A Poetic Look Inside the World of Wildlife Conservation

Photographer David Chancellor captures how humans and wildlife rely on each other to survive.

Photograph by David Chancellor
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A rainstorm passes over the Ewaso Nyiro River in northern Kenya.
Photograph by David Chancellor

Across Africa, growing populations and lingering poverty have intensified the battle between people and animals, who live on the same land and depend on the same resources. Increasingly, animals are pushed into smaller pockets of wilderness, their migration routes closed off and their water supplies dammed and increasingly used for crop irrigation. Illegal hunting and poaching has decimated their numbers. At the same time, rural farmers have grown wary of wildlife in some areas. They kill the lions and elephants that have encroached on their land, leaving neither party comfortable or safe.

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Samburu moran, or warriors, participate in Imuget le nkarna in Sasaab village in the Westgate Community Conservancy. The celebration marks their 10-year anniversary of being warriors.

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An elephant-collaring team watches as an elephant recovers from a tranquilizing dart at one of the Northern Rangeland Trusts' most northerly conservancies. Fitted to a lone bull elephant, it will give scientists a detailed plan of his migration, and monitor his well-being as he travels through areas rife with poaching.

If wildlife conservation is to succeed, it is crucial to find a way for people and animals to coexist sustainably. There’s also a financial component. Any income generated from the wildlife must be shared with the communities whose crops have been destroyed by elephants or whose livestock has been killed by leopards and lions. Giving the pastoralist communities the incentive to preserve rather than poach is the key to finding an arrangement that works.

Some communities understand this, and work to protect their nearby wildlife, even at great cost. “With butterflies and warriors” is the story of those communities in northern Kenya who have come together to safeguard the future of a wide range of species, thus allowing wildlife to safely migrate along centuries-old routes, across tribal lands.

When I started this work in 2010, I realized that to fully understand the complexities of this region I would need to understand the people, and their relationship with the wildlife. There are many tribes who live in the northern rangelands of Kenya, but the one that fascinated me most was the Samburu.

The Masaai and others in the region refer to the Samburu as the 'butterfly people' because of their beautiful body adornments. I always thought their name was more a reference to the way they metamorphosize into new stages of life, as they progress from children to warriors (moran) and then finally to elders (mzee). For the Samburu, most wildlife is sacred. They cannot marry without elephant dung, and a lion is a powerful symbol in Samburu culture. They believe that if lions are present, there will be no bad droughts. A lion’s roar foreshadows rain.

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A Kenyan Wildlife Service officer puts down a mortally wounded elephant that was shot but managed to escape from poachers in Westgate Community Conservancy, northern Kenya. The elephants tusks were removed and taken into safe custody at the services Nairobi headquarters.

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A leopard caught and killed in a poacher's snare is removed by rangers in Kisimi, northern Kenya. To reduce conflict between leopards and villagers who might kill them to protect themselves and their livestock, rangers will otherwise trap the animals and relocate them to sparsely populated areas.

The Samburu believe that they came from the same place as wildlife; some families belong to the elephant family, and some families belong to the lion family, called “Lparasoro” (a lion’s roar sounds like L-PA-ra-soro). Members of the lion family cannot kill lions, those from the elephant family cannot kill elephants. So, when the Samburu begin to poach wildlife, we know that we have a problem.

How the Samburu treat and think about wildlife has significance for us all. This region is particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of climate change, drought, and flood, which can have devastating effects on both people and wildlife. Environmental change exacerbates human-wildlife conflicts, as pastoralists compete with wildlife for diminishing resources.

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A "hunter's moon" hangs over Mpus Kutuk Community Conservancy in northern Kenya. Poaching activity increases significantly during full moons, when the brightness makes it easier to hunt.

It also provides a case study for conservation practices worldwide. Communities here are now starting to see the benefits from the dual use of wildlife and livestock. They realize that wildlife, alongside livestock, can help generate the capital needed to improve communities' welfare and bring peace—giving them a clear financial stake in preserving wild creatures, rather than killing them. Slowly, the incentives across Kenya and east Africa are changing. The enemy of wildlife is, increasingly, an enemy of the people.

Without the support of those who live alongside wildlife, we have little hope of preserving this region. But with them, there’s room for conservation, and globally, something resembling transformation. The work is broad and specific, urgent and delicate. It’s the work of butterflies and warriors.

You can see more of David Chancellor's photographs, including his ongoing project 'With Butterflies and Warriors,' on his website and follow him on Instagram.