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Our collective responsibility: Salisha Chandra on tending to the world we depend upon

Salisha Chandra

A conservationist, an activist and an adventurer, 45-year-old Salisha Chandra dubs herself a rebel with too many causes. While in her late 30s, she left behind her high flying corporate career to make a fresh start in the world of conservation. Armed with passion and the desire to inspire change and make a difference, Salisha started from the bottom and worked her way through the ranks to become the highly respected authority she has become in the field today. She currently serves as the Director of Strategy and Knowledge Management at Lion Guardians, founding member and Managing Director of KUAPO Trust, Strategic Advisor to Global March for Elephants and Rhinos and a board member of Local Ocean Conservation.

Salisha shares her journey and insights with Damaris Agweyu.

It’s hot today! Is this what climate change means?

Yes. You remember when we were growing up, the short rains came in October or November; the long rains were from March to May. It was like clockwork. Now everything is getting more extreme. So you’ll have a drought every two years and anytime it rains, we should expect flash flooding. That’s all related to climate change; it’s extreme weather events happening with more intensity and more frequently.

And yet there are people who continue to downplay, dismiss or deny its existence.

Because we’re so far removed from what nature is so it’s hard for us to see the actual impact of our actions. Everything is nicely packaged for us. We live in concrete, air-conditioned houses where we just turn on our taps and get water or shell out money and the problems go away. But if you look at the Maasai pastoralists, for instance, they are so much more in tune with what’s happening in nature because they live it every day. We don’t feel the impact of cutting down a tree or building in wetland areas.

Thanks to people like Wangari Maathai, we still have carbon sinks that are helping Nairobi breathe. But the more we constrict those spaces, the more we’re going to become like another Beijing or New Delhi where there’s nothing to soak up the excess carbon dioxide. 

An argument has been made that countries cannot grow their economies AND protect the environment simultaneously. It has to be one or the other.

I don’t think there needs to be a trade-off. Environmentalists should actually be viewed as partners rather than adversaries to development. The question is, how do we make that conversation a holistic one? We should not just be like, “Oh, here come the tree huggers they just want to make my life difficult”.

Environmentalists are put in boxes because, cognitively, it’s easier to do that. We are not saying that you shouldn’t make money, we just want to ensure that you do it sustainably. In the case of the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway, for instance, we really did try to bring some sense into the conversation. It would have been huge for Kenya to set a precedent where the environment and development could win. No one was saying, “Stop the railway”, we were just saying, “Find a way to make it work sustainably and here are some options”.

And they didn’t hear you

And now there’s increased human-wildlife conflict. People have been prevented from even accessing their own land because the rails have gone right through them. Children have a hard time getting to their schools because again, the rails come right in the middle. The elephants are confused because their migratory corridors are blocked.

We have excellent organisations like Save the Elephants who have done research across the country on how elephants traverse. All it would have taken was some collaboration. It’s just common sense but that thought process was absent. Yes, it is development but there was something else driving it. The people behind it were not able to see beyond today. It’s failing to understand the impact of your actions on the future.

So you decide to quarry in a protected area, you cut down the trees and next year the local communities who are trying to grow their agricultural produce aren’t getting rain. They start to encroach on your area because they’re now looking for other means of livelihood.

The environment is so deeply tied to development but we separate the two. It’s just greed. Money is, unfortunately, the root of most evil. I mean, yes, we all need a bit to survive but do we need to go to the extent that we do?

Honestly, if everybody in Nairobi just stooped using straws, it would make a huge difference

Salisha Chandra
You’ve been on the other side of the equation, the ‘money side’ so to speak 

Yes. I have an MBA from the London Business School and a BS in Information and Decision Systems from Carnegie Mellon University. I worked for Marakon associates which is a strategic management-consulting firm in London.  My clients included British Telecom, Barclays Bank and Reuters. Before that, I’d worked as a risk manager at JP Morgan. I was very much on the money side of the equation but I believe this background gives me a very unique perspective. 

How did you end up in the conservation space?

I lived and worked outside of Kenya for about 20 years, but this is where I was born and raised. Here, we have access to such a beautiful wilderness and such proximity to cultures that are much more intertwined with living in nature as opposed to say, if you grew up in New York. I’ve lived there and it’s completely different. It has its own vibe but it’s a concrete jungle.

