Harvesting Tourists | People & Places | Smithsonian

Harvesting Tourists

In this Q & A, Richard Conniff, author of "Death in Happy Valley," argues that tourism, not cattle-ranching, would be a better use of Kenyan land

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 Thanks to everyone who posed a question to Richard Conniff about his article, " Death in Happy Valley." And thanks to Conniff, the award-winning author of The Ape in the Corner Office, for his answers

What drew you to this story?

I had read about it in the news, and I was interested in wildlife conservation in Africa—this is actually the sixth trip I've done to Africa since 1996, reporting stories about one thing or another. I had also written about the British peerage for Smithsonian [" Class Dismissed," December 1999] and Cholmondeley had come across in the press as living a leisurely, land-owning life, like that old aristocracy. The story was more complicated than that, though. Cholmondeley may be, as a neighbor said, a trigger-happy guy acting beyond the law, but I found that he was also passionate about wildlife and seemed to have a good relationship with many of his black neighbors. So that was surprising.

From This Story

Once you got to Kenya, did you find the situation to be different from what you had expected?
Actually, I was surprised that it wasn't so much a black and white issue—it's really just about land. I heard Kenyans—black Kenyans—talking about better land, land that they really wanted to be on, and they couldn't get access to it because they felt that corrupt Kenyan politicians, rather than whites, had taken it from them.

In Zimbabwe, President Mugabe is sending in black squatters to take over land held by whites—do you think it's ever going to get to that point in Kenya?
I didn't see any of that. I didn't hear anybody talking about that. No, I think that some politicians were trying to exploit the Cholmondeley case for that purpose and to get the land opened up so that people could move in on it. Maybe I just missed it, maybe they wouldn't say it to a white journalist, but I wasn't seeing the same mentality as in Zimbabwe.

It will be impossible to sustain the unequal land distribution as the population increases. Is there going to be pressure on the white landowners to leave?
You're right, it can't keep on like this, because it's not sustainable. If you've stripped the forest and overexploited the water sources, then it's going to be an environmental catastrophe, and people are going to die. Right now people can't feed their families, they have to turn to crime because there's no other way to make a living in some of these areas. But opening up semi-arid lands to small farmers isn't going to help them either.

Do the white landowners realize that their lifestyle isn't sustainable?
Yes, I think they know that cattle-ranching in this kind of landscape is not the best use of the land.

So what's the solution?
What would be a good use of the land would be tourism. There's a lot of wildlife there and there are people who want to see it. The area abuts Lake Nakura National Park, which is one of the largest income-producers for Kenya. You have the flamingos. You have a regular tourist circuit going through, and tourists are worth a lot more money than cattle—so harvest them! One of the other proposals that has been made is to bring back trophy-hunting, because trophy-hunting produces a lot of income, but it's a controversial proposal, obviously.

It would certainly be hard to control.
Yeah, that is the issue. It is hard to control. But it's been tried in other areas—it was recently brought back in Uganda. And trophy-hunting is used as a way of both raising funds and controlling poaching in Tanzania, with mixed success. In some areas people realize that they're getting a lot of income from trophy-hunters and that the wildlife is of value to them, and therefore they protect it. They police their own communities, which prevents others from poaching. It's an option that's at least worth considering in some areas. It's probable that hunting and tourism will not be compatible, but you can consider them in separate areas for separate purposes.

You mention in the story that before you went to Robert Njoya's house you were still thinking of him as just a poacher and a thug. Did your opinion change?
I went to Njoya's house with a teacher from an international school nearby. She's very articulate, very aware of international cultures, and she knows about the Irish in particular. And she started talking about how the Irish and the Africans have a lot in common in their colonial histories. In Ireland there was a sort of folk-heroism about poaching on the great estates—it was considered a birthright to be able to take game on land that had once belonged to the Irish and had been taken away by colonial landowners. I've spent a lot of time in Ireland, and I thought that that was an interesting connection. As a writer about wildlife and natural history, I've always regarded poachers as the lowest form of life. And when she said that it made me stand back and think about it differently. I'm certainly not defending poachers, but I started to understand their way of thinking a bit better—poaching is just expedient. It's not political, it's "This is what you have to do to survive."

What stood out for you most about your trip to Kenya?
Njoya's home and family. They were desperately poor, of course, and the area around the house was just pounded dirt, but they seemed to have had a bit of a good life, with this little house and these two tall trees out front. It wasn't the crowded poverty I was expecting. One thing that struck me was that Njoya had made dried flowers arrangements—that wasn't consistent with my preconception. And then Serah, his wife, was only 28—not a kid, but very young to be a widow with four children. The family had basically lost everything, but Serah was a born-again Christian, and she said she forgave Cholmondeley. That was very surprising.

How do you think the trial will turn out?
It's been suspended until February. I don't know what will happen, but I think the solution would be a manslaughter conviction, though I also don't think that's legally practical in this situation. I think he'll get off, and if he has any sense at all he'll leave the country and go to England. But I had an interesting conversation with some members of the Muthaiga Country Club—which is primarily for the Euro community. The older generation there said, "He'll get off, they have to let him off," while the younger generation said they ought to put him away. 

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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