In Kenya, a Maasai community burned by ecotourism gives it another shot

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  • Shompole Lodge in southern Kenya opened at the start of the millennium as a radical model of what community-based ecotourism could be, promising jobs, livelihoods and full ownership for the area’s Maasai community.
  • But the partnership between the private investor and the community soured over accusations that the former was depriving the latter of their rightful dividends, with the dispute eventually turning deadly after another investor got involved.
  • Eight years later, learning from the lessons of that experience, the Shompole community has signed a 35-year lease with Great Plains Conservation to develop a safari camp in the conservation area where the famed Shompole Lodge once stood.

When luxury safari hotel Shompole Lodge opened in Kenya in 2000, it was an overnight sensation.

For $630 a night, guests could gaze at elephants and zebras while soaking in an infinity pool. Ten thousand hectares, nearly 25,000 acres, of communally-owned Maasai land had been set aside for an experiment in “community-based conservation,” and 30% of the venture’s shares were owned by the Shompole Maasai, who also made up the majority of the lodge’s employees. It was the first of its kind: a joint venture conserving land with no government mandate.

The Shompole community was promised all this and more: a market to sell jewelry to visitors, steady jobs as rangers, a trust fund for community development projects, and a path to 100% ownership of the lodge. Across Kenya, conservation efforts and ecotourism had often hinged on displacing local communities and protecting wildlife at their expense, but this luxury hotel promised to flip the industry on its head.

The Shompole Lodge was an instant success upon opening in 2000. Image byDavid Orgel via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
The Shompole Lodge was an instant success upon opening in 2000. Image byDavid Orgel via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In its first 10 years of operation, the number of local teachers went from one to 20, while the population of lions in the reserve rose from four to 68. The lodge’s elite circle of guests included Bill Gates, Donna Karan, and Bono. The project won the United Nations Development Programme’s Equator Prize, and its sleek aesthetic was profiled in Vogue and mimicked in ecolodges across the country. A 2007 National Geographic review wrote: “Sustaining a cultural heritage, protecting wildlife, and engaging a community in economic development: Everybody wins!”

But early one morning in 2014, the lodge’s smooth white walls went up in flames. Disputes had arisen over the terms of the agreement with the community, the lodge had closed and then reopened under a new investor, and the conflict escalated to the point where a Maasai employee was killed by poisoned arrow. His enraged family set the lodge on fire, and when the flames subsided, almost nothing remained but the infinity pool.

This story has remained largely untold. In an interview in 2018, the original architect and director, Anthony Russell, said he is “one with” the Maasai tribe and had “recently given them 100% ownership” of Shompole Lodge — even though at that point it had been ashes for years. Today, a Google search for “Shompole Lodge” yields little more than a TripAdvisor thread called “what has happened to Shompole.”

“The community never put out their side of the story,” says John Kamanga, a leader at a community-based conservancy nearby. “What happened was that the only information that was out there was the one that was written by the investor. And he was pointing fingers at the community. But the story was not as it was initially told.”

Eight years after this tragedy, however, on Nov. 9, 2022, leaders from the Shompole community signed a 35-year lease agreement with a new ecotourism investor. After a project that had forever changed their relationship with the wildlife they live alongside, even as it wrought bitter division, they are now a community highly-trained in the practice of ecotourism and eager to develop a project that comes closer to fulfilling all that community-based conservation once seemed to promise.

“Shompole Lodge was a learning case, both for the community and the investors,” adds Kamanga. “Unfortunately, with a lot of investors, communities have always been taken for a ride. But today, the communities are really aware, the communities have a higher level of understanding. When you deal with them, deal with them like any other business partner. That is the message.”

Shompole is home to thousands of species of wildlife, including lions, cheetah, elephants and zebra, but flamingo are among the most abundant; 75% of the world’s Lesser Flamingo population are born on the shores of nearby Lake Natron. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.Shompole is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including lions, cheetah, elephants and zebra, but flamingo are among the most abundant; 75% of the world’s Lesser Flamingo population are born on the shores of nearby Lake Natron. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.

An unlikely partnership is forged

Shompole’s elders appointed Moshila Matayian as chairman of Shompole Group Ranch in 1995. When we met in 2021, we sat in blue plastic chairs on a ridge overlooking the grasslands, dormant volcanoes rising up on either side. He pointed toward a lush swamp in the distance and said there were elephants down there, but that the roads that once led into the swamplands are overgrown and the elephants are impossible to find. Dusk was falling and the only sound was the jangling of hundreds of bells, marking the nightly return of herds of goats from wherever they had spent the day grazing. Matayian speaks in the traditional Maasai dialect, so we used a translator. I asked about the first time he sat down with Russell.

