We had the privilege to talk to Margaret Otieno, CEO of our partner organization in Kenya, Wildlife Clubs of Kenya. Margaret has been great in managing and securing the land we’ve managed to save forever in 2021 in Maasai Mara. She highlights the importance of securing lands for conservation.
Securing lands for conservation is the best investment to secure your future
Good morning, Margaret, how would you introduce yourself?
My name is Margaret Otieno and I believe I’m one of the most passionate educators, and also a practitioner for sustainable education and development. This is an area where I have been all my life because I studied it as a member of the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya and, after finishing my education, I found myself in this field of conservation education.
I have collaborated and worked with many different organizations. I’d like to emphasize that in all the organizations where I have worked, they have always called me back to become a board member after my leaving.
Where do you think this comes from?
I think it comes from the recognition of my values as well as the appreciation of my work, the integrity and the amount of passion I demonstrate in my work. I sit on various boards, like Elsa Conservation Trust, which is a UK-based organization. Joy Adamson, the author of Born Free, and her husband George dedicated their lives to conservation and education. They were arguably the people who put conservation in the spotlight and opened the eyes of the world to the issues. They had a house in Lake Naivasha, where they established the Elsa Conservation Trust. I also sit [on the board of] the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, where I have been very involved in giraffe conservation.
At the moment, I’m the CEO and the national coordinator of This is My Earth’s partner organization Wildlife Clubs of Kenya.
What does your work involve?
My task is to develop conservation ideas and to develop strategies for that. I’m currently managing 52 people as staff and we have offices in seven different places of Kenya. I’m very keen to make sure that land is set aside for conservation.
What is the main challenge?
The population in Kenya has been increasing, and there is still a lot of available land. People believe that tourism will bring us a lot of income. They want to build hotels everywhere. I think this is a mistake, because we have to protect our wildlife first.
What land did TiME purchase?
We collaborated in 2016 to buy land in Maasai Mara. We purchased a particular place that is very amazing because it is truly a biodiversity hotspot.
Is nature conservation becoming mainstream in Kenya?
When I was a little girl, the interest in nature in Kenya was part of our life. Basically because we were all living among nature. But as we were developing more and more and started to leave the country and to enjoy looking at wildlife and having the passion to conserve it, we were having this approach of taking advantage of it, mainly for tourism. We were thinking of European and American tourists coming to our country. We assumed they were the only ones interested in it. For us, nature was always there, available, and there wasn’t really an awareness to preserve it.
Is that how Wildlife Clubs of Kenya was created?
Yes. Our organization started working in 1968. A group of biology students from a Kenyan school visited our park, led by an American teacher. When they saw the park, they realized that all of the visitors were white. They wondered why there were no Black visitors. They then decided we had to do something for Black people to start appreciating the wildlife in Kenya. The teacher went to the Minister of Tourism and wildlife and explained this story. Both of them agreed that the time had come. It was time for Africans to appreciate their wildlife.
They involved international organizations and started looking for a volunteer to lead this process. The volunteer they found was an American, who has also been my mentor. She’s now over 80 and still very passionate! She created Wildlife Clubs of Kenya. She went to all the schools she could in search of members among the students.
Has this initiative had a lot of impact?
I can assure you that yes. Over 50 years, many young people in Kenya have realized they had to do something. Kenyans, in comparison with most of the countries surrounding us, are aware of nature conservation and its importance. And this is thanks to the existence of our organization within the schools. Thanks to this, nature education is now a part of our school curriculum. People have realized that the more we neglect our wildlife and the biodiversity, the more problems we are having for own life quality. Nairobi holds now a presence of many international organizations and bodies that fight climate change. This has also helped to put Kenya onto the map.
We have also experienced severe events due to climate change. That shocked the elderly. They understood that what we are doing with our biodiversity and our nature has a direct impact on our lives.
What sort of events?
In Kenya now, it’s raining when it’s not supposed to rain, or we are facing heat periods longer than expected. Suddenly the farms have not been producing the amount of food they are supposed to. Because of all these changes, people have grown more and more aware, and people have developed an interest. It is very important that we start planting the seed in younger minds through education. That is why projects, such as This is My Earth, are so promising. This kind of education is not only important for future biologists, but also for architects and engineers and physicians and journalists… every profession has to keep nature conservation in the back of their minds.
Is there a particular person you can identify as the pioneer of all these changes in Kenya?
There is one person in particular, and that was Wangari Maathai, who received the Nobel Prize in 2004. Nobody expected than an activist and ecologist from Kenya would win the Nobel Prize. But she was a game changer.
Is there a moment you can recall from your childhood where you clearly saw there was something that needed to change to preserve nature?
