Chyulu Hills, Kenya – On the busy tarmac of the Kajiado Airstrip at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, Fiesta Warinwa – the African Wildlife Foundation’s Kenya director – is smiling.

An animal census is under way and aircraft from all over Kenya and Tanzania are counting elephants and other large mammals found in the Amboseli and Kilimanjaro regions.

“Am I optimistic? My answer would be ‘yes,'” said Warinwa. “In terms of population stability for the elephants, I think they’re very stable.”

It is a rare victory in the fight for wildlife conservation. The Amboseli ecosystem is bucking a mortifying trend of declining big game numbers throughout much of Africa’s wilderness.

Elsewhere, Kenya has not been immune to the war on Africa’s wildlife. In 2012, 384 elephants were slain, many rhinos have been slaughtered for their horns, and as recently as October this year, a four-tonne shipment of ivory was intercepted by authorities in Mombasa.

When the price is right, it’s a white gold rush for those willing to take the risks involved. Communities that live side-by-side with wildlife are facing a choice between the sometimes fickle promises of tourism, or the short-term cash bonanza from poaching.

Traditionally, those most prone to poaching have been people with little means of making a legitimate income. Conservation organisations now recognise that a key strategy is to ensure the benefits of wildlife flow directly to all areas of the community.

Meanwhile, the ever-increasing demand for ivory from Asian markets is outpacing these achievements.

 ‘Kids need to eat’

Sixty kilometres east of the buzzing airstrip lies the Chyulu Hills, a picturesque volcanic bookend separating the Maasai people in the west from the Wakamba people and Tsavo forests towards the coast.

The Chyulu Hills and its surrounding plains are considered part of the larger “dispersal” area for Amboseli’s wildlife. Up to 80 percent of Amboseli’s animals, including its famed elephants, roam in these dispersal areas. Also hidden within its wooded hills are one of the last populations of the critically endangered black rhino.

Elephants and rhinos in the Chyulu Hills were once fair game for local poachers, usually those with no other source of income.

Nicholas Ndivo, an ex-poacher, was taught by his father how to hunt elephants and rhinos in the hills.

“I started poaching with my younger brother when our father died. Our family had nothing, no farm or jobs so we had no choice but to hunt,” said Ndivo.

Using arrows dipped in a powerful poison called avai, Nicholas would kill up to five elephants a week and sell their tusks to a businessman in a nearby town.

But poaching, whether for ivory or bush meat is a risky business, and also looked down upon by others in the community. Another poacher, Musamba Kinyanya, had only a few cows and goats, not enough to support his family. He told his neighbours: “I can’t stop because I need to survive. My kids will need to eat, so if I stop killing the wildlife, what will they eat?”

Supplementing his income by hunting giraffes and antelope for bush meat to sell, Musamba was eventually caught by police.

John Melok, who poached wildlife with his uncle Musamba, remembers the moment he received news of his uncle’s arrest. “I was looking after the cattle at my house when my mother told me our uncle had been arrested and taken to prison. We were all upset and she was crying.”

With the breadwinner gone, Musamba’s wife had to sell most of their sheep and goats to survive. Melok’s mother had to ask around the community for money to pay the 20,000 shilling ($220) fine imposed by the court.

 Making wildlife pay

Today, Ndivo is still earning a living from the wildlife in the Chyulu Hills, but in a spectacularly different way.

Instead of hunting big game, he is now using his poaching skills as a ranger for the conservation organisation Big Life.

Established in 2009 to address rampant poaching of elephants and other wildlife, Big Life employs Maasai and Kamba rangers to monitor, track and report on poaching activities. Many in their ranks are former poachers themselves.

Since 2011 the organisation, aided by a high level of community involvement, has seen a decrease in the number of poached elephants in their area, helping to stabilise Amboseli’s elephant population.