Growing up, in school, I used to be involved in things to do with conservation. I went to the first Ivory burn when Moi was President. I’ll never forget that smell. When they open up the places where they store the containers, it smells like death. And then there’s the smell of the gasoline or whatever propellant they use to burn it, you just don’t forget an incident like that. 

So, I basically took this roundabout journey and when I came back home, I was kind of searching for myself. I’m not saying I didn’t like the corporate route, I learned a hell of a lot in consulting and finance. But doing it, I never felt fulfilled on a personal level. My husband Yash and I had moved from the U.S to India where we set up an eco-adventure, hospitality resort. We literally lost everything because we didn’t know how to do business in that country. We came back to Kenya, broke and a little beaten down.  There was pressure from the family who were asking me why I couldn’t just do the same thing that we were doing India. But that had been my husband’s passion. He is the hospitality guy. That was his dream that we had been living or trying to live there. And sure I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t my dream. And since we’d been through such a rough time, it had a huge impact on both of us psychologically. I just kind of closed myself off.

When I started reading the newspapers again, I came across this guy called Kahindi. He was making a lot of noise about the fact that that there was a resurgence in elephant poaching but it was being swept under the rug. At some point, he was even jailed for speaking out. This struck something in me. I wanted to make a difference in conservation. But coming from a business background, it was not that easy to get into the space, especially as a woman in my late 30s. I don’t have a science background. I don’t even have a communications background. It’s just out of interest that I have learned a hell of a lot about conservation. 

I started writing to all these big conservation organisations, asking for work, even on a volunteer basis; but they were not interested. Maybe they didn’t want someone who was from the world that I had been in. They wanted someone younger. They wanted a conservation biologist or someone with a background in science. I kept writing. I finally came across this small organisation called Africa Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW) who wrote back. In retrospect, this was a blessing in disguise. They were like, “Come and let’s see what you can help with.” It was vague and it would be a long time before I would gain my confidence because when you’re in your late 30s, you’re supposed to have your career in order right?

Right

And you’re supposed to be supporting your family. We don’t have kids so that makes it a bit easier but there is still pressure from society. Yash was extremely supportive of my decision to do what I wanted to do and that meant a lot. Anyway, I met Gitau Mbaria, an investigative journalist who was also the head of communications at ANAW. They’re very much about the local conservation agenda as Kenyans have been alienated and disenfranchised from conservation for decades. This is a huge issue in this country because we have a lot of so-called western philosophies that are imposed on us.

And that’s why I said it was a blessing in disguise for me to work for ANAW; I didn’t get indoctrinated into this whole “Okay. This is how you do conservation.” This might have been the case if I had gone to WWF or WCS. The first week I started working, we had a horrible poaching incident. There was a family of 11 elephants in Tsavo that were massacred. It was devastating.

We got together at ANAW and started this movement, Kenyans United against Poaching, KUAPO, which was also a play, with words: Kuwa hapo, be there (for your wildlife). We decided to organize a march to deliver an important petition to the President. On the back of this, we also wrote numerous petitions to other relevant agencies. The march was well attended by conservation luminaries and government spokespeople. While we received acknowledgements from most of our petitions, the response we got from the judiciary was a game-changer. They agreed to have national conversations that got judges and conservationists talking. 

As we wrapped up with the one march, the most amazing thing happened. We started getting phone calls from everyday people from all over the country, saying, “I care for my heritage, I want to organise a march and need to give a petition to KWS or the District Council. I want to make a difference”. And that, to me, was the biggest learning experience, because I ended up going to all these different places and actually seeing the people who live with wildlife every day. I was hearing from them and understanding what they’re dealing with.

My understanding of conservation and what it means started to sink in. It’s not a special thing. It’s everyday life. And that’s how Africans have lived for centuries. The Council of Elders in the communities will tell you they’ve always had this way of life- you don’t cut this tree, you can cut this tree, this forest is cursed if you take this out, you can kill this animal, you can’t kill this animal, you can never kill a pregnant female. It’s all very much tied to knowing that you’re living in harmony with the land.

I started reading a lot about what African traditional conservation wisdom looks like. And that really struck a chord with me, because this is homegrown. It is who we are. It’s the reason why we still have wildlife in this country.