“He started telling us that our place can be good for investing because it has good trees, it has some good plateaus, plains; there is water,” Matayian said. “It’s very green, because we have this swamp; we have the lakes. So it is a very conducive place for the investors, and for the foreigners to come and stay.”

Russell’s father was a professional big-game hunter and brought him to Shompole as a 4-year-old. By the late 1990s, the younger Russell had begun to make a name for himself as an architect; the director of the government-run Kenya Wildlife Service, David “Jonah” Western, had noticed his success building another ecolodge, and introduced Russell to the Shompole community. After facilitating a similar project farther east, Western had been asked to lead an initiative to spread community-based conservation nationwide. He said he then brought in his colleagues from the African Conservation Centre (ACC), which he chaired, to draw up a contract.

Matayian said that while at first he was skeptical, “The ACC went and explained what is the intent of Anthony, and from there we saw that he had a good intent.” After years of meetings, the community decided to trust him.

Shompole’s plains, overlooking a swamp and forest in the distance. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.Shompole’s plains, overlooking a swamp and forest in the distance. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.

The utopian scale of the vision cannot be overstated. The region was devastated by drought during the years when the lodge was under construction — a phenomenon expected to become more common as the climate changes. Communities saw their herds of goats and cattle decimated, and with no other sources of food or income, they were attracted to the prospect of developing safari tourism as another way to capitalize on their land’s natural resources while sustaining their traditional way of life. For many, the alternative would have been to leave their ancestral home in hopes the city could offer more opportunities.

The arrangement that ACC helped broker was a jointly owned corporation called Maa O’Leng, which means “deeply of our people.” They raised $1.2 million in investment for the lodge’s construction, including a grant from the European Union’s biodiversity conservation program, while Russell raised additional funds from private Swiss investors. With these funds, a road was built through the wetlands, and community members were trained as rangers and guides. New wells and pipes were built to improve access to water. The community worked closely with Russell to choose the lodge’s location, build it from local materials, and, ultimately, open it.

“Most people liked Anthony very, very much,” says Victor Kidoku, who was one of Russell’s top security guards. “They really did. In fact, they were very much developed during that time. We had transport for the hospital and radios to make calls. The living standard of the people has really raised high during that period and people were very much grateful.”

Victor Kidoku was employed by Anthony Russell as a security guard when Shompole Lodge opened. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.Victor Kidoku was employed by Anthony Russell as a security guard when Shompole Lodge opened. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.

Parsing the profits

A few years after the lodge’s opening, however, tensions began to arise.

After years of the lodge’s booming success — during which Russell grew his own company’s portfolio to include another ecolodge and a private home whose dining room table was built from Shompole figwood, one of the local materials that the contract had granted Russell — he continued to claim Shompole Lodge was not making a profit.

“After the first year, second, third, fourth years, Russell kept saying that he had not broken even and he had nothing to give to the community,” says Taiko Lemayian, who founded the Kenya Community Based Tourism Network in a neighboring community. “The community was getting frustrated because they were seeing so many clients coming in — the lodge had high occupancy; you had to book well in advance. So it wasn’t adding up.”

The understanding was that although the community was benefiting from salaries and the trust fund contributions of $20 per tourist per night, it was receiving no dividend payouts from the shares it held, and had no path to receiving additional shares as time went on, as promised.

As a younger generation, some educated by teachers the lodge funded, began moving through secondary school, they asked increasingly assertive questions about the terms of the original contract. “From that knowledge, they were coming back and saying: It is not supposed to be this way, and we have gotten investors who want to come and invest with good pay. So why is this guy disrespecting the community?” Matayian says. “That led the temperatures to rise up.”

Several of the contract terms raised concerns, or were unclear due to language barriers or misrepresentations.

First, it was understood that once the 10,000 hectares were set aside for conservation, the community could bring in other investors to build additional ecotourism businesses around it. In writing, however, the contract protected this area for the “exclusive use of Maa O’Leng.”

Second, while it was understood that in times of extreme drought the community could graze herds in the conservation area, the contract stated that what qualified as “extreme drought” was to be determined by Maa O’Leng’s directors, and if herds were grazed in the area during dry periods not approved as “extreme,” the company had the right to withhold fee payments from the community.