The challenge now is to ensure the presence of wildlife pays a dividend for their community. “The economic engine that’s going to drive protection of these areas is obviously tourism. Without tourism we’re screwed, it hasn’t got a chance,” said Richard Bonham, director of operations at Big Life.

Nestled in the Chyulu Hills sits Ol Donyo Lodge, an exclusive 20-bed retreat that promises visitors a luxury safari experience without the traffic jam of minibuses and mass-market tourism. It offers activities unavailable in the national parks, such as guided walks and horseback safaris.

In the last two years, the lodge has generated more than $450,000 for the local Maasai ranch, a registered group of community members who own the surrounding area and essentially lease the land to the lodge.

The lodge also generates money for the local community through salaries and indirect flows of money into the local economy.

“Now in my house I have a TV, I have a battery and a mobile charging system. But before I didn’t have that because I wasn’t working,” said Isaac Lankoi, who works as a waiter in the lodge and is the only member of his family with a full-time job. He supports his extended family by buying them clothes and shoes when needed.

Esther Siokino is a businesswoman based in nearby Mbirikani township. She built her business around supplying groceries to the hotel staff. “I had a small business in the township, but I was requested by some people in the lodge to supply them, and then my business really picked up.”

But the lodge doesn’t help everyone. Benefits, such as scholarships funded by the conservancy fees, are reserved only for those who are card-carrying members of the Maasai ranch.

“Actually, because I’m not a Maasai I don’t benefit. In the employment sector they have to consider all of us Kenyans, not just the Maasai,” said Jacob Muthoka.

Muthoka grew up in Mbirikani town but is from the Kamba tribe, so he misses out on many of the benefits that the ranch members receive from the lodge. “If they take this tough line that we have to be group ranch members, actually we do lose a lot.”

As tourism increasingly underpins the local economy of Mbirikani town and the area around the Chyulu Hills, the local community is starting to see the value of wildlife differently, and acknowledge the importance of wildlife.

“If there are no lions, you’re not going to get a lease fee from the lodge, they will close down,” said Daniel Sambu, a Mbirikani local.

Sambu heads the Predator Conservation Fund, set up to compensate pastoralists who lose cattle to predators. “The tourists are actually coming in not to see the Maasai and their cows, they’re coming to see the lions and other wildlife.”

 New breed of poacher

But Ndivo warns that poachers are changing. “It’s not the past poaching, where they would lay some trap wires or use arrows. The poaching today is where they use guns. The poachers are not from these areas, they’re now coming from as far away as Somalia,” he said.

 We are not very well-armed and you are hunting somebody who is well-armed and trained.

– Francis Legei, Big Life operational commander

While the price of ivory fluctuates between $250 and $350 a kilogram, and rhino horn upwards of $20,000 a kilogram in markets such as China and Vietnam, the rewards far outweigh the risks for Kenya’s new breed of poacher.

Well-trained and equipped with assault rifles, many poachers have strong bush skills, are elusive and highly dangerous when encountered.

Some are fighters from neighbouring Somalia, while others come from the ranks of the Kenya Wildlife Service and its defence forces.

In January, an encounter between these community rangers and poachers ended in tragedy. While tracking a group of poachers through the Kasigau wildlife corridor, two unarmed Wildlife Works rangers were ambushed by the men they were following.

The poachers fatally shot Ranger Abdullahi Mohammed and seriously wounded his colleague Ijema Funan, who was shot in the face and shoulder.

The frontline of poaching in Kenya is not just in the national parks, but in the community-owned land manned by rangers who are ill-equipped and unprepared to face the new threat to their wildlife.

“You are hunting someone who is trained, he has the knowledge of the bush,” said Big Life operational commander Francis Legei. “And you find our guys there in the bush facing those kind of challenges. We are not very well-armed and you are hunting somebody who is well-armed and trained.”

If the value of Kenya’s wildlife continues to be worth more dead than alive, soon there may be no more elephants for rangers such as Ndivo and his community to protect.