Swapping a successful conservancy for the classroom – and why it matters for African conservation

The founder of Kenya’s Ol Pejeta conservancy talks about Tinder for endangered species and the word ‘conservation’.
Written by Melanie van Zyl
15 February 2022

Richard Vigne is an accomplished environmentalist with over 20 years of African leadership experience. He helped create East Africa’s largest refuge for black rhinos and a home for the world’s last northern white rhinos. As the new executive director of the School of Wildlife Conservation, we wanted to pick his brain about the future of Africa’s wilderness and its greatest advocates. He believes that conservation is an economic opportunity for the continent and that Africa has been at the forefront for many years. Much of the innovation around the new models of conservation that profitably support biodiversity originated here in Africa. He reckons we have lessons to teach the rest of the world and would like the School of Widllife Conservation to lead the charge.

Kigali Map

Q&A with Richard Vigne, the new executive director of the School of Wildlife Conservation

Since its creation in 2016, 302 students and alumni from 32 countries across the continent have been part of the School of Wildlife Conservation (SOWC) programmes. The school in Kigali offers professional programmes at all levels of the career journey.

Can you please dumb down what the SOWC is for the truly clueless among us?

Let me start with the word “conservation”; actually, I have a difficulty with this word. It has been traditionally applied to mean “preservation” – the preservation of wildlife and wild places for no reason other than it seemed a good idea at the time.

However, the notion of conservation has changed dramatically in recent years, especially as the setting aside of large tracts of land called “national parks” has become increasingly untenable in the face of growing human populations. Instead, conservation is no longer seen as “preservation for preservation’s sake”, but increasingly as the development of ways of living that permit biodiversity and ecological processes to be maintained at the same time as attending to the social and economic needs of humans.

This change in thinking around conservation demands new paradigms in the way that we go about coexisting with a thriving natural world, and some of these are beginning to emerge. For example, carbon markets may become a tool to develop new revenue streams into wilderness areas that reduce reliance on tourism. There are new and emerging technologies that could be applied to widen global audiences around wildlife in Africa and earn money at the same time. There also now financial instruments that formally take account of the value of natural capital and are gaining increasing recognition and credibility.

The African Leadership University, of which the SOWC is a part, will aim to create a model for access to tertiary education that allows us to work with the best and the brightest passionate Africans that we can find, and the SOWC will, in turn, aim to provide cutting edge educational support that embraces cutting edge thinking and promulgates the notion that “conservation” is in fact an economic opportunity for the continent.

African Leadership University Campus
The School of Wildlife Conservation was founded in 2016 on the belief that to truly improve wildlife conservation in Africa | Source: ALU

Ultimately we will aim to create a new generation of entrepreneurial leaders in this space, as a means to promote conservation as a key economic pillar for the future development of Africa.

 

What led to your career in conservation? Any memorable jumpstart?

I have always been fascinated by the natural world and never really expected to do anything other than work in the field of conservation. I am not sure there was any memorable jumpstart but I was lucky enough to be born and brought up in Kenya and in close proximity to the Mau forest – so I was able to spend all my “young time” in the forest and in Kenya’s national parks.

 

Would you describe yourself as a scientist, educator or manager? Perhaps there’s another, juicier title?

I see myself as an entrepreneurial leader – albeit tempered with the need to manage effectively!

 

You founded the Ol Pejeta Conservancy 25 years ago. What is your proudest achievement there? And why does it qualify you to take on this job?

When I took over Ol Pejeta at the age of 28 it was a defunct old ranch that the owners wished to sell.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy
Overlooked by the dramatic snow-capped peaks of Mount Kenya, Ol Pejeta Conservancy is in central Kenya’s Laikipia County. It’s home to the two remaining northern white rhinos on the planet and many other endangered animals, all protected around the clock by dedicated rangers. You can see them when staying at Asilia’s Ol Pejeta Bush Camp | Source: Asilia

I persuaded them that their preferred route to selling through sub-division would result in an ecological catastrophe, I helped put together the consortium that eventually purchased the ranch and we then developed the Conservancy from there. It now holds the largest population of black rhinos in East and Central Africa and of course that makes me proud.

However, my proudest achievement at Ol Pejeta was the creation of the integrated system of land management that persists there to this day. In that system we found a way to integrate productive land use (particularly the keeping of cattle) with wildlife, inclusive of big populations of predators. This system has since been copied all over East Africa, and the principle of finding ways to sustainably use land at the same time as maintaining biodiversity is now well recognized globally. That we achieved all of this in the face of many detractors is the bit that I am most proud of. Sometimes to create change and build new ways of doing things you need to do “hard things” as Fred Swaniker, the founder of the African Leadership University, loves to say!

 

Was the conservancy self-sustaining even through the pandemic? If so, what lessons can be taken from Ol Pejeta and applied elsewhere?

We always set out to be self-sustaining, hence the development of the integrated approach to management that I described above. The pandemic pushed us into more reliance upon donors, but generally – even whilst protecting one of the largest populations of black rhinos on the planet – we remain able to commercially generate the revenues needed to manage the conservancy. The lesson for me revolves around adopting an approach focused on diverse revenue streams that can be developed at the same time as maintaining space and opportunity for the maintenance of biodiversity.

 

You are the man who put the last northern white rhino on Tinder. Can you tell us a bit more about that brilliant idea – what were you hoping to achieve and what did you achieve? And was it enough?

Actually, it was someone else’s idea – I merely endorsed it and supported it! Sometimes you have to recognize the opportunities. We hoped to raise a lot of money from it but the interest in the first 24 hours was so great that our donation platforms collapsed, so we were not as successful from a fundraising perspective as we had hoped.

