Ian Craig

Ashoka Fellow
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Fellow since 2013

Ian Craig and his organization the Northern Rangeland Trust are featured in Leonardo DiCaprio's epic documentary thriller The Ivory Game. This film goes undercover into the dark and sinister underbelly of ivory trafficking. Award‐winning director Richard Ladkani and Academy Award–nominated director Kief Davidson filmed undercover for 16 months in China and Africa with a crack team of intelligence operatives, undercover activists, passionate frontline rangers and tough‐as‐nails conservationists, to infiltrate the corrupt global network of ivory trafficking.

This description of Ian Craig's work was prepared when Ian Craig was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.


Community-based conservation is taking hold in East Africa. Groups of once-warring pastoralists have embraced wildlife conservation and are organizing their communally held lands as private conservancies. In a model developed by Kenyan Ian Craig, these democratically governed conservancies are funded through a blend of philanthropic, government, and earned-income sources and—as their numbers grow—are transforming lives, securing peace, and conserving natural resources across the continent.

The New Idea

All too often, the response by governments, philanthropists, and organizations advocating for the protection of animals has been to build barriers between dwindling wildlife populations and their human neighbors. Today conservation areas, national parks, and private reserves of this variety dot the globe but the challenges that led to their creation still exist. Poachers still scale the barriers, neighboring villagers often clash with errant animals, migratory routes are severed by human developments, and poverty persists on both sides of the fence. However, there are some bright spots on this map, clustered together just north of the equator on Africa’s eastern hip.

In Kenya, local communities, government agencies, and global funders have embraced a new development model that can truly claim to be conserving natural resources and biodiversity while promoting human peace and prosperity. Under the banner of the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), 19 conservancies that together cover more than 5 million acres are home to 212,000 people and rebounding numbers of endangered rhinos, elephants, and antelope. Created by Ian, these conservancies are being established on communally-held lands governed by democratically elected management teams and—with help from NRT—are attracting expertise, funds, and worldwide recognition.

Through the NRT these communities have a voice; having realized that wildlife protection and conservation is linked to their own prosperity, members of these community conservancies now actively protect the area’s natural resources. Furthermore, these communities now have visibility on account of NRT’s governance and accountability structures. Local governments, development agencies, and entrepreneurs can link with their democratically elected leaders and enter relationships that benefit the whole community.

Creating cohesive, autonomous communities that link their prosperity to that of the environment is key to the NRT’s success. The NRT helps transform communities into advocates of conservation, and also addresses the root cause of so much human and animal conflict: a lack of peace and prosperity among the human communities that cohabit on this land. This is also a critical component in the spread of this model. For example, in 2012, leaders of four neighboring tribes—the Borana, Samburu, Somali, and Turkana—began the lengthy, difficult process of bringing about peace by starting a conservancy together. Several hundred people were killed over the last 10 years as a result of clashes over land ownership, grazing, and water rights. Ian notes that “the conservancy was specifically established by these communities to create peace.” Today, elected representatives from each tribe govern the Nasuulu Community Conservancy, a 34,900 hectare area that is home to 6,000 pastoralists who are now joined together in “conserving wildlife, transforming lives, and bringing peace,” the mantra of the NRT family of community conservancies.

The Problem

It is challenging to conserve natural resources, biodiversity, and wildlife while also addressing the changing social and economic needs of neighboring communities. This combination has long eluded conservation experts. The people who live nearest to the world’s remaining biodiversity and wildlife “hotspots” are some of the planet’s poorest. Their own cultures, livelihoods, and languages—like the ecosystems in which they live—are often under imminent threat. Many of these people resort to poaching, wild-game hunting, over-fishing, overgrazing, or illegal logging to supplement their incomes.

The transformation of loosely held communal land into carefully governed community conservancies is playing out in Northern Kenya, a vast arid area poorly served by roads, schools, or health centers and populated by nomadic tribes that largely depend on livestock for their survival. Poverty rates top 80 percent in Isiolo and Marsabit counties, compared to the national average of about 50 percent. Life gets even tougher during times of drought for these already marginalized and extremely impoverished communities. In the most recent drought in Kenya, 80 percent of cattle in this area died. Malnutrition is widespread and only a minority of children (and nearly none of the girls) finishes school.

Against this grim backdrop and under immense economic and environmental pressure, cattle rustling and poaching is widely seen as an acceptable means of survival. As a result, much of the wildlife in these areas has been reduced to near extinction. Poaching in Kenya had become so rampant that the rhino population—a popular target on account of its horn—had fallen from over 20,000 in 1960 to under 500 in the early 1980s. Back then, wealthy families with a desire to save such animals from extinction created private conservancies with a fence-and-shoot policy. Barriers were built to separate communities from wildlife in a bid to protect animals that were at risk of extinction. Local communities were not viewed as a potential part of the solution. Indeed, with guns pointed at them they were more likely thought to be the perpetrators of this problem. A deep distrust between communities and conservationists began to take root.