I’m especially proud that Kenya has banned hunting. I think there’s still some room to think about hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers and how we deal with that side of things because that’s part of their way of life. But trophy hunting is not. It’s important to remember who we are because that is key for our land. The more removed you are from it, the more you make decisions like “Oh, let me get a straw with every drink that I order”. Honestly, if everyone just stopped drinking using straws in Nairobi that would make a huge difference. Nairobi restaurants are infamous for that, they won’t even ask you, the straw just comes. And so, I always have to tell them I don’t do straws.

A lot of people are like, what’s the big deal? Well, the big deal is, it’s single-use plastic. You’ve used it once and thrown it away but it will live forever. It’s going to end up in the ocean and on your plate, if you eat fish or in your water which we all drink. And that’s a very basic starting point- refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle in your own life. 

Do Kenyans really care or do we have bigger problems?

Kenyans care. We care so much. I have seen this repeatedly; whether I am talking to a young guy in Kibera or an elder in the village. It’s not about some other saviour from other parts of the world coming and saving our wildlife or whatever. Knowing that always gives me so much energy. And Mbaria has had a huge role to play in opening my mind. The biggest thing that he helped me understand was the need for social justice in conservation.

People need to have their say. It’s not just about them needing money. If you remove the power of someone to make a decision that affects them, you can give them all the money in the world and that still might not change their attitude. Mbaria says it very clearly. He says, “It’s not about the problems of the wildlife. It’s about the problems of the people. Solve the problems of the people and wildlife will take care of itself”. 

Three years ago in Laikipia, there were all the clashes about the grazing land leading large groups of elephants to look for safer pastures and so they started coming into the Sinende Valley after years of absence. The people saw the elephants as a blessing even though they lost about 90% of their crops in that first year. But they wanted to go back to their traditions and make space for the wildlife. So they put out a call for help because they didn’t know what to do. They tried to get all these big organisations involved, but no one was listening. I was tagged on Facebook and reached out to the lady who was trying to coordinate for them. And when I went down there and saw what they were trying to do, I was like, “We have to help these guys.” So we basically did capacity building with them to mitigate the conflict. We taught them elephant behaviour, safety protocols, things like that. And now the elephants are safe and the community’s anxiety levels have decreased. That is conservation, people co-existing with wildlife.

In conservation, you cannot be successful if you are not able to see every side of the story

Salisha Chandra
In 2016, we had another serious ivory burn and some have argued that it would have been better to sell the tusks and put the money back into conservation. Others agreed with the idea of burning as a way to send a message. On which side of the divide were you?

If it was up to me and I was living in a utopian world, I would have loved to return those tusks to wherever those elephants died and just let them disintegrate there- because elephants grieve, right? And so, if you go place the tusks where they died, you would see them come back and pay their respects. As sentient beings, that would be the most appropriate way to sort of pay for what we’ve done to them. However, we do not live a utopian world, free of greed.

Some people thought, let’s do what Botswana did and make a nice, big statue of them. And maybe there’s merit to that. I just think that’s a very human-centric view of things. That’s why I also don’t agree with selling it and making money because then you’re just perpetuating that concept that this thing is valuable to humans and that you can make money from it. And so I did agree with the destruction. I’m not so sure burning was such an environmentally friendly thing to do though.

It was like a show

I actually talked to the guy who was behind the whole thing, because I volunteered to help out with carrying the tusks, it was a hugely emotional experience. I took some photos and someone recognized one of the tusks as belonging to an elephant, they knew. It was crazy! But anyway, I talked to the guy, and he said, “Yeah, it’s more about the spectacle. Otherwise, the best thing to do is probably crush it.” 

Do you think that it had the effect of deterring poaching? 

The deterrent factor is really the law. There have been numerous cases of people being caught and getting out free. And here I am not talking about your average Joe. It’s the guys with big money who run cartels. Someone sees the skills in a bushmeat poacher and offers him more money. But even then, it’s paltry in comparison to what is earned by these middlemen. And yet they’re the ones who take the biggest risk. They’re generally the ones who are caught, and oftentimes, are very badly handled by the authorities. But they’re just the smallest peg in the entire pecking order- you have a middleman, a broker and the buyer.

If the spectacle had been aired in China which drives a lot of the demand, it could have had a bigger impact. Unfortunately, we didn’t realise that they don’t use social media because there, it’s banned.

I think it definitely solidified our position as a country in terms of where we stand. But does this have a huge impact on the price of ivory or its demand? I don’t know. I don’t think they are really that connected. To me, the biggest value is that it’s not in the system anymore. So, nobody can desecrate those poor elephants remains into what they think is a ‘beautiful ornament’ or whatever.

