Ololorashi-Ogulului Group Ranch (OOGR), which surrounds Amboseli National Park, supports most of its migratory wildlife in the wet season. The ranch has recently begun subdividing the 330,000-acre ranch among its 5,000 members.
Conservationists are deeply concerned, fearing there is no place for wildlife on small subdivided lands, and with good reason: ten years ago, Rosemary Groom and I called attention to the steep decline in wildlife following the subdivision and degradation of the Kaputei group ranches north of Amboseli . Today the once large seasonal migrations of wildebeest and zebra have vanished. Wildlife in Amboseli faces a similar fate if OOGR ranch carves up and settles the migratory routes across the ecosystem.
Parks are no panacea for conserving wildlife; numbers are declining in lockstep with losses in the surrounding lands and across Kenya as a whole .
How real is the threat of OOGR to the future of Amboseli’s wildlife and the national park?
The subdivision of the Amboseli ecosystem into Kaputei-like settlements reflects a far large threat to Kenya’s rangelands. The Ministry of Lands in 2019 declared that all community lands are open to adjudication into private allotments, opening the floodgates to the fragmentation and degradation of Kenya’s savannas and pastoral livelihoods.
The push for the subdivision of OOGR has been building for two decades. The pressure stems partly from a fear of land grabs, partly from the economic and social transition from subsistence pastoralism to settled livelihoods. The push has been held back by the group ranch and political leaders cautioning members about the dangers of carving up the open rangelands into plots too small to support a family, and the dangers of outsiders and land speculators buying up the pastoral lands. The leaders point to the fate of Kimana Group Ranch adjacent to Amboseli as a warning. Following subdivision, most of the land was sold to settlers and farmers.
I recently visited the American prairies, which were carved up into similar small parcels in the 1920s, to gauge the risks of subdividing Kenya rangelands. (See A visit to the American Dust Bowl 80 years on: Lessons for the African Savannas). The visit convinced me that family herders and farmers in the African savannas face a similar fate unless the allocation of title deeds takes account of the health of the land.
To avoid Amboseli and Kenya’s rangelands going the Kaputei and Dust Bowl way, OOGR must ensure its members can secure title to their lands without destroying them for livestock and wildlife alike. In short, OOGR is a testcase for future of Kenya’s pastoral lands.
Caught between the pressures for subdivision and concerns over land degradation and sales to outsiders, OOGR has held lengthy discussions over the years to find a balance between land security, settlement, viable family herds and wildlife conservation. A draft plan was presented to wildlife conservation organizations in 2014, soliciting inputs. The final plan, a 100-page document prepared by consultants, was completed early in 2019, approved by Kajiado County and released at a workshop which included the Kenya Wildlife Service and conservation organizations.
In summary, the 330,000 acre OOGR group ranch is being subdivided among its members into four zones: 1) ten village service areas where each member is allocated a quarter acre for settlement and provided social services; 2) a pastoral grazing areas where each member is allocated 21 acres; 3) four wildlife conservation areas to allow free wildlife movements and within which each member is allocated a nominal 8 acres, and 4) farming allocations in the Namelok area east of Amboseli National Park which have already been allocated and developed. Permanent settlements and fencing will be prohibited in the pastoral and wildlife areas in order to sustain seasonally mobile livestock keeping under the existing OOGR grazing plan. A caveat on each title deed will bar permanent settlement, fencing and land sales for 99 years.
The chairman of OOGR, Daniel Leturesh, stated in his presentation to conservation NGOs that Ogulului intends to set up a trust to manage pastoral and wildlife areas and invited discussion on how it might operate and the role the NGOs might play. Both Kajiado County and national government planners consider that the OOGR might offer a way to grant individual title deeds to Kenya’s extensive rangelands yet keep them open for pastoralism and wildlife.
On 7th August the Amboseli Ecosystem Trust (which represents all seven group ranches in the ecosystem) presented the OOGR plan to conservation organizations working in the region. The workshop was attended by twenty-five conservation organizations and the Kenya Wildlife Service. Jackson Mwato, coordinator of AET, presented the background to the plan. I was asked to cover the ecological considerations drawing on ACP’s fifty years of monitoring data. The findings showed wildlife migrants moving wildly across the ecosystem in in response to erratic rainfall. The dry season concentration area and wet season dispersal of the wildlife and livestock migrants define the Minimum Viable Conservation (MVCA), which the Amboseli Ecosystem Management Plan 2020-2030 is using to define the ecosystem.
So far, the MVCA has remained open to livestock and wildlife movements and the population sizes of the migratory species, including zebra, wildebeest and elephants, which hare determined largely by the forage availability in the woodlands and swamps of Amboseli National Park, have been sustained.
The main goals of the OOGR plan are to ensure community development, pastoralism and wildlife populations. Provided it does ensure the continued seasonal mobility of wildlife and livestock populations, it can achieve the three objectives. Key to its success is a rotational livestock grazing plan designed and adopted by OOGR. The grazing plan aims to restore pasture production and reverse land degradation. If maintained, individual land holdings need not impair wildlife and livestock movements. If, however, , land titles lead to permanent settlement on each plot, the rangeland will deteriorate rapidly and cause a rapid decline in wildlife, family herds and the pastoral economy.
The conservation organizations issued a statement at the end of the meeting on 7th August recognizing the right of the landowners to decide the use of their land and taking a neutral position on the plan, except to express their commitment to conserving Amboseli as a unique wildlife area of national and international significance.
The OOGR subdivision and zoning plan met resistance from a political faction of the group ranch, claiming there has been insufficient consultation. The protestors burned down the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s rangers camp and tourist facilities, then attempted to burn down Nongotiak Centre. The warriors involved were thwarted by the community and arrested by police. Following intensive negotiations and community meetings, the rival factions have since reached agreement on how to move ahead.
Whether the plan will strike a balance between granting individual land titles and sustaining pastoral herds and wildlife hinges on winning the agreement and compliance of its members on the type of governance to replace the dissolution of group ranches. In anticipation of subdivision, ACP and ACC have been in discussion with the OOGR leaders and AET over the last two years. The trust now assumes great urgency.
The rapidity of OOGR’s subdivision calls for urgent action to ensure a lands trust does replace the group ranch before its dissolution. On a positive note, the Amboseli Ecosystem Management Plan 2020-2030 was vetted and adopted on 11th December by all group ranches, KWS and conservation organizations working in the ecosystem. (See Amboseli Ecosystem Management Plan 2020-2030 ratified and adopted, 7 January 2020). The adoption of AEMP signals a strong commitment of all parties to sustaining the vitality of Amboseli’s wildlife as an integral part of the region’s development plans.
OOGR has signaled its intention to explore the prospects of a land trust under the umbrella of AET. ACC and ACP are also consulting other conservation organizations, the Rangeland Association of Kenya and government agencies on the prospects of land trusts serving the interests of pastoral communities across the rangelands in order to avoid the fragmentation and degradation of Kenya’s rangelands.
 David Western, Rosemary Groom, and Jeffrey Worden, “The Impact of Subdivision and Sedentarization of Pastoral Lands on Wildlife in an African Savanna Ecosystem,” Biological Conservation 142, no. 11 (2009): 2538–46; Rosemary J Groom and David Western, “Impact of Land Subdivision and Sedentarization on Wildlife in Kenya’s Southern Rangelands,” Rangeland Ecology & Management 66, no. 1 (2013): 1–9.
 David Western, Samantha Russell, and Innes Cuthill, “The Status of Wildlife in Protected Areas Compared to Non-Protected Areas of Kenya,” PloS One 4, no. 7 (2009): e6140.