I remember this day like it was yesterday. When I was a little girl, the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya came to our school and they were recruiting new members. We were told that if you become a member then you will get an opportunity to visit the park and other areas. In order to do that, you needed to pay some amount of money, which in US dollars, it was about a tenth of a dollar. My parents were having a difficult time and they couldn’t raise that money. I was very sad and moody. I bursted out crying. My mother was so affected that the next day she managed to raise the money and I became a member. I was born and raised in Nairobi but I never got the chance to see any wildlife before. I saw zebras and elephants and that was a turning point.
Do you remember what they told you when you were visiting the park?
The park officer told us, “If Nairobi continues to develop like that, all these animals are not going to be here anymore.” That was also the first time some told me about the mammoth and the dodo, and their extinction. Securing lands for conservation is one of the best investments you can do to secure your future.
What can we do as conservationists?
The population has grown so much in Kenya that we are creating a dangerous unbalance. At the moment, I see that the Kenyan public opinion is in our favor.
What are the main challenges regarding wildlife management?
The main problem we are seeing is that [animal] populations are going down, mostly elephants, and wild animals, such as lions, are becoming more domesticated as they rely on humans for food or basic things. There are also problems with the levels of poison some of these animals are consuming because of pollution and preventive systems humans put into place. For example, a lion that eats poison and dies will be then eaten by a hyena that will be poisoned and die.
Then vultures or insects will eat their bones, and they will also die because of this poison. Nature conservation organizations are getting more and more specialized and they are trying to prevent specific species from decreasing, like the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, which only works with giraffes. That has been proven effective. We also have organizations like the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which take care of orphan elephants and rhinos and take them back into the wild once they are old enough… to sum up, lots of activities are taking place! People are learning that securing lands for conservation is one of the best investments to secure the future.
Do you see the same conservation approaches in all countries of Africa?
I see that the conservation angle differs a lot from one country to another. And this is a risk, because we are all connected. Securing lands for conservation is the best investment to secure your future. For example, in South Africa, probably because of the tourism industry, they are facing elephant overpopulation problems. In the case of Kenya, we make very sure that when we put conservation strategies into practice, we have enough land capacity. We also study very well how this would affect the rest of the ecosystem.
In order to get there, you need a lot of political dialogue and shared strategies with other organizations…
Yes. We have a fluid relationship and we are always looking for an agreement, but take into account that all of our decisions have to be based on science, such as you do at This is My Earth. We are also agreeing more and more on the role of Indigenous communities on preserving nature.
It was shocking that at the COP15 UN Biodiversity Summit that took place in Montreal, there were only about 400 Indigenous participants out of 15,000 people. Why aren’t they more recognized?
It is true that the Indigenous people have not received the attention they deserve. But I also believe that, in the last five years, things have changed. Organizations like ours know that it is not possible to discuss wildlife without interfering with Indigenous lives. In Kenya, the Indigenous people who live close to nature have been developing knowledge that helped them to coexist with wildlife. And it is in fact the interference of economic and population growth that has been changing this coexistence. Indigenous people have a very old culture that allows them to live in a sustainable way with wildlife and the environment. We should be able to recognize that and learn from it. Most of the wildlife we have in Kenya is still being preserved thanks to them.
How did you get to know This is My Earth?
A few years ago, I attended a conference on desertification in Israel. There I got to meet some scientists. Some days after that I’ve received a call from one of them in which they were suggesting to me to talk to This is My Earth, because TiME was looking for interesting conservation projects in Kenya, and explain to them our model. For me, that was shocking and logical in equal parts: that a system such as TiME can exist, because I have seen available land for conservation decreasing and being purchased for construction. And knowing that TiME existed was great. So I got interested. I love the way we are securing lands for conservation, together through TiME, that is one of the best investments to for our future.
And you presented your application…
Yes, we presented an application with lots of details explaining the land. Then Uri Shanas, TiME’s CEO, came to Kenya and we looked at several options. By that time, there was a construction project between Nairobi and Naivasha, which included a railway and other buildings. So I told TiME how important it was to save these lands and they confirmed that this land should be secured. Because of how greedy people are becoming with economic growth in Kenya, we lost the land, because the owner sold it to another corporation, which gathered the money faster. That was quite frustrating. However, after a while, we managed to buy land in the Maasai Mara hotspot and we secured an amazing piece of land thriving with biodiversity.
It sounds frustrating…
We are fighting against time. We have to be fast and raise awareness. Buying land with TiME is one of the best shots I know if we want to effectively slow down extinction and empower people.
How was TiME’s idea received in Kenya?
In the beginning, people couldn’t believe that an organization like that was possible: we were waiting for it! They were afraid that the land would be under the name of This is My Earth and not the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya. But now everybody is very happy, as the land is ours, it is safe, and we are willing to collaborate more.
What message would you like to send to the world?
I want to say that it doesn’t really matter where you are or what job you’re doing right now. Nature is a part of you and biodiversity plays an essential role in your well-being. Your life depends on the ecosystem that is sustaining you. Securing lands for conservation is one of the best investments you can do to secure your future and that of your family.