Third, while it was widely understood that the community would at some point receive dividend payments from its 30% shares, the contract actually stated that such payments, if any, would only begin once Russell and his team declared that the venture had broken even. Crucially, the contract also stated that the lease would last 15 years but that the terms of the contract would remain in place indefinitely until they were able to buy 100% of the shares — whereas the community’s understanding was that they would be granted these shares over time based on the value they added through supplying local materials and caring for the conservancy, according to Kamanga. Instead, Russell continued to claim the break-even point had not been reached — effectively locking his lease and majority ownership forever.

Raising cattle and goats has been the primary livelihood for this Maasai community for thousands of years, and involves continually moving herds to search for water and fresh grass in times of drought. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.This Maasai community has raised cattle and goats here for thousands of years, continually moving herds in search for water and fresh grass in times of drought. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.

In 2008, in response to the pressure from recent graduates, Matayian stepped down. It was time to pass the leadership on to the new generation, he said, and the newly elected group began to push Russell harder for a share of the lodge’s profits.

“After the election, people started walking into the lodge, making a lot of demands that were sometimes not attainable, like saying they wanted more people to be hired,” says Daniel Kishanto, the lodge’s former community manager, who has a university degree in hospitality management that Russell funded. “Anthony was a good guy for building the lodge and bringing the guests, but he was a very poor financial manager. People were angry because Anthony kept telling the community that the lodge had never made any money. I don’t think that was true.”

A rift began to emerge between those like Kishanto, who worked closely with Russell, and those who felt he was swindling them.

“Among those of us on the board, half were supporting Russell, and half of us wanted to amend the terms of the agreement because it was a very weak agreement,” says Joseph Masiaya, who was a member of the Maa O’Leng board of directors. “All of us were supportive of the lodge because it had brought many benefits to the community, but many of us knew that we had been very, very naive when we entered the partnership, and now Russell was taking advantage of that.”

When this issue became the focus of the next election, Russell supported his lodge manager Kishanto’s candidacy. “They pushed the narrative that their opposition wanted to get rid of the lodge, which was not true,” Masiaya says. “It made the community very divided.” Kishanto lost to Isaac Kiresian, who took his win as a mandate to continue to push for the contract to be renegotiated.

Attempts to mediate

As tensions escalated, Lemayian and others raised questions about the ACC’s culpability. “Why was it that the ACC, who are the deal brokers, are quiet in this whole thing? Basically being the ones who created a lopsided partnership, they ought to have been the ones who talked to Anthony Russell to ask him why he was not paying anything to the community.”

Western says that although he had been chairman of the ACC and the one who initiated the partnership between Russell and the community, his duties as director of the Kenya Wildlife Service precluded him from either brokering the original contract or mediating when the partnership began to deteriorate. “I could only come in and nudge.”

In addition, the “ACC had never really negotiated this sort of contract before,” Western says. “It was one of the first of its kind, so there was a lot to learn on both sides.”

The ACC did bring in a series of mediators, including the African Wildlife Foundation, which conducted an external valuation of the community’s rightful stake in the lodge based on contributions of local materials they had made over the years. Ultimately, however, it stepped back after a bitter falling-out with Russell.

“He began to take over all aspects and gradually began to nudge out ACC. I actually had a meeting with him and he became very antagonistic, and basically said he had no intention of backing off,” Western says. “It reached a stage where Anthony completely rejected my efforts to mediate. He got pretty abusive toward me … There reached a point in which I walked away in complete disgust.”

Philip Leakey, a former member of Parliament who had worked with the Shompole community to secure their group ranch status decades earlier, was brought in to mediate. After a flicker of promise, his intervention also failed.

“When [Leakey’s negotiations] fell through, things began to go very wrong,” said Western. “Some of the underlying shenanigans on the financial side became pretty obvious; Anthony was still claiming he had never broken even, but was clearly hiding a lot of the income versus the cost. I don’t think there’s any way in which Shompole could not have reached a break-even point because among other things, it was funded by outside donors — which was not his money. But it all got deeply corrupted, and the community was very deeply divided.”

As things escalated, Kenya’s deputy president at the time, the late George Saitoti, got involved in support of Russell.

Then one night in September 2011, with the protection of local police, Russell hired large trucks to cart away everything inside the lodge. There were several years left to run in the 15-year contract, and the lodge was still in excellent condition. The next day, to the community’s surprise, only its shell was left.