Let’s talk about land issues. Huge tracts of land have been set aside for conservation and many Kenyans are like, “But this land was grabbed, and who are these conservationists anyway”. What are your thoughts on that?

I think it’s a very interesting debate and it’s a tough one. I find it hard to understand making money from conservation because if you describe it as a way of life and are then driving it through capitalism, it changes the entire objective of what you’re doing. Having said that, I think as a country, we never went through a healing process at all. There was a truth and justice report but it never came to light.

This person today probably bought that land legally but it was grabbed from someone at some point. And we never went through a process of saying, “Okay, how do we reconcile that injustice?” And it goes back to the whole social justice thing. So these people are conserving the environment and it’s mostly in pastoralist areas, but honestly, pastoralism and conservation are very much linked. So, why can’t we set up agreements with the pastoralists? That whole idea of land being protected…protected from what? Let’s work together. We’ve never gone through that thought process so people feel very justified that they are using this land for conservation.

There are a lot of people who are doing a lot of very good work, don’t get me wrong, but maybe they need to open their eyes. Unless you address the elephant in the room which is that initial injustice, we’re not going to get past it. I think they both have their arguments but we need to work together otherwise, we’ll keep having clashes and they’ll keep that narrative that conservation is only for a certain type of person.

What about the deforestation question, take the example of the Mau Forest, are you going to protect the forest and leave the people are homeless?

That’s another a big conversation.

What are your thoughts on it?

It’s interesting because if you look at forests around the world, the groups that have lived in them are actually their best stewards. So generally, when there’s that level of deforestation, there’s something else going on. It’s either someone else coming from the outside and it might be local Kenyans that are coming in to cut down trees for charcoal or whatever. That’s the situation in Mogotio where barons from outside are coming in and they’re paying people to cut trees for charcoal. We need to understand what is really driving the deforestation there.

When it comes to these mass things, it’s very hard to say. It’s easy to blame the people who are just trying to eke out a living because they don’t have a voice. But the truth has many sides. And I think in conservation, you cannot be successful if you’re not able to see every side of the story. Yes, stick to your truth and your moral rectitude but there should also be facts behind it. I’m very passionate about certain things but they have to be backed up by fact.

“I volunteered to help carry the tusks during the 2016 Ivory burn, it was a hugely emotional experience”, Salisha Chandra
So now you work with Lion Guardians, what exactly does the organisation do?

In a nutshell, we help people live with wildlife, specifically lions, by reducing the negative costs to them and amplifying the benefits of conservation.

What I really love about Lion Guardians is that it’s rooted in Maasai culture; the traditional values of a Moran (warrior) are preserved. So, he’s still the defence force of the community. While killing lions may have been part of his job as a warrior, he is now being employed to protect them. The Morans were frustrated because they were not being involved in conservation when they were the ones killing the lions; that’s how Lion Guardians was formed. These two scientists who were doing research into lion mortality in the Amboseli area started talking to Morans about the problem. The Morans were like, “Why don’t people employ us to help, we’re the best people for this job”.  

So now they have become Guardians and their job is to keep track of the lions in their area and protect their community. Each guardian can cover up to 100 square kilometres. They’re amazing people. Every time I go tracking with them, I’m like, “You have this traditional ecological knowledge, bush skills, and can learn how to use a GPS, like seriously, why do we ever look anywhere else?” Most of them are former lion killers so they command a lot of respect in their community. The other Morans are going to listen to them because respect is huge in Maasai culture. Paramount. 

Lion Guardians marries cultural values with modern science and community participation, it’s a beautiful thing. It makes more sense than me going out there and saying, “Don’t kill the lions”. It doesn’t help. It means nothing because I don’t live that life. I haven’t lost my livelihood. All I can say is I’m really, really sorry and that’s the extent of it. 

Where does science come in?

We have research that is always ongoing in the background to help us innovate and continue to adapt because of culture changes, context changes. We have to evolve. 

We have very specialised knowledge of lion behaviour, conflict mitigation and community conservation that we now share widely. For instance, we know that only 10% of lions in our area are chronic livestock raiders. They’re the ones who are going to go into Bomas (livestock corrals) to be problematic. We know that some lions only do this when they are lactating or when they are dispersing. So, having this kind of detailed individual knowledge means you can have a conversation with the community and say, “This guy is literally just passing through your area. He means no harm. Let him go”.

