Lewa, from a Rhino Sanctuary to a Renowned Conservancy: Conservation for People and Wildlife

Ian Lemaiyan/Lewa Wildlife Conservancy
Published: 22 April 2019
Last edited: 05 October 2020
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Endangered species, particularly rhinos, continue to face pressure from poaching and loss of habitat across the continent. The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy's solution to these challenges is to adopt a community-centric conservation model that recognises that conservation efforts can only be successful and long-term if the local people are involved, participate and derive value that supports their day to day livelihoods. Over the years, Lewa has used conservation as a platform to protect and grow populations of endangered and threatened wildlife species, carry out research and monitoring programmes, promote a safer landscape by providing security for both people and wildlife, initiate and support livelihood programmes, run low-impact tourism, and catalyse conservation across northern Kenya. As a result of its successes, Lewa has become one of the learning grounds of integrated private-community conservation practices, and how conservation can benefit both people and wildlife. 


East and South Africa
Scale of implementation
Freshwater ecosystems
Grassland ecosystems
Rangeland / Pasture
River, stream
Tropical grassland, savanna, shrubland
Wetland (swamp, marsh, peatland)
Local actors
Poaching and environmental crime
Protected and conserved areas management planning
Science and research
Species management
Standards/ certification
Sustainable livelihoods
Conflicting uses / cumulative impacts
Ecosystem loss
Infrastructure development
Lack of public and decision maker’s awareness
Unemployment / poverty
Sustainable development goals
SDG 3 – Good health and well-being
SDG 4 – Quality education
SDG 6 – Clean water and sanitation
SDG 16 – Peace, justice and strong institutions
SDG 17 – Partnerships for the goals
Aichi targets
Target 5: Habitat loss halved or reduced
Target 11: Protected and conserved areas
Target 12: Reducing risk of extinction
Target 17: Biodiversity strategies and action plans
Target 19: Sharing information and knowledge


Meru, Eastern Province, Kenya | Meru, Laikipia, and Isiolo counties, Kenya
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Our solution addresses challenges that face people and wildlife across northern Kenya. These include:


  • Poaching of rhino and elephant – While poaching has reduced in Kenya in the last few years, the threat to these iconic species remains. 
  • Wildlife habitat fragmentation and loss, primarily due to rapid human development. 
  • Human-wildlife conflict remains a significant challenge, especially in the face of diminishing natural resources available for both people and wildlife. 
  • Lack of sufficient awareness on conservation opportunities, especially for communities who share their land with wildlife. 


  • Poverty - Lewa's neighbouring communities have minimal opportunities for economic empowerment. 
  • Low levels of formal education across our neighbouring communities and northern Kenya. 
  • Land degradation, which poses a threat to pastoral livelihoods.
  • Insufficient access to primary healthcare. 
  • Lack of adequate water supply in arid areas.


Our primary beneficiaries are Lewa's adjacent communities found in Meru, Laikipia and Isiolo counties. At a larger scale, Lewa's efforts support the Kenya Wildlife Service's conservation mission and vision on behalf of the Kenyan people. 

How do the building blocks interact?

  • Through consultation with the board of directors, government agencies such as the Kenya Wildlife Service and Kenya Forest Service, other conservation partners and communities, Lewa sets its conservation priorities and objectives, which are directly linked to the national goals for threatened species conservation and community livelihoood development.
  • The communities, through their development committees and in partnership with the Lewa Community Development team, set their development priorities, which are aligned to the local governments' livelihood plans and those of Lewa.
  • The Lewa team, with all stakeholders involved, defines and creates the organisation's 5-year strategic plan, aligned to the organisation's philosophy of community-centric conservation, and its role as a catalyst and model for conservation.
  • Through the various departments, Lewa implements its goals as laid out in the Strategic Plan.
  • Partners, whether they are conservation, government, communities, researchers, philanthropic etc are extremely critical and they each have a role to play in assisting in the implementation of Lewa's Strategic Plan.


Our management processes have enabled us to achieve the following impacts:

  • Growth in the rhino population from a founder population of 15 animals in 1984 to the current 93 black and 84 southern white rhinos.
  • We've had zero poaching of rhino on Lewa since 2013.
  • We have at been at the forefront of the establishment of new rhino conservation areas, including providing founder populations, to other regions, most recently Sera Community Conservancy and Borana Conservancy.
  • Working with partners, we have helped provide security for elephants in northern Kenya and promoted landscape connectivity, leading to the growth in elephant numbers at the rate of 2.4% p.a and the reduction of PIKE (Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants) from a high of 81% in 2012 to 34% in 2017.
  • Lewa supports 23 government schools, with close to 11,000 children, by providing infrastructure and curriculum support. In 2017 alone, the Conservancy invested $1.1m in education.
  • Lewa's four clinics provide health care services to at least 40,000 people annually.  
  • 1,800 women receive loans through Lewa's micro-enterprise programme to run enterprises and improve their livelihoods.
  • More than 4,000 children visit every year to participate in conservation education, which empowers them to be stewards of the environment.
  • We run and support 13 water projects, which provide clean and safe water for 20,000 people.


Ami Vitale/Lewa Wildlife Conservancy

Rhinos Return to Samburu, northern Kenya


In 2014, Samburu ‘morans’ (warriors) from Sera Community Conservancy visited Lewa. The young morans were on a special trip - for many of them, this was going to be the first time to see rhinos, animals that were last spotted in their homeland over three decades ago, having been eradicated by poaching. While difficult to believe, for many in Kenya, there are few chances to see rhinos, mostly because they exist in heavily protected areas run by the government and private entities. A few months after the moran's trip, their community took a bold step. In partnership with the Northern Rangelands Trust, Lewa, the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Samburu county government, with financial and technical support from other entitities, they embarked on setting up the first community-managed and run rhino sanctuary in Kenya and East Africa. 


Since the sanctuary was established in 2015, the rhinos are thriving and it has been a tremendous success. Led by an enigmatic chair lady, Pauline Longojine, for the people of Sera, having rhino back on their land has been more than symbolic. “This is the best way forward for our pastoralist community. To have wildlife and livestock side by side, we are so happy. We have been welcoming tourists to our sanctuary, which is providing vital income for our conservancy. It has also raised awareness of the black rhino.” 
Lewa, in its role as a catalyst for conservation, and in supporting the preservation of the critically endangered black rhino, provided technical expertise in the establishment of the sanctuary - we helped to set up the infrastructure, trained rangers, and supported in fundraising. Today, Sera is an example of how a public-private-community partnership can be practiced successfully in conservation. 


Sera also remains an example of a mindshift in modern conservation practices where a community has been enabled and empowered to protect a species under incredible threat, and in return, the community benefits from the opportunities conservation presents.  

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Chege Geoffrey