Joel Karori (Left), the community’s current chairman, sits with Moses Limu (Right), an ecotourism entrepreneur who leads motorbike safaris. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.Joel Karori (left), the community’s current chairman, sits with Moses Limu, an ecotourism entrepreneur who leads motorbike safaris. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.

Sudden departure

When I got Russell on the phone, he said that although he had just come back from a safari, salvaged his phone after it had fallen into a river, and been awake for 14 hours, he would be happy to chat. Loud music played in the background.

“We had an 80% occupancy at that point — why would I close?” he replied when asked what had happened. “It would be so stupid to close.” He said he had planned to reopen it as soon as possible — indeed, the lodge’s initial press release announced a closure “which we hope will be temporary.”

“It was a very hard decision,” he added. “At first, I said, ‘OK, fuck it, lets renegotiate,’” explaining he was following the advice of the deputy president. “Then Saitoti said just close it down, let’s restructure this whole thing and reopen it.” He said he was also receiving threats from certain community members.

Russell said the community’s demands were financially unrealistic and fueled by greed as well as political maneuvering by the elected leadership.

“When you’re asking for ridiculous amounts of money, there’s no way you can do that,” he said. “It just doesn’t work financially.”

Kiresian, the chairman at the time, said: “We had gotten market rates of other ecotourism lodges. That’s what we were asking for. When he left, we were left waiting for him to continue again with the negotiation with the new rates. We were left in the middle of negotiations, without knowing whether he was coming back.”

When asked about his role in managing the lodge’s finances — including the elusive “break-even point” at the root of these disputes — Russell said he left it all to his accountant, Reena Vohra. “I didn’t have time for all of that shit — I’m building, I’m designing, there are other things I’m doing,” he said.

Indeed, among the things keeping Russell busy during that period was a collaboration with the late co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen. Allen, known chiefly as a billionaire technologist, was at that time just becoming a major philanthropist on the continent: the largest individual donor to the 2014 Ebola crisis, and a major contributor to elephant conservation efforts in Botswana and renewable energy projects in Kenya.

“I think when he saw the resistance from the community, Russell started developing his exit strategy,” Lemayian says. “He started constructing another lodge … And while the community was fighting among themselves, he finished constructing it, then used police and more than 50 trucks to empty the [Shompole] lodge.”

Russell saw it differently: “We had a guy called Paul Allen who saw the lodge, loved it, and was interested, so we built another lodge together with him. It’s called Olarro.”

Russell and Allen opened Olarro several dozen kilometers from Shompole. It was the third project Russell had finished while allegedly losing money on Shompole. When I asked whether he had brought the furniture from Shompole straight over to Olarro, Russell abruptly hung up.

A bitter ending

For two years, Shompole Lodge remained closed. For the community, this was a sharp setback. After years of steady salaries, the community’s rangers, teachers, and others in hospitality and beadworking all lost their jobs overnight.

But an enormous cultural shift had taken place, one that would not soon be forgotten. After thousands of years of working to protect their livestock from the wildlife that threatened them, the community had witnessed how this same wildlife could, with the right tourism and conservation partners, be capitalized upon as a natural resource unto itself.

A generation had been trained as rangers and in hospitality, and had spent a decade watching helicopters arrive every week as education and economic development occurred at an unprecedented pace. Alongside the cascading effects of “group ranches” as state-sanctioned forms of communal land tenure in Kenya’s postcolonial Constitution, as well as increasing access to state-backed education throughout the second half of the 20th century, the community was not interested in seeing the scope of its economy suddenly narrow.

So they forged a new partnership. For years, other prospective investors had been knocking at the community’s door, so after Russell had been gone for years, the community went to the land registry to void his lease and sign a new one with another safari entrepreneur, P.J. Patel, who wanted to restore the lodge and business. They signed a contract with Patel, who arrived in 2013 and began to invest millions of shillings in fixing up the lodge. Patel declined to comment for this story.

When Russell heard of this, he was furious. “Suddenly this guy just marched in,” he said during our interview. “But my lease was forever—it was meant to go on until you guys buy us out.”

According to several sources, Russell was told by legal advisers that the new lease could be contested in court if he could show he had an ongoing presence at the lodge. Russell says that he did in fact succeed in contesting the lease in court, but court records could not be obtained.