Lions have very interesting behaviour and the guardians are incredible at getting this data. It’s then verified by biologists in the science and research department. And we can identify each lion by unique spots on their whiskers; that’s like their fingerprint.

So if there’s a lion causing a problem somewhere, the first thing we know we need to do is identify who it is, then you can figure out the right mitigation measures. And that changes how you deal with problem animals, you don’t just go and say, “Okay, now we need to relocate.” Because with translocation, 90% of the lions are likely to die and if they don’t they are likely to cause issues where they are translocated. Translocation doesn’t work. It literally just transfers the problem from one area to another.

What is the alternative?

The stats and the literature behind it basically say you try to solve the problem where it’s occurring. So now we have tools like mock hunting where we recreated the Maasai hunt except they don’t carry spears. Basically, it’s a technique to scare the lion and reprimand them for their bad behaviour. An interesting side effect of that is because we’re mock hunting the lion, the community doesn’t feel they have to retaliate as much. The retaliation hunts have gone down by like, 60% since we started mock hunting. 

I always bring myself back to the fact that I’m doing what I’m doing because, given my experience and knowledge, it’s the right thing to do.

Salisha Chandra
How has being in this space impacted you on a personal level?

I’ve learned a lot about myself as a person and how the world really works. When I first came into conservation, I was very idealistic, I didn’t know that it gets dirty. And when I say dirty, I mean like the corporate world or politics. It all comes back to money.

I am so thankful that I have friends that keep me centred because the other big part of the conservation space is ego, there’s this whole thing about heroism. But when you look at it, who is the hero? Is it you who is talking about the problem or is it that mama who has just lost her entire livelihood but is still trying to survive? Why do we need to give these labels anyway? It’s all driven by the funds because funds go to the person who speaks the loudest, not necessarily the people who are having the most impact.

I was very disillusioned initially but it was a good lesson to learn. I think you see it in every sector where you think someone is supposed to be altruistic and yet you see the same capitalist-driven nonsense going on.

If I do say that I’ve dedicated my life to conservation it is a conscious choice because I still don’t make nearly as much as I did even in my first job. But money is not why I’m doing what I’m doing. I am doing it because I am fulfilled by it.

I’ve learnt that keeping myself centred and knowing my space in this world is so important -because in the grand scheme of things we’re so minute. And yet we want to make ourselves super important. There will be someone else who will come and take up the mantle. I don’t do everything. I’m not everything. I’m not the one who knows everything. I have a lot to learn. And that was the other thing that changing spaces taught me. Humility. The change was a hard knock.

When you’ve been successful in your career and have to start again from the bottom in your late 30s…that’s humbling. And I think when you’re humbled you’re able to convert that into impact. You know, I joined Lion Guardians as communications manager but now I’m the Director of Strategy and Knowledge Management. I’m the only one who’s made it up to that level not having founded the organisation. I am definitely proud of that but I wouldn’t have gotten here if I’d gone in with arrogance. And by the way, I’m a very strong-willed person. Arrogance gets you nowhere.

I really don’t believe in consumptive utilisation but what if most of Kenya wanted it? Who am I to impose it on others?  Just because I believe in something doesn’t mean everyone else should. That’s not how it works. It’s not easy to accept because the initial reaction of any humanist is to perpetuate your view. I always bring myself back to the fact that I’m just doing what I am doing because, given my experience and knowledge, it’s the right thing to do. 

That’s very powerful because I also believe that most people are trying to do the best they can with the knowledge they have. 

Which brings me to this point, once you do know better, it is your responsibility to help others. I hear people say “Oh but I am just one person”, But if you do it, and I do it and my neighbour does it, that’s three people.

If everyone in Nairobi just chose to be a little more thoughtful in the choices that we make, how much electricity we use, how much water we use it would make a huge difference.

The late Wangari Maathai said, “It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.” With that quote in mind, what is your little thing?

My little thing is making everyday choices with the environment in mind, whether it’s drinking filtered water, refusing the straw, recycling what I can, eating local, using biodegradable toothbrushes, turning off the tap when brushing etc. These are everyday things that everyone can do.

For more wisdom and insights from Salisha Chandra, get your copy of Different Paths, One Journey HERE.