The Maasai are an ancient cattle culture that mastered the art of coexistence through centuries of living alongside the richest wildlife herds on earth. During times of drought they harvested wild game as “second cattle.” But in the 20th century, the Kenyan government turned large portions of Maasai grazing land into game reserves for tourists; and in 1977 the government banned all hunting of wildlife. The Kenyan style of “fortress conservation” became the most severe in Africa, with Richard Leakey imposing a shoot-to-kill order against poachers. Animals continued to impact lives and livelihoods – competing for food and water, attacking livestock and children – yet the local people reaped no benefit from them. The Maasai at Il Ngwesi and elsewhere came to resent the animals, calling them “government cattle.”

For the community at Il Ngwesi, a solution came from a white neighbor. In the 1980s, Ian Craig, a third-generation Kenyan began transforming his cattle ranch into a wildlife sanctuary. James Ole Kinyaga, a young Il Ngwesi moran at the time, describes his reaction: “This man is really getting lost! Why would you reduce the cattle and bring in wildlife?” With the grass growing lush at Ian’s Lewa Conservancy, the men of Il Ngwesi began cutting holes in Ian’s fence to graze their cattle. Sick of fighting them, Ian invited his neighbors to join him. His proposal: they should reduce their own stock of cattle and sequester the remainder in a small area to encourage the wholesale return of wildlife. In return, Ian would help finance the construction of a tourist eco-lodge at Il Ngwesi, to be completely owned and managed by the community. He was met with skepticism. The elders feared their land would be confiscated, turned into a park and controlled by outsiders. It took years of meetings, and the intervention of Ian’s childhood friend Kinanjui Lesenteria, an Il Ngwesi elder, before the community changed their minds.

The Il Ngwesi Lodge is the first tourist lodge in Kenya that is 100% owned, operated by and benefiting an indigenous community. Built with natural materials from the surrounding area, and opened in 1996, the lodge has won multiple awards. Il Ngwesi’s program of carefully managed grazing has restored habitat, lured wildlife, and turned the area into a prime destination for eco-tourism. The improvements these changes have afforded Il Ngwesi – money for schools, transport, a medical clinic – have inspired other communities in the area to follow suit.   

But in the midst of filming for Milking the Rhino, drought hits Il Ngwesi hard – the worst in generations – and pushes the debate over conservation to a new level. For Maasai who are joined to their cattle by a bond that is almost spiritual, the ravages of the drought are unbearable, and the pressure to graze in the conservation area near the lodge becomes intense. “As an employee of the lodge,” says James Ole Kinyaga, “I don’t even have a face to face the community, because they’re really suffering!” James tries gamely to keep his community focused on the goal, reminding them that wild animals survive drought better than cattle, and that if the rains finally come, the profits from tourism will help replenish their herds.

UPDATE: April 2009

At the end of 2007, a disputed national election and ensuing tribal violence decimated tourism across Kenya. The Il Ngwesi lodge sent home 2/3 of its staff. During the unrest the Il Ngwesi game rangers stepped up security patrols, helping to limit violence and poaching to negligible levels in the region. Sixteen months post-election, tourism at the lodge has yet to return to normal, and the global economic downturn has residents worried about the coming peak season. But James Ole Kinyaga of the Il Ngwesi Lodge says that Maasai familiarity with cycles of drought has given the community the patience and perspective to weather this crisis as well.

Recent Il Ngwesi projects fuelled by conservation-related income include: an HIV/ Aids program that has employed 17 people from the community, a training project to improve the quality and market-access for women’s handicrafts, upgrades to roads and the landing strip, an elephant fence around the school, renovation of teachers’ housing, a mobile bank, a new sinkhole and water pipeline repairs.

To learn more about the lodge and community at Il Ngwesi, visit