, we established nearly 40 new conservancies spanning the northern and coastal regions of Kenya. Presently, our collective efforts have resulted in the employment of over a thousand dedicated staff members.

This journey has been one of profound dedication and growth, and it underlines the vital role that community-driven conservation plays in preserving our natural heritage.


Incorporating Indigenous Knowledge into Conservation Training

The Samburu tribe holds deep respect for plants and wildlife, coexisting harmoniously with their livestock. This intimate understanding guides our approach to conservation. We integrate our Indigenous knowledge into our monitoring systems, aligning with our methods for observing wildlife and understanding livestock behaviour. For instance, we learn from Indigenous hunters about ways to nourish elephants properly. This knowledge informs our strategies and ensures the well-being of the wildlife.

To ensure that conservation efforts resonate with the traditional structures of the Samburu tribe, we prioritize aligning our practices with established Indigenous leadership positions. Our conservancy board, Moran Warriors, committees, and council of Elders mirror the customary structures within our tribe. By doing so, we uphold the cherished traditions that guide our community.

Additionally, we embrace the ancestral knowledge regarding grazing patterns. This enables us to sustain our conservation efforts even in the absence of external support. We implement time-tested practices that have been safeguarded by our community for generations, augmenting our awareness campaigns.


Fostering Intergenerational Learning for Sustainable Communities

The cornerstone of our conservation training lies in fostering a dynamic exchange of knowledge between different generations within our community. When we conduct lessons and board training, we purposefully bring together both the Elders and the youth. Moreover, in structuring the composition of our boards, we ensure that there is a dedicated session for the Elders to share their invaluable insights. They delve into recollections of the past, reminiscing about the historical landscape – the grazing patterns, the forests, and the behavior of wildlife. These reflections shed light on what characterised earlier times, and why instances of human-wildlife conflict were considerably fewer.

During our community’s traditional ceremonies and practices, we take deliberate steps to capture and preserve this wealth of knowledge. This intentional approach to intergenerational learning not only enriches the younger members of our community with a profound understanding of our heritage but also ensures that the wisdom of our Elders continues to shape our conservation efforts for a more sustainable and resilient future.


Utilizing Technology in Wildlife Monitoring and Protection

Within the Samburu tribe, a significant emphasis has been placed on training our youth in the capacity of conservation rangers. These young individuals are equipped with the requisite skills for wildlife monitoring, conducting patrols, and adhering to established standard operating procedures. One of the fundamental components of their training revolves around effectively utilising GPS technology. This empowers them to accurately record and map various incidents, such as the presence of elephants or instances of human-wildlife conflict. By pinpointing incident locations, we’re able to compile valuable data over time, enabling us to gain comprehensive insights and make informed decisions regarding conservation strategies.

Moreover, our rangers are adept at mapping wildlife sightings, encompassing diverse species ranging from zebras and giraffes to the majestic elephant population. This comprehensive approach to data collection ensures that we maintain a dynamic understanding of wildlife movements and population dynamics. In addition to our trained rangers, we also extend training opportunities to community members, including those with varying levels of formal education. While not all may have received formal schooling, those who have benefitted from educational initiatives are proficient in utilising GPS technology to contribute to our monitoring efforts.


The Impact of Technology on Conservation Efforts

The integration of technology into our conservation endeavors has yielded several significant impacts. Firstly, our conservancy board has been able to make informed decisions pertaining to wildlife management. Over the years, this technology has empowered us to pinpoint areas characterized by heightened wildlife conflicts. In response, we’ve implemented specialized management strategies to mitigate such conflicts, thereby fostering a safer coexistence between humans and wildlife.

Moreover, the utilization of technology has greatly facilitated our conservancy’s planning efforts. Through the application of satellite imagery, we’ve been able to divide our area into distinct grazing blocks. This strategic zoning ensures that our community has access to sufficient pasture year-round, even in the face of challenges like drought. The use of satellite imagery also plays a crucial role in disaster preparedness. By monitoring these images, we’re alerted to potential threats, allowing us to implement mitigation measures in advance.

A notable example of this was during the locust infestation in the northern region. Through GPS location data, we were able to inform the government of the locust sightings. This timely information enabled them to conduct targeted interventions, effectively minimizing the detrimental impact of locust feeding on vegetation.

This integration of technology into our wildlife monitoring endeavours has resulted in tangible benefits for both the environment and local communities. These instances exemplify the profound positive impact that technology has had on our conservation initiatives. It has not only enhanced our ability to manage wildlife and mitigate conflicts but also bolstered our overall resilience in the face of environmental challenges. It allows us to respond swiftly to incidents, track wildlife movements, and make informed decisions regarding conservation strategies. It also enhances our ability to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts, ultimately fostering a more harmonious coexistence between our community and the remarkable wildlife we are committed to protecting.


