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Conservationists and investors big battle for gem of Laikipia plains

Rift Valley
 Sightseers on horseback enjoy the view of the Lolldaiga expanse. [Courtesy, Standard]

In the east of Central region towers rather majestically Mt Kenya – the highest mountain in the country. In the west are the undulating ranges of Aberdares that stretch across, creating a magnificent horizon that has come to be loved by travellers who venture to Laikipia.

Lying in between is the Lolldaiga Hills Ranch, a nearly 50,000-acre expanse whose strategic position between two world-famous geographical features has been whetting the appetite of nature conservationists and investors.

As is the case with all beautiful things, Lolldaiga’s natural beauty invites rivalries and wars over it. Famous in Kenya because of British Army training activities, Lolldaiga ranch is today faced with the usual human thirst that drives people to fight over nature's endowments.

A group of self-declared conservationists and nature enthusiasts calling themselves Friends of Lolldaiga has crossed swords with a team of investors operating under the name Lolldaiga Valley Conservancy representing a set of entities now seeking to invest in the southern part of the ranch that borders farmlands. The other expanse stretching northwards is game land.

Daggers drawn

Both sides are today holding knives over each other’s throat turning the wilderness, nay, the paradise they say, of Lolldaiga, into a most valuable piece of the natural wild.

Both claim to mean well though.

Friends of Lolldaiga is a team of people of different interests from within Kenya and outside. Of the citizens are residents who neighbour the ranch and include a retired senior Navy officer, Major General Antony Rop, and British trained lawyer Ashminder Kaur.  Armed with knowledge in legal practice, the lawyer is using her knowledge of the laws to resist investors that "will disrupt nature around here".

"When ordinary conservation-minded people around Lolldaiga see impunity and lawlessness, they feel unsafe,” said lawyer Kaur while speaking to The Standard.  “It is hard to persuade them that we are not a banana republic and that there are laws and processes that may creak and aren't perfect but are available to help.”

Golden resource

General Rop, who was born and raised in Lolldaida, considers the area Kenya’s golden resource and must not be tempered with. For him, the planned development will disrupt the ecosystem where the area will lose the larger mammals that make Lolldaiga their home

"The developments here will scare the big five and it is scaring that the developers have a secret plan to move them away. We must not allow that," Mr Rop told The Standard 

The group has created an internet-based campaign under the name Lolldaiga Voice that has been collecting signatures in support of a petition addressing two investors – Neil Bernie and Philip Ihenacho.

The message is simple and direct “Stop the Lolldaiga Valley commercial development”. The signatures have been increasing weekly and by last Wednesday were approaching 3,000. The team aims to collect 5,000 signatures which they plan to file before wildlife and environment regulating agencies, both local and international.

Mr Bernie and Mr Ihenacho have their eyes trained on their draft masterplan of developing southern Lolldaiga, which the former shared with The Standard.

 A panoramic view of the Lolldaiga ranch. [Courtesy, Standard]

Mr Bernie is described as an environmental lawyer, a former legal adviser to the EU Environment Committee and has worked in conservation and nature finance in East Africa since 1997.

His bio does not disclose his nationality but our investigations have revealed that he is a British national who has established himself in Kenya's conservation circles.

On the other hand, Ihenacho is described as Nigerian-born and has spent the bulk of his career establishing businesses in the finance and infrastructure sectors in Africa.

After attending Yale University and Harvard Law School, and working for McKinsey & C, which is described as an international management consultancy, Ihenacho established a number of businesses including an Africa-focused investment banking firm, which he ran for over 10 years before its successful sale in 2006.

Ihenacho is heavily involved in conservation in East and West Africa. He is the founder of Africa Nature Investors and is the Chairman of the Africa Council of The Nature Conservancy.

“The promoters of this commercial project sit on the Boards of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) Africa, Lolldaiga Hills Ltd, African Nature Investors and the Lolldaiga Valley Conservancy, and are the sole beneficiaries of the money-making scheme.  This in itself makes a mockery of what conservation stands for,” says Friends of Lolldaiga.

This, Friends of Lolldaiga, describe as a serious case of conflict of interest. One man cannot sit on the boards of supposed regulators and again be a director of an investment company that plans to develop game land, they argue in the petition.

The real power behind Friends of Lolldaiga, who wants Bernie and Mr Ihenacho stopped from running their project in Lolldaiga, is a British national and a man of means, Hugh Sloane.

“This is a serious matter of conflict of interest,” Mr Sloane told The Standard speaking from his nature home in Lolldaiga.

“I have written to The Nature Conservancy to raise this issue about Ihenacho. The guy is on the LVC board, which is wrong. They pretend to be environmentalists but the investment is purely commercial.”

The Nature Conservancy confirmed receiving Mr Sloane’s letter of protest.

“Hugh Sloane and others have included The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in communications regarding their concerns over reported development plans for Lolldaiga Valley Conservancy,” said a TNC spokesman in an email to The Standard, adding “It is important to note that this is a separate property from Lolldaiga Conservancy, the 45,000-acre nature preserve that a Kenyan trust bought in 2021 with funds TNC raised from private donation.”

Development restrictions

The world-famous conservation prefect said as a condition of the purchase, the former owner (Robert Wells), kept a lease on 3,750 acres that included development restrictions to protect the area’s environment, natural resources, and wildlife.

 A panoramic view of the Lolldaiga ranch. [Courtesy, Standard]

Those covenants are binding on the new owners of the lease, Lolldaiga Valley Conservancy. The trust that now owns the larger property is mandated to ensure those development restrictions are respected, but other than that, neither that trust nor TNC has any further influence over the activities of Lolldaiga Valley Conservancy.