Sudan Rhino
Sudan. The world’s most eligible bachelor | Source: Ol Pejeta Conservancy

That said, our secondary motive was to create as much publicity as possible around the fate of the northern white rhinos and – more importantly – the rates of extinction that now exist across the planet as a result of unsustainable human activity. This and other campaigns really helped us to do that to the point that we estimate the “publicity value” that the northern white rhinos have brought to the issue of extinction now exceeds USD 600m globally since the program to try and save that species was started. In other words, the conservation sector would have had to pay +/-USD 600m to achieve the same levels of publicity around this issue in the absence of Sudan and his Tinder page!

 

We understand that the school is hoping to promote the growth of African-led conservationists. What is an ‘entrepreneurial conservation leader’?

It’s very different from the current approach to conservation and demands new ways of thinking – something that is closely aligned to the way entrepreneurs seek to exploit disruptive opportunities. We want the future leadership of Africa to see “conservation” as an economic opportunity that is investable and from which profits can be made because we feel that will then mean there is more “conservation” happening at the scale that is going to be required.

 

What are you hoping to achieve at the School of Wildlife Conservation in your first 12 months?

My first few days feels like the first 12 months already! My initial (4-6 month) aim is to establish clear strategic direction for the school, how it works within the bigger umbrella that is the African Leadership University, how best it can achieve its objectives (essentially, innovative business-like conservation at scale) and what it needs to do to start delivering. With that in place, we will be in a good position to move forwards.

 

Give us an unpopular opinion: is conservation more important than culture?

Conservation is fundamentally not about preserving wildlife for preservation’s sake. It is a myriad of different things and it has to attend to the needs of people – so, whilst there is increasing evidence to suggest that we humans depend upon biodiversity and the proper ecological functioning of the natural world to thrive, so too culture and the other needs of humans are important.

However the proper management of natural resources – aka conservation – is a global imperative, whereas it might be argued that “culture” is less important when we consider the survival of the human race.

 

Can you give an example to back up your argument?

Of course, it’s very simple. Most of the world’s fisheries are currently over-exploited through over-fishing. At current rates, quite soon there will literally be no fish left in the sea unless we can find a way of managing this natural resource more efficiently. If we lose all the fish in the sea that will dramatically and negatively impact the livelihoods of billions of people who will be unable to feed themselves – at which stage their “culture” will become almost entirely irrelevant!

 

It is said there are not enough young Africans attracted to a career in conservation. Is this true in your experience and if so, why?

Yes, although I think that is gradually changing. However, the barriers to entry are still high, not least around the way that conservation is still viewed across the continent. Whilst many young Africans are passionate conservationists, a good number end up pursuing alternative careers in other sectors which offer more opportunities to make money.

This implies that to attract the best and the brightest, the conservation sector needs to be transformed to offer more opportunities for good careers that pay well, in the hope that young people will increasingly choose to become conservationists instead of bankers. Thus the pool of entrepreneurial talent available to the conservation sector will grow which will be good for the sector and, hopefully, good for African economies.

 

The school is known for innovation and cutting edge thinking. In light of the two-year global pandemic, what are you hoping the conservation world will sit up and take note of this year?

SOWC Graduates Kigali-1
SOWC graduates | Source: ALU

The way we approach conservation needs to be changed globally. Increasingly conservation is becoming seen as a mainstream necessity if humans are going to continue to survive and thrive on planet earth. Think for example about the recent COP26 in Glasgow – world leaders are now being forced to take the natural world seriously to avoid the catastrophic consequences of global warming and biodiversity loss. Increasingly this means that governments and big corporations are having to become serious about how we manage, support and finance conservation, and new innovative ways of doing this are emerging. This is the opportunity that SOWC needs to position itself for – understanding the opportunities that are emerging, and starting to produce the world-class talent that Africa and the rest of the world needs, to avert the current threats we face as a result of our mismanagement of the environment over many years.

 

The school has been around since 2016. Which graduates are making waves so far?

There are a few. Debra Magwada co-founded a land management company right after her MBA; Edwin Tambara is the Director of Global Leadership at AWF; Ariella Kageruka is head of tourism and conservation at Rwanda Development Board. One of the areas we will be looking at in due course is how to provide our alumni with the means to develop new conservation supportive ventures once they have graduated – access to capital is always an issue and I believe the school will have a long term role to play in assisting to provide the capital and networks that will be required for success

 

Now for some fluff stuff! Any African dream destinations on your radar? Or emerging safari stars we should keep an eye on?

Sure! I love scuba diving so there are some great places along many of the coastlines of Africa that I think would be wonderful to visit. In particular (when it is safe to do so) I would love to spend more time on the Somali coastline which I think is quite untouched in many areas.

 

How to visit Ol Pejeta Conservancy

Asilia Ol Pejeta
Sip your morning coffee while watching weaver birds flutter around the fever trees outside and spend evenings with a glass of wine by the fireplace | Source: Asilia

Ol Pejeta is in Central Kenya’s Laikipia County, overlooked by the rugged foothills of Mount Kenya. The Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a responsible tourism destination because it provides tangible social benefits and economic opportunities to those who live around it. As with all Asilia camps, staying at Ol Pejeta Bush Camp allows guests to contribute to conservation.

Richard Vigne
Ol Pejeta Conservancy experiences a mild climate and has consistently good game viewing, making any time of year an exciting one for your safari | Source”. Asilia

You can also get involved by helping with canine training or recording lion sightings for the research team. Seven spacious, eco-friendly tents are positioned along the Ewaso Ngiro River.

 

A trip to Laikipia pairs well with an adventure to Mount Kenya or time on the dreamy Kenyan coastline. Contact us for help to plan your Kenyan conservation journey. 

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