The Synergy of Indigenous Knowledge and Technology in Conservation

The integration of technology with Indigenous knowledge holds significant potential for conservation efforts in our community. When these two sources of knowledge converge, the result is a heightened level of accuracy and effectiveness in our endeavours. Relying solely on traditional knowledge provides a valuable foundation, but with the incorporation of technology, we’re able to further enhance our approach.

We’re witnessing a growing interest among community members, particularly the youth and high school students, in pursuing education and skills related to spatial analysis, data management, and other technological applications. This trend is a testament to the increasing recognition of the profound impact that arises from combining traditional wisdom with modern tools. The benefits of this integration are becoming increasingly evident, motivating more individuals to actively engage with both realms of knowledge.

In essence, the synergy of Indigenous knowledge and technology not only amplifies the accuracy of our conservation initiatives but also paves the way for a more sustainable and impactful approach to preserving our natural heritage.


Embracing Technology in Indigenous-Led Conservation: Challenges and Opportunities

Incorporating technology into our Indigenous-led conservation endeavors presents both significant opportunities and unique challenges. Firstly, a notable hurdle is the level of literacy within the community. Many members may not have the capacity to read or write, making it challenging to facilitate their proficiency with technological tools. Additionally, some technologies may not be intuitively user-friendly, which compounds the issue.

Another prominent challenge lies in the availability of network signals. Not all areas have consistent and reliable network coverage, hindering our ability to fully utilise certain technologies. This limitation poses a significant barrier, particularly in remote or less accessible regions.

There’s also the question of how we effectively capture and record our history. Preserving the cultural and environmental heritage of our community is of paramount importance, and technology can be a powerful tool in this endeavour. However, striking the right balance between traditional knowledge and modern recording methods is a nuanced challenge.

Despite these obstacles, the integration of technology also brings about tremendous opportunities. It offers the potential to amplify our conservation efforts, providing us with new means to protect our land and wildlife. Moreover, it allows for enhanced communication and coordination among community members, amplifying our collective impact. By actively addressing these challenges and capitalizing on the opportunities, we strive to create a more sustainable future for our community and its natural heritage.


Empowering Youth through Technology: The Future of Conservation

The potential for youth to actively participate in co-designing user-friendly technology, akin to the Namunyak App, a Samburu challenge for the Indigenous Hack4COVID, is indeed promising. Such opportunities hold the key to unlocking a wealth of knowledge and innovation within our community. By developing applications that are culturally and traditionally relevant, we create a dynamic platform for learning and engagement.

Yet, it’s important to acknowledge that securing funding remains a critical challenge. Adequate financial resources are essential in realising the full potential of these technological initiatives. We must work collaboratively to identify and mobilize the necessary funds, ensuring that our projects have the support they need to thrive.

As a co-founder of the GEO Indigenous Alliance, I am optimistic about the future. Together, we can harness the power of technology to drive meaningful change in conservation efforts. Through strategic partnerships, innovative thinking, and a steadfast commitment to our community, we are poised to create a more sustainable and resilient future for all.


Advancing Indigenous-Led Conservation and Education: Goals and Priorities

Looking ahead, there are several key goals and priorities that we aim to achieve. First and foremost, creating heightened awareness within our youth is critical. This entails providing them with a comprehensive understanding of the critical issues at hand. Equipping them with the skills to utilise technology effectively is central to this endeavour.

Another crucial objective is establishing strong connections with fellow Indigenous tribes and communities worldwide. This network of support and collaboration can significantly bolster our collective efforts. Strengthening these ties will be instrumental in effecting positive change.

Additionally, it is imperative that we ensure the GEO Indigenous Alliance is adequately resourced to carry out its mission effectively. This involves securing the necessary funding and resources to drive our initiatives forward. By doing so, we can realise our vision and make a meaningful impact. In summary, our primary goals revolve around heightened awareness, expanded global connections, and robust resource allocation for the alliance. These efforts are pivotal in advancing Indigenous-led conservation and education, and I am committed to seeing them through.

About the author

Titus Letaapo is a champion of the community conservation model in Northern Kenya, with over 19 years in conservation and community development. Now support Namunyak wildlife Community Conservancy as Director of community and programs at the Sarara Foundation (TSF). In this capacity, Titus has helped develop successful conservation strategies, spearheaded collaboration between the County Governments and communities, and played a key role in promoting peace between the different ethnic groups in Samburu and neighbouring communities. His work is not only helping create the conditions for sustainable socio-economic development, but also helping to conserve and protect critically endangered species. TSF is a Kenya based NPO working to support a long-term paradigm shift designed to catalyze a healthy, resilient and prosperous landscape in which both indigenous people and wildlife can thrive for multiple generations to come. “Through the Conservancy, communities in Namunyak are realizing the importance of wildlife conservation. They can now adequately manage their rangelands, boost their economies and promote sustainable development by protecting the diverse wildlife they share the landscape with”. Titus is co-founder of the GEO Indigenous Alliance.


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