As poachers continue to kill thousands of elephants across Africa and an increasing number of giraffes, organizations throughout Kenya are banding together to develop strategies to help curtail the illegal killing of these iconic animals. Education is one of these key strategies. To share information about the challenges that wildlife is facing in the highlands of Kenya, a team of conservationists and specialists—from Loisaba Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, Space for Giants, and San Diego Zoo Global—have created a one-of-a-kind conservation facility.
The Loisaba Conservation Center is located on a 56,000-acre wildlife conservancy in the Laikipia area of northern Kenya, a critically important wildlife habitat. The Center’s main space is decorated with graphical information about conservation and the threats to wildlife. Its aim is to become the hub for conservation education for Laikipia’s community, tourists, partner organizations, government agencies, and students. The ultimate goal is for the Center to help inform those who visit Loisaba about community-based conservation and how this model, with their support, will help preserve the area’s habitat and the endangered animals that live here.
“One of San Diego Zoo Global’s goals is to raise awareness of the extent of international wildlife trafficking and its impact on threatened species,” said Debra Erickson, Director of Communications for San Diego Zoo Global. “Community-based education is a key tactic we are using to address this challenge, and we are honored to be included in developing a Conservation Center that is interpreting this issue and making a real difference in Africa.”
The Center was made possible by a generous donation from conservationist Sue Anschutz-Rodgers. She worked closely with architect Jim Archer on the design of the building, and San Diego Zoo Global designed the Center’s interpretive elements.
“The goal of the Loisaba Conservancy is to provide a long-term environment for the preservation of megafauna, such as giraffes and elephants, as well as to a diversity of endangered species,” said Tom Silvester, Chief Executive Officer of Loisaba Conservancy. “By building the Conservation Center, we now have a place to bring our guests, members of our community, staff, rangers and neighbors, so we can clearly show how the conservation work being done benefits both wildlife and the community.”
The first group of students from a village neighboring Loisaba toured the Center in December. Students were excited to not only learn more about the animals, but also the role of their community members in Loisaba—including wildlife ranger and bloodhound handler Joseph Ekaran, whose specially trained dogs are deployed not only to track down elephant and giraffe poachers, but also to help find lost children who have gone missing from nearby villages while herding their family’s livestock.
Loisaba Conservancy was established in 2014 by The Nature Conservancy, Space for Giants, and the Loisaba Community Trust, to ensure that a migratory corridor remained for Kenya’s second largest elephant population. It also protects one of the largest remaining populations of reticulated giraffes, as well as endangered Grevy’s zebras, African wild dogs and hartebeest. Space for Giants has been involved in elephant conservation for more than 10 years in Loisaba and has established a multipronged approach for its work here. They are conducting a long-term research study of the family structures and spatial movements of the area’s elephants, as well as working closely with the Kenya Wildlife Service to monitor the illegal killing of these elephants and reduce human-elephant conflict. These partnership efforts have greatly reduced elephant poaching—not only in Loisaba, but in the whole of Laikipia.
“I have greatly enjoyed working with the experts at San Diego Zoo Global on the design of the Conservation Center,” stated Matt Brown, Director of Conservation, The Nature Conservancy in Africa. “It’s another excellent example of how partnerships are vital to success, as not one organization ever has all the skills required to address the challenges and opportunities in a diverse landscape like Laikipia.”
San Diego Zoo Global has been working in Loisaba for more than four years and is trying to develop a basis for better understanding of reticulated giraffes. This socioecological research project is examining giraffe population levels, movements and ecology, as well as traditional ecological knowledge, and attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of local herders living alongside giraffes. This interdisciplinary approach includes community outreach and education programs, and staff will be using the Conservation Center for some of these programs.
San Diego Zoo Global has also created Wildwatch Kenya, a citizen science website (at wildwatchkenya.org) that allows individuals to help review photos from motion-activated cameras at more than 100 sites in Loisaba. The public’s efforts to identify and count the animals in the photos from these trail cameras are already helping wildlife researchers sort and catalog thousands of images. Visitors to the Conservation Center will be asked to participate in the program.
“Loisaba Conservancy is a great example of what effective conservation strategies look like,” said Shamini Jayanathan, Director of Wildlife Law and Justice at Space for Giants. “The Conservation Center provides a window into the world of the conservancy, and allows visitors to gain an understanding of elephants, their behavior and what needs to be done to protect them. It also continues to solidify our strong relationship with the local community—because elephants’ futures are very bleak if the community is not invested in their protection.”