Peace, Giraffes & Unity - The Story of Ruko

 
 Foreground: Conservancy Warden James Cheptulel, left, and ranger Michael Parkei (right). Photo: Ivy Wairimu

Foreground: Conservancy Warden James Cheptulel, left, and ranger Michael Parkei (right). Photo: Ivy Wairimu

In 2006, elders from the Rugus and Komolion areas of Baringo County came together to find a solution to the long lasting conflict between the Il Chamus and Pokot communities. It was out of this peace gathering that Ruko (a merger of Rugus and Komolion) Community Conservancy was formed, with support and guidance from NRT.

Over 10 years later, the two formerly-warring communities are working together to bring back the glory of Rugus and Komolion through conserving an endangered species; the Rothschild giraffe.  

The road here has not been easy; it has taken years to change minds and attitudes. “In our first years, we had to lead by example; working together as Il Chamus and Pokot rangers towards a common goal,” says Rose Kateiya, a radio operator at Ruko. “It was unheard of at the time but when people from both communities saw this, they began to realise that there was no need to see each other as enemies.”

Her sentiments are echoed by conservancy warden James Cheptulel. “In my team, there are rangers from both communities,” he says. “In spite of our past differences, what matters to us now is the work that the conservancy has entrusted us with.”

 Three of Ruko’s Rothschild giraffes, who were transported to the island by boat in 2012. Photo: Ivy Wairimu

Three of Ruko’s Rothschild giraffes, who were transported to the island by boat in 2012. Photo: Ivy Wairimu

In addition to security, James’ team is also in charge of caring for eight endangered Rothschild giraffes, translocated to the conservancy in 2012 in a bid to reintroduce the species to the area. Endemic to Baringo, the giraffe had been wiped out by years of hunting and conflict. He recalls clearly the day they were giraffes arrived at the conservancy by boat. “We sang, celebrated and the elders blessed the giraffes. Everyone, whether Il Chamus or Pokot, came together to celebrate the return of the giraffe to Baringo.” 

He views this as a turning point in Ruko’s growth. “The giraffes provided a visual symbol of conservation to us. The sense of responsibility was unifying- the stakes were high and we all knew we had to keep these giraffes alive” he states. “There was a sense that it was everybody’s job- not just the rangers or manager but everyone in the community.”

Michael Parkei, a community ranger, says people regularly ask him for updates on the giraffes. “During my patrols, people ask me how the giraffes are doing. If we’re having any challenges with the giraffes, the elders sit us down and ask us about it.” 

The giraffes are not only a symbol of unity, but have also provided the Ruko communities with a valuable tourism opportunity. “Before the giraffes, very few people came to Ruko,” says former conservancy manager Rebecca Kochulem. “Today, the conservancy welcomes about 500 guests yearly, approximately 200 of whom are school children coming from as far as Nairobi.”  

 Tourists at Ruko Community Conservancy's Giraffe Island. During times of harsh drought the giraffes receive supplementary feed, and have inevitably become accustomed to humans. Photo: Ivy Wairimu.

Tourists at Ruko Community Conservancy's Giraffe Island. During times of harsh drought the giraffes receive supplementary feed, and have inevitably become accustomed to humans. Photo: Ivy Wairimu.

To increase tourism earnings, the conservancy has also started boat tours around the conservation area, raising awareness and opening up the market for local entrepreneurs and youth groups around the island to sell beaded items and other wares.

Any tourism earnings received are split 60: 40 with 40% funding conservancy operations and the 60% split equally amongst the two communities in the region for healthcare and education. Since the conservancy’s inception over 300 bursaries have been provided to schoolchildren from both communities.

“We look forward to our population of giraffes growing- and welcoming more visitors. Ruko is a jewel, and it should be seen by more people.” says Rebecca. 

 
Sophie Harrison