“This created a dangerous situation,” says Masiaya, the former board member. “Because now you had two people who believed the lodge was rightfully theirs and wanted to be there.”

Based on this legal advice, Kidoku, the former top security guard, says Russell called him with a request. As one of those who had remained loyal and in touch with Russell, Kidoku says, he was hired along with five other former employees to go to the lodge to “look after his property and make sure that nothing was damaged or stolen.”

What followed remains painful for many to talk about. Peter Limu, Patel’s security manager, recalls a group of young men hired by Russell arriving at the lodge’s gate one day at 10 in the morning. They demanded to be let in, he says, but Limu had been hired by Patel to prevent anyone from entering.

“We were told ‘You are not allowed to enter.’ But we had been told by Anthony we had all the rights to enter there, so we decided to enter by force,” Kidoku says. Russell denies that he made any requests that Kidoku return to the lodge at all.

All day and into the night, a verbal conflict ensued, with neither side backing down. After dark, tensions escalated.

In the night, one of Patel’s guards shot one of Russell’s with a poisonous arrow. It killed him. Word of his death traveled quickly back to the community.

At dawn, angry family and friends of the man who had been killed stormed the lodge’s premises, which Patel’s guards had long since fled. For almost two full days, they sat outside the lodge, refusing to let the body be removed until the culprit was tracked down and brought to them. When he was not found, in their fury they set the lodge on fire.

Today, little remains of the burned lodge but a few overgrown fragments of its foundation. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.Today, little remains of the burned lodge but a few overgrown fragments of its foundation. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.

Moving forward

In the weeks that followed, the community reckoned with all that their ecotourism venture had brought them, as well as the deep, and ultimately deadly, division it had wrought internally.

“For the community to fight like this, as brothers fighting brothers, was very, very unusual,” says Kamanga, a leader at a neighbouring community-based conservancy. “The community had become very divided during that time. It took a long time for them to come back together.”

But out of their acute grief came a renewed commitment to maintain a unified front when dealing with outside investors. Those who had burned the lodge apologized and were ultimately forgiven, and the guard who had shot the poisonous arrow was arrested and imprisoned.

“The community decided, now that those who burned the lodge have pleaded for forgiveness, let us just forgive them,” says former lodge employee Loiboo Muntooyo.

“We had a very powerful meeting and we discussed such issues and we have united once again,” Kidoku says. “We say enough is enough, let’s continue.”

Former lodge employee Loiboo Muntooyo recounts the community’s painful process of unifying after the lodge was burned. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.Former lodge employee Loiboo Muntooyo recounts the community’s painful process of unifying after the lodge was burned. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.

It’s been eight years since the fire, and the Shompole community has moved on. They’ve applied for and received their community land title, a new legal distinction intended to ensure greater political stability for communal landowners. They also elected a new chairman, Joel Karori.

But despite the challenges it brought, the community has not turned its back on wildlife conservation or the hope of capitalizing on it. Ever since they set aside 10,000 hectares for wildlife more than 20 years ago, they’ve honored those boundaries and seen an increase in the populations of their lions, giraffes, zebras, and elephants. Kamanga and Western co-founded a nonprofit coalition called the South Rift Association of Landowners, or SORALO, which stepped in after the lodge closed to continue paying the community rangers with grant funding. These rangers prohibit poaching, and have a system for reimbursing herders whose livestock are killed by lions, to disincentivize killing them in defense.

During a time when land-use conflicts between livestock herders and wildlife conservationists have only escalated, Shompole has also worked to develop a successful model of resource sharing. A 2016 study found that across Kenya’s rangelands, the number of sheep and goats rose by 75% between 1977 and 2016, while wildlife numbers declined by 68% — a trend that has sparked violent tensions between other white lodge owners and Indigenous herding communities vying to keep distinct groups of animals alive. In Shompole, however, a 2020 study by a team of Oxford zoologists and Guy Western highlighted the area as a case study of a successful practice called “temporal partitioning,” whereby livestock and wildlife can coexist by visiting watering holes only by day and night, respectively.

To capitalize on their wildlife, a few members of the community have been offering tourists motorbike safaris and tent camping. These guides know how to find and follow giraffes, zebras, wildebeest and antelopes, but lions, elephants, cheetahs and leopards are both too hard to find and unsafe to approach on bike. Tourists are not permitted onto Shompole land without making prior arrangements with one of these guides, such as Eserian Motor Safari, and the guides are strictly required to register all visits.