This “tunnel vision” approach in conservation and development was all too common. A single species would be protected while the surrounding ecosystem collapsed; a single geography would be cordoned off only to be over-grazed and become inaccessible to migratory animals; or a single need in the community would be addressed while the underlying, systemic problems went unresolved. There was growing recognition that a holistic approach was needed, but political instability was so pervasive that tackling the root cause of these challenges was incredibly daunting. In the 1980s Northern Kenya was a battle zone. Over the decades, hundreds of Borana, Rendille, Somali, Turkana and Samburu were killed in this lawless region. “Even the elephants knew this was a no-go zone,” says Titus Letaapo, regional coordinator with the Northern Rangelands Trust, “if they came through at night, they would do so on the run.” Poaching, cattle rustling, banditry, and inter-group conflict was at an all-time high.

The Strategy

Ian developed a model that could be replicated on community-owned lands in the vicinity. In the mid 1990s, he began to reach out to community leaders in the area. They were at first suspicious. Local communities felt no responsibility for wildlife, believing that they were only important for tourists and foreigners. These communities were deeply distrustful of most conservationists. It took years of collaboration, sharing, continuity, and reliability to gain his neighbors’ trust. Finally, Ian succeeded in helping the Laikipia Maasai community launch the Il Ngwesi Community Trust in 1995, a 9,470 hectare area with a community-owned safari lodge. As he suspected, he was able to replicate the successes he’d had at Lewa. Il Ngwesi created 36 permanent jobs, wildlife rebounded, and land management techniques improved. He used Lewa’s economic success to convince these community leaders to reach out to others. By 2000, the Namunyak and Lekurruki Conservancies had joined the family and the first three community conservancies were generating income of over $200,000 a year, 60 percent of which was going directly into community projects like education and health. The other 40 percent covered operations of the conservancy, salaries, and programmatic work toward the specific objectives in each conservancy’s developmental plan. There were, of course, many challenges that included, democratically electing the elders, liaising with local political leaders, building world-class operations teams and seeking and retaining donor support. However, Ian and the community leaders with whom he was working had proven that even the most complicated of these challenges was surmountable. After a decade of addressing complex social and environmental challenges and uniting communities to form new conservancies, it was time to spread the impact of this model and launch the Northern Rangelands Trust.

The vision of the NRT is to create resilient community conservancies that transform lives, secure peace, and conserve natural resources. NRT does this by providing funds, management support, a wide range of trainings, and donor relations support to community groups that have adopted the conservancy model, while not compromising the independence of the community conservancies. NRT was set up in 2004 to assist communities that wanted to replicate this model. To date, NRT has helped develop and provides continuing support and oversight to 19 community conservancies in Northern Kenya.Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being generated annually to support the education, health, and social welfare of more than 200,000 residents. Wildlife is flowing back and their populations are steadily growing. In 1973, there was a population of 160,000 elephants in Kenya but by 1993, this population has decreased to fewer than 20,000. However, this population has grown back to 32,000 (2012). Peace is on the rise and the communities that previously fought each other are now working together as custodians and protectors of the wildlife around them.

NRT raises funds for the conservancies, provides their leaders with management advice, and ongoing capacity building, and helps broker agreements between the conservancies and investors, such as those who wish to set up tourist lodges. Since they regularly monitor the performance of the family of conservancies, NRT can help conservancies attract donors by committing to continued oversight and quality assurance of all its member conservancies. The NRT’s 30-member Council of Elders leads this oversight. All members are democratically elected. The majority are chairs of member conservancies. The other members are local officials, wildlife organizations, local business people, and the Kenya Wildlife Service. The Council of Elders elects the NRT Board of Directors that oversee the day-to-day operations of NRT and to whom the CEO is accountable. The governance structure of each member conservancy is similar. A democratically elected 12-member board is joined by ex officio members from NRT, Kenya Wildlife Service, and, in some cases, by elected officials of the area. This board hires a Conservancy Manager, who is in charge of leading the administration team, operating teams, and the rangers. An independent audit of each conservancy is carried out annually.

NRT is often referred to as a “parent” in this family of conservancies, in part because it helps provide for education, conflict mediation, and even discipline in reaction to poor performance. To date, NRT has sent more than 300 of the community conservancy rangers to the Kenya Wildlife Service Field Training School. Many of these rangers have since gone on to become certified Kenya Police Reservists, able to disarm poachers and make arrests. In addition to the reservists, NRT supports a multi-ethnic, pan-conservancy anti-poaching force with elite training that can be called upon for back-up. The most powerful weapon against poaching, however, is the communities’ sense of ownership over the conservancies. It is now common for local people to name and shame local poachers and work to reconcile internal clashes and potential conflicts themselves. When a crisis gets too big for the conservancy or community leaders to handle, the NRT Conflict Resolution Team may be called in to mediate.

