Football, oryx and warriors! It’s an unusual combination but this is how Melako Community Conservancy in Northern Kenya, and Zoos Victoria in Australia are helping to secure the future of wildlife and communities in the northern range lands of Africa’s eastern country of Kenya with the Melako Conservation Cup.
Melako Conservancy covers 380 000 hectares of arid range lands and is home to approximately 40 000 Rendille people, whose main livelihood revolves around nomadic pastoralism. Melako is one of 26 community conservation areas operating under the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) banner. NRT’s mission is to develop resilient communities in the northern Kenyan range lands, through innovative conservation and community development initiatives. Zoos Victoria (ZV) is made up of three properties in and around Melbourne, Australia. ZV is working with Melako Conservancy to protect and increase wildlife populations, particularly the Beisa oryx while also focusing on conservation education and sustainable development.
In traditional Rendille culture, men between the ages of 13 and 25 undergo initiation to become a warrior. The role of the warrior is to protect the community, acquire livestock and develop skills to become wise and strong leaders of the future. But the role of the warrior is changing. These young men have more time on their hands. Melako warriors are engaging in conflict with rival groups, harming wildlife to pass the time, to prove leadership skills, to have fun and to obtain or protect resources. The key species under threat from this process are the Beisa oryx, Grevy’s zebra, giraffe and gerenuk.
When the community raised the issue of the warriors as a concern, we wondered if there was an alternative to harming wildlife that could still be engaging, fun and prove leadership skills. So we asked the warriors “what would you like to do with your idle time instead of activities that involve conflict or harming wildlife?” The answer was clear, “We’d like to play football! We’ve never played it but we know it’s addictive”.
So we organised some footballs, using a dry river bed as a football field and elephant dung or branches for goals, we suddenly realized this might actually work – as long as the players leave their spears off the field!
One year on Melako has 320 warriors in 16 teams. The teams are named after the very wildlife they were previously driving threats towards. Each team selected its own wildlife mascot, printed on the team shirt. The team tries to embody the quality of that animal in their game. Team giraffe are tall and graceful, team oryx are strong and proud, and team dik-dik are quick and loyal. Using this simple tool we were able to observe a very quick reinforcement of values or positive attitudes towards the wildlife selected as mascots.
To help wildlife in Melako is not just a matter of engaging the warriors in a new action, it is also about understanding the warriors attitude towards wildlife and the conservancy and their ecological knowledge of wildlife. We conduct surveys to look at the influence of traditional stories on attitudes towards wildlife, ecological knowledge and the attitude towards Melako Conservancy as well as the attitude towards the football program.
We are working with the Melako Rangers to measure the direct impact of the program on key wildlife such as Grevy’s zebra, oryx, gerenuk, and giraffe by measuring changes in flight distance. When wildlife is being harassed it is more difficult to get close to them; large flight distance. When wildlife feel relaxed it is easier to get closer to them therefore a small flight distance.
Most of the warriors in the program have never had the opportunity to go to school, therefore we developed communications tools to deliver key messages that were very visual and appealed to the warriors.
The logo for the program is a visual representation of “Love Soccer, Love an Oryx”, the oryx is part of the conservancy logo.
Delivering messages around conflict and conservation in an engaging way is also an important aspect of the football program. Warriors know best how to talk to warriors, therefore we created Warrior Conservation Theater Groups to deliver conservation messages to their fellow warriors in a culturally appropriate and effective manner. The football program is also a platform to engage the warriors in programs that allow them access to education, business and enterprise programs and micro credit schemes. In the future this will allow warriors better opportunities to diversify their livelihoods beyond pastoralism.
Now our biggest challenge is keeping the goats of the pitch!
Story & photos courtesy of African Geographic Written by: Brooke Squires, Conservation Officer, Wildlife Conservation and Science at Zoos Victoria