When we met Mr Sloane at his nature home in the wilderness of Southern Lolldaiga, he took a few minutes to explain his interest in the matter. Despite being an investment banker running his affairs in London, conservation is close to his heart, he said. He came to Kenya for the first time in 1997 and has had links in conservation circles ever since.

Sloane bought a section of the property owned by a Kenyan citizen of British descent, Robert Wells. The family owned the famous Lolldaiga Ranch and the famous House and used parts of the large ranch to rear dairy cattle. The Wells family started to sell parts of its property more than seven years ago up until last year.

“I built this house in 2016. This is not Robert Wells' house, his house is on the other side,” he says. “The deal was I pay Wells a certain amount of money. I built this house and commit 100,000 dollars (translating to KSh15 million) a year to conservation efforts, quite a lot of money."

Natural state

With that and other costs to ensure Lolldaiga remains in its natural state, Sloane wants Ihenacho and Bernie stopped from developing sections of the 3,750 hectares that they acquired from Lolldaiga Hills Limited.

“The Lolldaiga Valley Conservation group says that they are conservationists but actually are developers seeking to earn about 50 million dollars,” Sloane says and adds: “My view is the area they want to develop is unique and very important to the whole of the ecosystem on the Laikipia plateau.”  

However, Bernie accuses Sloane of smarting from a missed opportunity after he failed to win the acquisition of the said 3,750 acres of southern Lolldaiga which his company Eden Rivers was fortunate enough to buy in 2021.

“The original owners retained the 3,750 acres when they sold the rest of the larger Lolldaiga Hills property in 2021,” said Bernie in his response to our questions. “They subsequently received several offers for the 3,750 acres from a variety of developers. The proposal by Eden River was chosen as being by far the most innovative and environmentally and socially sensitive”. 

When reached for comment, Ihenacho on his part, who appears to be Bernie's strong financial arm, defended his conservation record saying sitting on the boards of conservation groups, including TNC and founding Africa Nature Investors-ANI, he would not join a plan to develop game land. Our investigations have, however, revealed that he has since resigned from the board of TNC. He is now left with Africa Nature Investors which is his baby.

“I would not have made a decision to invest in Lolldaiga Valley Conservancy if I did not believe that it will have a net positive impact on conservation in the landscape,” said Ihenacho in his email to The Standard

“When I first heard suggestions the development was supposed to be much larger and have greater impact, I shared many of the concerns about it that Friends of Lolldaiga have.”

 A herd of elephants at one of the natural water points in Lolldaiga ranch. [Courtesy, Standard]

He said he would not have invested in any project that sought to change nature through modern development. But when he learnt that those options were not part of any actual plan that would be developed, and being reassured that Lolldaiga Valley Conservancy was only interested in a development with a net local economic, social, and environmental impact, “I decided to invest and become a director of the company.”

The petitioners, however, claim the commercial housing project will litter the conservancy with intense fencing, kilometres of roads, 50-plus houses, swimming pools, power lines, boreholes and generators, creating extensive noise and human intrusion on land set aside for wildlife protection.   

They also claim that the investment will distabilise water resources in the game arguing that in terms of water consumption, conservatively the average daily water consumption of a single house is 349 litres, essentially what five elephants would drink in a day.  With 58 commercial houses, without swimming pools (the average swimming pool holds 61,000 litres of water), the commercial project will consume a minimum of 20,242 litres of water a day (over 607,000 litres a month) in the Lolldaiga Valley Conservancy, equivalent to what 298 elephants need to drink.  

Bernie denies claims of planning to build 50 modern houses with swimming pools, dismissing the information from the petitioners as outdated and incorrect.

“The only document which is current and correct is the masterplan,” said Bernie via phone to The Standard and through email to our questions. He added: “The masterplan (pages 15 and 16) explains that there will be a maximum of 30 house sites across the whole LVC area.  The combined total of these will be 0.35% of the LVC land area and 0.02% of the wider Lolldaiga property, with no impact on wildlife movement and using only rainwater for water consumption (thereby with no impact on local water supplies).”

The company’s Operations Manager Peter Karani told The Standard that the investment which is set to begin early next year shall come with benefits to Kenyans living in the Lolldaiga Ranch neighbourhood. Already the company has sought 30 youths from within Laikipia East and North constituencies, the localities of Muramati, Mugumo, Nginyei, Ndemu and Umande, and have funded their training in at least five Tvet institutions. 

“The 30 youths are being trained in masonry, carpentry, plumbing and electric wiring and cabling... We are training youths on jobs that we will give. We will employ all of them after graduation,”  says Karani.

The Loldaiga Valley conservancy, whose copy of its draft masterplan The Standard has, gives lofty promises of restoration of a habitat that has fallen apart. The team says the LVC will stabilise eroded areas and carry out extensive grassland and woodland restoration. Partnerships will be formed with local community landowners who they will finance to create indigenous tree nurseries.

Denies rip-off

Bernie denies planning a rip-off on Kenya's conservation efforts projected to be worth 50 million dollars in profits from his and Ihenacho's investment in Southern Lolldaiga. 

Our investigations, however, revealed that Bernie and Ihenacho’s plan may hit a dead end because there exists a presidential circular guiding all agencies mandated to protect Kenya’s game land and the wild, wetlands and conservation areas by stopping all new developments in such areas.

Laikipia’s County Director of Environment Jackson Mutoro, speaking to The Standard, confirmed this saying based on that circular, there is already a policy underway which will guide his office on how to treat any applications for development in Lolldaiga.

Mutoro said Laikipia is a wildlife dispersal area and a migratory route for wildlife and therefore it remains one of the key areas in the country monitored by government agencies mandated to conserve nature. 

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