When it comes to partnering with outside investors, the community designed a new system. It’s simpler than before: rather than a joint venture, which introduced complexity and conflicts of interest, the community receives an annual lease fee that goes up every year, as well as the per-guest conservancy fee.

“First, the chairman and the investor write the lease agreement. Then they go to five different sublocations and go over it sentence by sentence with the community to make sure that everyone is comfortable with it,” Karori says. “Then they hold a general meeting. Then they sign while the community is there and the investor is also there … So that even the investor is secure. If a community member goes and disturbs him, he’ll be arrested.”

In the new arrangement, the community has total control over the lease money and community development, and the investor has total control over the management of the lodge.

This structure has formed the basis for two new lodges in the area: Shompole Wilderness opened in 2015 and can host up to 12 guests per night, and Ndoto House, built not far from the site of the overgrown remnants of Shompole Lodge, is scheduled to open by the end of 2022. Complete with similar infinity pools and the savanna views that Shompole Lodge once boasted, Ndoto House will be available to rent for exclusive use.

In October 2022, the community worked with photographer Will Burrard-Lucas and Shompole Wilderness to build a new ecotourism attraction: a watering hole and hideout designed for spotting wildlife who come to drink.

Ndoto House is almost complete, containing a small number of spacious rooms and pools. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.Ndoto House is almost complete, containing a small number of spacious rooms and pools. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.

Despite these initiatives, however, the volume of tourism in Shompole and net revenues have not come close to what they once were. The community knows that tourism should never replace cattle herding as their primary industry; indeed, among the lessons they’ve taken from the past are that tourism is unreliable due to global shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the high-end, low-volume model of luxury lodges makes it impossible to employ and support an entire community that way.

However, throughout much of 2022, drought has parched Shompole’s grasslands once again, leaving many livestock weak or dead from hunger. Times of drought are when the community feels most acutely the gap in its economy that Shompole Lodge left behind, and they have been actively looking for new partners to help them build an ecotourism hub once again.

“We are now praying if we may get a second chance,” Kidoku says. “Our second opportunity will be a golden opportunity and we’ll know how to handle it with care. It’s now very fragile to us.”

“We have the conservancy and the area is beautiful and then I think the investors hear, they hear from America and all over, that Shompole are now together,” Karori says. “So they will come back.”

Four giraffes run across an open plain within Shompole’s wildlife conservation area. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.Giraffes run across an open plain within Shompole’s wildlife conservation area. Image by Eve Driver for Mongabay.

A new deal comes together

In early November, just as this story was being published, Karori signed a 35-year contract with a formidable new partner.

Great Plains Conservation, founded by National Geographic explorers Dereck and Beverly Joubert in 2008, operates 18 ecotourism ventures across Botswana, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

The couple’s long list of achievements includes more than 40 films, 14 books and several academic articles, as well as co-founding the Big Cats Initiative with National Geographic, which currently funds 150 projects in 29 countries. Their first safari lodge in Botswana ranked 10th on Travel + Leisure’s 2017 list of “Top 100 Hotels in the World,” and their media appearances have included a TED talk and The Ellen Degeneres Show.

Their company’s shareholders have pledged all revenues to wildlife conservation and community development, and a nonprofit arm also exists for fundraising purposes. With community impact initiatives ranging from training groups of all-women rangers, to funding teacher salaries and school scholarships, to supplying solar lamps for communities without electricity, the Jouberts are part of a newer wave of community-based conservation leaders that have the benefit of being able to learn from the past.

For Shompole, one such lesson was that their contracts needed to make clear that the land was still to be regarded as communal. While the initial draft lease agreement that Great Plains put forward promised them exclusive access to the conservation area, the community reviewed the document together and decided to challenge that clause.

Karori, the chairman, as well as Kishanto, Shompole Lodge’s former community manager, returned to the negotiation table and worked with Great Plains’ lawyers to remove that clause from the agreement.

“We had a very big meeting and went over the contract and made some amendments,” Karori says. “That contract said there was a 5-kilometer [3-mile] radius of exclusive use but that is not acceptable because it includes the school, hospital and Ndoto House. So the community said no. The exclusive use is the lodge area only.”

“I’ve been engaged in many agreements and this is the best I’ve seen,” says Kishanto. He recalls that while the community had pushed for around 1 million shillings per year from Russell at the peak of their negotiations, the new agreement shares 10 times that amount. He says there is also now clear documentation and transparency for how the Shompole Management Committee, which he sits on, will distribute those funds across education, healthcare, and infrastructure.