But NRT is not just set up to respond to conflicts that flare up. The Council of Elders understands that they are able to address other root causes of poverty and conflict. NRT brokers partnerships between community conservancies and private, luxury lodge operators. They help channel international donor funds to each conservancy’s unique development plan. In this predominantly pastoralist community, NRT leads planned grazing and herd health initiatives. NRT teams have adopted a number of interventions, including bunching cattle in large, dense herds for a limited period of time. NRT has been monitoring the impact of its grazing management program for the last 5 years; the communities have embraced this approach, grasslands have slowly rebounded, and the highly endangered Grevy zebra’s range and numbers are increasing. 60 percent of the world’s Grevy zebra population now lives on NRT lands. NRT also runs a Linking Livestock Markets to Wildlife Conservation program. Pastoralists who manage their herds properly are invited to sell their cattle to the NRT livestock program, which is a very appealing offer. NRT’s prices are about 50 percent higher and herdsmen don’t have to make the 10-day, risky, and expensive trek to the markets of Isiolo. NRT covers the costs of the program (once cattle are bought at the various conservancies, they have to trek them for as long as 2-weeks to the area where they are pastured, fattened, and butchered) with profits returned to a capital fund for future purchases. Right now they are buying 1,200 head per year with plans to expand.

In line with NRT’s vision of linking conservation to the prosperity of pastoralist communities, the three criteria against which performance is monitored are good governance, improving habitat and encouraging wildlife, and improving livelihoods and local incomes. The majority of the community conservancies’ profits are reinvested in local education. In 2011, one of the wealthier conservancies—West Gate—allocated over $20,000 to support 40 area youth attend university. Across the network thousands of young people receive bursaries, school infrastructure projects are funded, and teachers’ salaries are paid. The conservancies share best practices in addressing the needs of the communities and meeting the high standards expected of all NRT members. If these criteria are not met, the NRT Council of Elders intervenes and—if necessary—disciplinary action is taken.

Through this model, Ian has transformed the field of community conservation. What was once his family’s cattle ranch is now the southern tip of a contiguous corridor of 19 more community conservancies that together span an area more than 10 times the size of Kenya’s world famous Masai Mara National Reserve. Some 212,000 people call these conservancies home. More than 550 people are permanently employed and the community continues to grow. As of 2013, twenty-three other area communities in Northern Kenya applied to become NRT conservancies. Since 70 percent of Kenya’s wildlife lives outside the boundaries of the national parks, the work of NRT dramatically increases the protected areas through which they can move.

The Government of Kenya has taken notice and is facilitating the spread of the NRT model; the Coast Rangelands Trust has been established and similar trusts will soon be established in Kenya’s Northern Rift and Marsabit communities. NRT fundraises aggressively with activities including the annual Lewa Marathon to raise funds to support the growing demand for community conservancies across Kenya. Regularly rated as one of the world’s top marathons, it attracts runners from around the world and typically raises $500,000. Most importantly, all these efforts raise awareness: NRT is showing how local communities can be part of the conservation solution and people are taking notice. The Nature Conservancy is collaborating with Ian to adapt this model to communal lands on the Mongolian steppe and adjoining endangered Indonesian coral reefs. With the discovery of oil in Northern Kenya in 2012, Ian sees a strong solution in the NRT model of giving communities visibility and a voice. Large communally-held lands traversed by diverse pastoralist groups are already challenging places to live; population pressure, climate change, and the discovery of oil further complicate this. Fortunately, the NRT model allows local communities to tackle these recent challenges—as well as those age-old ones—with confidence, cohesion, and a strong voice.

The Person

Ian was born in the town of Nanyuki near Mt. Kenya at the time when colonial rule was coming to an end and the Mt. Kenya region was the epicenter of the Mau Mau resistance movement. At the age of ten, his parents—his mother, a Scot born in Kenya, and his father based there with the British army before marrying and deciding to stay—sent him away to live with grandparents in Ireland and finish his schooling there. Upon completion of secondary school, he returned home and pursued his love of nature. At the time, the only way for him to professionally spend time pursuing this passion was to apprentice with hunting safaris. He got all his required licenses and was a professional hunting guide for seven years. While he enjoyed being in the wilderness for long periods of time and connecting with wildlife on a deeper level, the business of tracking and killing trophy animals was distasteful to Ian. He knew it was the right decision when Kenya finally banned sport hunting. Poaching had become rampant, ivory was flying out of Kenya under political protection, and the elitist and racially charged sport hunting industry contributed to the stigma and suspicion directed at wildlife tourists. Unfortunately, vast numbers of animals had by then been annihilated.

Ian moved back to the family farm and was soon in charge of its operations. However, breeding and trading cattle was hard work, environmentally unfriendly an unprofitable. Ian started spending more of his time and energy preventing the killing of lions (in conflict with cattle) and stopping poaching on the ranch grounds. He eventually sold the cattle and launched the rhino conservancy efforts. Over these early years he succeeded in creating a positive attitude across the whole organization, eventually convincing his family to turn ownership of the entire family land over to a private trust so as to allow the (now) conservancy to attract investments, grow, and focus fully on its conservation mission. In the years since he has become a reliable and trusted community leader, renowned across the region for his leadership of Lewa and NRT.