- Issue: Spring 2019
WWF president and CEO Carter Roberts sits down to talk with Mara Conservancy senior warden Ntayia Lema Langas about restoring the biodiversity of Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve and using technology to outsmart poachers.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
CARTER ROBERTS Langas, welcome to Washington and to WWF.
NTAYIA LEMA LANGAS Thank you, Carter. I am happy to be here with you.
CR I understand you grew up close to the Mara. What was that like? How did it influence your decision to become a ranger?
NL Yes, I grew up right outside the Mara—about 6 miles from the main gate. We had a lot of wildlife in our village, lots of elephants, so it was something I saw every day. Growing up where I did made me passionate about the environment. I joined a club in high school called Friends of Conservation and was the secretary and then chairman. Conservation is just a passion that lives inside me.
CR The area of the Maasai Mara National Reserve where you work with the Mara Conservancy, the northwestern section, is referred to as the Mara Triangle. Can you talk about why the conservancy was brought in to help manage the Mara Triangle in 2001? What were conditions like?
NL It was desolate, horrific. No one wanted to be there. There was terrible poaching and it was very unsafe. When I joined the conservancy in 2013 things were definitely better, but not as good as they are now. And many people remember how bad it was not so long ago. When the conservancy took over, they developed transboundary relationships with other governments to help coordinate antipoaching efforts. For example, a lot of poachers were coming from Tanzania, so we began working with park rangers from that country.
CR A solution that sounds so simple—but I’m sure it was not an easy thing to navigate.
NL No, not at all. But sometimes what is very difficult can end up being the most worthwhile.
CR WWF has a long history of working in the Mara. One of our earliest grants helped provide a road grader and rotary mower for the reserve.
NL So, we have both been committed to the Mara for a long time!
CR Indeed! These days, we’re focused on how to prevent poaching, which has taken a terrible toll on wildlife in the greater Maasai Mara reserve and across Africa—and around the world. Our partnership with FLIR helps provide rangers with heat-seeking, night-vision cameras to detect poachers. How have these cameras changed the way the Mara Triangle is protected?
NL The FLIR cameras are a real miracle for us. They make us feel very safe.
CR You didn’t feel safe before?
NL No. When the poachers started coming into the park at night, at first, they would use spotlights. So at least if we were in the right place at the right time, we could see them, and maybe have some success in catching them or scaring them off. But then they started coming without spotlights, and we had no hope of seeing them.
CR What’s it like now that you have the cameras?
NL Now I can very easily direct my rangers to where the poachers are. The cameras scan a huge area [approximately 3 km2, or over 1 sq. mi.], so now we can surprise the poachers—they don’t surprise us! Since getting the FLIR cameras we have arrested more than 160 poachers. We are addicted to these cameras! I wish all the national parks had this kind of technology. Then the issue of night poaching would be eradicated.
CR More and more it’s becoming obvious how dangerous field conservation can be. And the work you do—tracking and arresting poachers—can be life-threatening in the extreme.
NL Yes. To do this type of work, you must be passionate. It must be a calling. You must have it in your heart, you must have it in your blood. It is not easy at all.
CR Does the Mara Conservancy use sniffer dogs as part of its antipoaching work?
NL Yes, we do. In fact, I am the warden in charge of the dog unit in the Mara Triangle. Before I joined the Mara Conservancy, I was a ranger at another park where I was trained to handle sniffer dogs. Here, we are using yellow labs and bloodhounds, based at the gates, and they sniff cars entering and leaving the park.
CR What can they smell?
NL They can detect gun cartridges and ivory. We also have tracker dogs who always go with us on our patrols. They are part of the security team.
CR When I visited the Mara a few years ago, we had a chance to travel with the leadership of nearby community conservancies. It reminded me of the pivotal role of community involvement in conservation everywhere. Can you say something about the communities living in and around the Maasai Mara—their involvement in the conservation of the area and the degree to which they share the benefits of the return of wildlife to that magnificent part of the world?
NL The relationship between the community and the Mara Conservancy is very strong. Now that the conditions in the Mara Triangle have improved and it is no longer so dangerous, tourists are returning, and they bring their money. Ecotourism dollars are returned to the community to finance education, health care, and more. And this creates jobs—for example, construction work to build classrooms—which is a big benefit.
CR It’s always key for conservation to make some demonstrable contributions to people.
NL We also have a program of community game scouts, which the conservancy created as a means of communication between citizens and the rangers. If the scouts see something suspicious, or if they hear things in the community they think we should know about, they call us, and we respond. It helps build trust. We will also pay farmers if wildlife harms their animals—for instance, if a lion kills their cow or their sheep.
CR Last question. I imagine your work can be overwhelming at times. What gives you hope?
NL Nature gives me hope. The Mara gives me hope. It is unique to me every day—the animals and the landscape present different sides every time you look at them. When I am out in the Mara, I feel like I am in the right place. Protecting it is my highest calling.
CR Thank you, Langas. You and your fellow rangers are the real heroes in our work. It is a privilege to be with you.
NL Thank you, Carter. It has been my honor to speak with you.