One-time waiter Samson Parashina has just been named as one of the world’s leading conservationists. We asked another star, Hollywood actor Edward Norton, to quiz this Maasai superman
Did you know, a Maasai warrior is officially a Champion of the Earth? In 2012, the United Nations’ flagship environmental award – which celebrates people with a fervent passion for, and commitment to, the environment – was bestowed on six awe-inspiring individuals. They included the President of Mongolia, a Swiss aeronaut, a Brazilian banker – and Kenyan Maasai Samson Parashina.
Parashina started his career as a waiter, but quickly progressed and is now President of the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust (MWCT). This organisation, based in the Chyulu Hills between Amboseli and Tsavo, helps the local people live in harmony with nature and create sustainable economic benefits from conservation.
Parashina was nominated for the award by actor Edward Norton, who first encountered MWCT several years ago when he visited East Africa to climb Kilimanjaro; Norton is now on the board of MWCT and is the UN’s Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity. “Samson is one of my heroes and I’m in this role to celebrate people like him,” comments Norton. “The work he has achieved is nothing short of inspirational.”
The two men are also friends – in 2009 they ran the New York Marathon together, to raise funds and awareness for MWCT. So we asked the Hollywood big-hitter to interview the conservation superstar…
Norton: How does the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem represent sustainable economic opportunity for the Maasai? What are the new approaches through which stewardship of nature represents a new form of livelihood?
PARASHINA: Here in Kuku we have developed a unique model where wilderness with wildlife pays a dividend to the community. We started with an ecotourism camp, owned by the community and operated with and for them: Campi ya Kanzi (www.maasai.com). It first created an employment opportunity and then, through a conservation fee – which is now the highest in the country – it has sustained a number of programmes for the community: education, health, conservation. All programmes are run by our community trust, the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust (MWCT).
The Trust has assisted the community in seeing its land as productive not just for grazing. We have two conservancies, a grassland and a wetland; we envision extending and augmenting such conservancies, for the overall benefit of both the community and its wildlife.
The beautiful cloud forest of the Chyulu Hills represents an income opportunity, through generation of carbon credits.
N: Has your community seen real economic benefit from these efforts already?
P: Absolutely. In little more than a decade we have seen tourism revenues go from $50,000 to $500,000 a year.
The Trust, which started by employing just eight Maasai to protect wildlife, now employs more than 200 Kenyans – 95% are Maasai from the community.
Take our education projects: we employ 50 teachers and assist 20 local primary schools, providing education for 7,000 pupils. We also support young men by providing alternative activities and meaningful engagement, and allow girls to access education and realise their potential. All of this is happening through conservation dividends.
N: How are revenues being used?
P: We’ve been able to fund improved healthcare and education services. We also compensate herders for losses due to wildlife predation via our Wildlife Pays programme. This is done through a rigorous system of monitoring, vetting and certification of the legitimate claims.
Interesting to note that, though some people criticise compensation as unsustainable, we have funded our compensation by imposing a surcharge on tourist guests for protecting wildlife – you would call it an ‘external cost’ – and this has created a market-based funding mechanism from the industry that depends on wildlife. Not one shilling of it is donation by the tourism operator or philanthropic money – it’s all paid by the guest separately, direct to the community; we have funded compensation for over six years totally sustainably.
Killing of wildlife dropped dramatically and the community benefits in ways people really like. So the people criticising compensation maybe should come and look at what we’re doing!
N: Is awareness of the benefits of long-term conservation programmes growing? At leadership level and regular person level too?
P: I engage with like-minded players to act as a link between the local community and conservation partners such as Maasailand Preservation Trust, Kenya Wildlife Service and Africa Wildlife Foundation. Then I work with the Maasai to ensure there is understanding of the importance of preserving wilderness, the wildlife and cultural heritage.
N: But what is it that’s getting people to embrace conservation as a good idea?
P: Before our Trust there were practically no health services for the community. The nearest hospital was 60km away. The Trust now employs a doctor and nurses, assisting a population of 15,000 people. We have provided solar electricity and water (with a bore hole) to a dispensary, where we have created a laboratory, so that the doctor can make instant and precise diagnoses to properly treat patients.
Everybody is benefitting, and the community understands that all these services are happening through the preservation of our wilderness and wildlife. We are blessed with a multitude of natural resources that can bring great economic benefit and promise a future for the community, but we must conserve it to realise that dream.
7 ways YOU can help wildlife
Think about your kids Leave them a better environment: pollute less, think about your use of plastic and how its waste can affect the environment for years.
Go out there! 1 million visitors a year come to Kenya yet few Kenyans enjoy their magnificent natural resources. Go on safari, and chose lodges that support local communities: check out www.ecotourismkenya.org.
Look after Kenya’s best resource: wilderness with wildlife Why care about a lion? Because nature has a beautiful balance. We need predators and prey; take away the predator, and the system will collapse.
Chose good leaders Vote for the people who will leave a better nation for your kids, and who will take care of the wilderness.
Conserve water In a country that is 70% arid or semi-arid, use water responsibly.
Conserve trees The forests affect the watershed: if there’s no forest there’s no water. Consider your use of wood; look for sustainable sources.
Support diversity Kenya has more than 50 tribes. Respect the diversity: it is a heritage to be proud of, not get rid of!