Former member of the Maa O’Leng board of directors Joseph Masiaya discusses the terms of the prospective deal with one subset of the community to identify required changes to the terms before signing. Image courtesy Moses Limu.Former member of the Maa O’Leng board of directors Joseph Masiaya discusses the terms of the prospective deal with one subset of the community to identify required changes to the terms before signing. Image courtesy Moses Limu.

SORALO is also committed to working with any new partners that arrive in the area to ensure these partnerships stay strong, provided they do their part to honor the priorities of the communities they work with. Samantha Du Toit, who runs conservation programs at SORALO and is married to Johann Du Toit, who runs Shompole Wilderness, lives in the area with their two children. She says she is optimistic about Shompole’s future, but cautions that it takes hard work to make community-based conservation truly benefit all involved.

“‘Community-based conservation’ and ‘ecotourism’ are terms that are touted all over the place, but actually understanding what that is and what that takes — that’s another story,” she says.

“Having had, with Johann, one foot in the tourism industry and one foot in the conservation realm, I think one of the most important things required to make it work is good communication. There are often different stories, built up in people’s heads, about what community-based conservation means. But in reality, it’s hard. You have to be very honest about how you truly, truly work with communities to drive their agendas forward, because a community is not one entity; it has politics, and it has people who are full of self-interest, and others who are absolutely selfless. So it’s not simple, even if you genuinely want to help.”

Du Toit leads both fundraising for SORALO as well as programming such as training and research. “We work every day to make sure that community conservation here is not just a story, but one we make into reality. Obviously you have to sell a story to get people to visit, to get them to give funding. But once they arrive, you don’t want it to just be a story. You want it to be the truth.”

Many Maasai communities face continued exploitation in the name of conservation and ecotourism. Less than 50 kilometers from Shompole, in Tanzania’s Loliondo division of Ngorongoro, a state-sanctioned plan to carve a wildlife corridor out of Masaai land to support trophy hunting has led to violent tensions. In June, 15 protestors were shot by police and at least 700 Maasai villagers fled across the border to Kenya.

Not far from the site of the proposed corridor, Boston-based safari company Thomson Safaris has also been in a prolonged conflict with the local Maasai over their land rights. It has turned violent on multiple occasions — even as Thomson Safari has made Travel + Leisure’s list of world’s best safari outfitters for six years in a row.

Du Toit works closely with Kamanga, who echoes that as the Shompole community moves forward with new ecotourism partners, they must remain vigilant to ensure that these partners do right by them and honor the true value of their contributions.

Chairman Joel Karori (middle, front) signs a new lease agreement with Great Plains, accompanied by Secretary Daniel Kishanto (left, front) and other community leaders. Image courtesy Daniel Kishanto.Shompole chairman Joel Karori signs the new agreement with Great Plains. Image courtesy Daniel Kishanto.

“The space that [communities] are giving out for conservation or for ecotourism, it’s their space. People are coming there because they’re attracted to the wildlife, to the sceneries, to the culture, and that is all part of the capital that the community is contributing,” Kamanga says.

“I don’t think we value that capital enough. We just think that the money, the $10 million, whatever number of dollars you invested in your lodge, is the investment. But that is wrong. Because the investment is really in these other things that are attracting people to come to your lodge, like the animals. Nobody goes to a lodge just to sleep.”

Kishanto, as before, has played a major role in negotiating with Great Plains and ensuring they will be partners who understand Shompole’s unwavering commitment to true community-based conservation — both the livelihood it promises, and the justice it has the potential to achieve.

“We were very naïve when we first created a project without understanding the concept of ecotourism,” he says. “That is very different from now. The community is now very smart; the wildlife is still here; the elephants have increased. We are going to bring Shompole back to its glory.”


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Connolly, E., Allan, J., Brehony, P., Aduda, A., Western, G., Russell, S., … Tyrrell, P. (2021). Coexistence in an African pastoral landscape: Evidence that livestock and wildlife temporally partition water resources. African Journal of Ecology, 59(3), 696-711. doi:10.1111/aje.12869

About the author:

Eve Driver is a freelance writer focused on environmental justice and innovation. She has written for Quartz, Grist, and Harvard Magazine, and she graduated from Harvard University where she studied environmental history and culture.