On January 26, 2018, Kenya lost one of its greatest ambassadors for wildlife conservation, Mr. Willie Roberts (pictured left). The Roberts family hosted a celebration of life at their property Sirikoi located on LEWA Conservancy; however, the family decided it was equally as important to host one in the Mara where Willie started his conservation work. Willie was born and raised in Kenya where his parents David and Betty lived most of their lives on the shores of Lake Baringo. David pioneered safaris in Northern Kenya and was regularly asked to organize and lead safaris for dignitaries like Prince Philip. In the 1980s, Willie and Sue moved to the Maasai Mara with the intentions of setting up a farm, but they soon realized the land is better suited for wildlife. He was the first in the Maasai Mara to convert his land into a conservancy that the neighboring Maasai landowners could collect wildlife-based income from; he called it Ol Chorro Oiroua Group Ranch. His involvement in conservation and tourism was ahead of its time; he realized that fostering a relationship among wildlife conservancies, local communities and the tourist industry in the Maasai Mara was what was necessary to sustain this precious ecosystem. Willie didn’t stop there; he went on to establish the Mara North Conservancy in an area that was known for its rampant poaching and hunting. He established the first anti-poaching patrols that became the blueprint for conservation models, like MEP’s, all over the world. Mara Elephant Project would not exist if it were not for the visionary efforts taken by Willie, the forefather of wildlife conservation in the Maasai Mara.
Many Maasai community members attended the memorial on April 27.
That’s why on April 27, the Roberts family hosted a celebration of life in the Mara where MEP CEO Marc Goss had the honor of speaking. There were several key speakers at the event including Mr. Stephen Mwenezi, the lawyer who set up the conservancy with Willie. Mr. Mwenzezi gave a colorful history on how the conservancy was started amid many court battles to allow Ol Choro to collect revenue from tourists instead of the Narok County Council. The Paramount Chief (chief of chiefs) Ole Ntutu, President Daniel Arap Moi, Willie and Stephen Mwenezi clubbed together to take the case to the high court and won the civil suit in 1993. This formed the platform for conservancies to earn and retain their own revenues.
A large crowd gathered for the memorial.
Other honorable speakers included, Mr. Stephen Ole Ntutu (pictured right) who spoke about his father Ole Ntutu and about Willie’s role as a leader of the Maasai that brought order and revenue to the conservancies. A lifelong righthand man of Willie’s, Mr. Sobia Ras Ole Maitai, had some very funny and interesting stories about Willie’s first days farming in the Mara and raising both Richard and Caro. Celebrated conservationist Ian Craig, a lifelong friend of Willie’s, spoke about how Willie paved the way for conservancies in the north. Ian Craig attributes the development of the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) to Willie Roberts citing how in many ways the north had more challenges than the Mara including cattle rustling, illegal firearms, no tourism, a dry climate and rampant poaching. Now, NRT employs over 1,500 rangers and protects 42,000 km2 of land more than all the national parks in Kenya combined.
“The Mara has come a long way. I can only say that so much changed for the positive when we all joined together in the north for conservation. The work in all of the conservancies for wildlife is the same and for the sake of the wildlife, tourism and increasing business investment let us join together to protect the Mara for the future generations of people and wildlife. Willie would have wanted everyone to push in one direction for conservation, tourism, security and progress. Let’s honor his memory by working together.” Ian Craig
Ian Craig speaking about Willie’s legacy.
MEP CEO Marc Goss has the distinct pleasure of following Ian Craig with his own remarks on Willie Roberts.
“From the high place where Willie and the Paramount Chief are looking down on us, he can see how we are behaving and honoring him and his legacy. Now that the next generation is starting to take the reins to protect this area, we need to join hands once again for conservation, business and progress. The work to protect wildlife is the same on any of the conservancies and I am so happy to see all of the rangers from each of the different conservancies working together. The management might be different, the owners, of course, are different, but the work is the same. Willie knew the rangers and their work was the key to keeping the conservancies.” MEP CEO Marc Goss
The service was concluded with a speech from Mr. Samuel Tunai (pictured left), governor of Narok County, who spoke about the importance of the conservancies Willie started to the Mara today. He pointed out that Mara Conservancy, which Willie started, is currently rated one of the best conservancies in the world under the management of Brian Heath, a MEP Trustee.
“Willie was instrumental in setting up the Mara Conservancy and without his relationship with the local leaders, his vision and tenacity, much of the conservation efforts achieved by the conservancy would not have been achieved. We will treasure his memory.” Narok County Governor Samuel Ole Tunai
Willie’s son, Richard Roberts, MEP co-founder and trustee, continued his father’s legacy in the Mara with Richard’s Camp, a luxury camp located in the Mara North Conservancy that remains one of the most successful in the Mara. Richard, having learned his love of nature and the importance of conservation from Willie, began working closely with local communities to help them understand the crucial importance of conserving their wildlife.
Richard, his mother Sue, sitting with Governor Tunai and former Narok County Senator Stephen Ole Ntutu.
“Richard Roberts has been a visionary for conservation in the Mara. He learned from his dad about how to protect the wildlife, bring important guests to visit, and work with the Maasai people to prosper from tourism. Richard, along with owning one of the most successful camps in the Mara, is also the co-founder of the Mara Elephant Project. MEP started very small but due to operational successes we quickly grew and now protect elephants and their habitats in Nyekweri Forest, Mau Forest, Nemenakio Forest into Loita and everywhere in between. MEP does not receive funds from gate fees or the government, we raise all of our own funding and Richard key to raising these funds as he has been for raising funds for the conservancies as well.” MEP CEO Marc Goss