The larger landscape includes all of Samburu District (within which the reserve lies) and parts of three other districts, most notably Laikipia, a high-elevation patchwork of private ranches and sanctuaries, community conservation areas, wheat fields, fences, mountain slopes, stream valleys, roads, and shambas (small family farms) just to the south. In Laikipia, zones of wildlife habitat, crop production, cattle husbandry, and human habitation are juxtaposed like a spilled box of multicolored mosaic tiles. Samburu, by contrast, has fewer shambas and scarcely any fences. The Samburu people, who speak a dialect of the Maa language, have shown little inclination to surrender their traditional ways—tending goats and cattle, costuming themselves resplendently (especially the young men) in beads and feathers and red shukas (blankets), exchanging raids against their ancient enemies—in favor of modern, pusillanimous practices such as growing crops. Their traditionalism, along with a shortage of good soils and water and a growing awareness of the economic benefits of tourism, has so far spared Samburu District from the sort of intensive land conversion seen in parts of Laikipia. The combined Samburu-Laikipia ecosystem comprises roughly 11,000 square miles, and within it live about 5,400 elephants—the largest population of Loxodonta Africana existing mainly outside protected areas anywhere in Kenya.
That population size and its current growth (at perhaps several percent a year) reflect the fact that Samburu-Laikipia is a productive, hospitable landscape for elephants, but two other adjectives are also applicable: edgy and complicated. Within the mosaic of mixed uses and shifting seasonal conditions, elephants face certain risks. So do people. Conflicts occur, resulting occasionally in a crop devastated by raiding elephants, or a cow killed, or an elephant shot, or a person trampled and tusked. And with Kenya's human population also growing by more than 2 percent annually, the potential for such conflicts can only increase. Decisions will be made about what should be protected (elephant travel corridors? cornfields? the right of people to continue establishing new farms?) and what must be sacrificed. Douglas-Hamilton's goal is to supply the makers of those decisions with scientific information more detailed and more timely, and therefore more useful, than any hitherto available. It's not precisely the same research agenda with which he began his career, but it's in the same spirit. It's where the contours of the landscape have led him.