Online, Mordecai Ogada deals in exclamation points. “Calling class to order!” is his Facebook tagline, and the conservationist is known for angry posts calling out colleagues, government officials, foreign do-gooders and fellow Kenyans.
In person, his approach is softer, more persuasive, but no less forceful. On a drizzly weekday night, Ogada draws a crowd of 50 at Pawa254, a center for activism and social justice, for a talk titled “Conservation: The Quiet Spread of Imperialism.” He pleads with the audience to wake up to the grave reality that Kenyans are losing sovereignty over their own land to nongovernmental organization–backed nature conservancies and expat-led animal projects. The audience — teachers, public servants, NGO staffers, students, fellow scientists — nods, mmm hmms and shouts back throughout.
Ogada calls his fellow environmental scientists “prostitutes,” explaining they will find a “simplistic solution to feed back into donors looking for instant gratification.”
Over a strawberry milkshake at a Nairobi café, Ogada, 49, projects thoughtfulness and humility when preaching his radical yet simple mantra: people first. Conservationists in Africa, he says, overlook the challenges confronting local populations — land loss, drought, urbanization — as they work to save the animals. “Conservation needs to be honest,” he says. “The biggest problem is the myth in the media worldwide that ‘African wildlife is in peril’ and that the danger to African wildlife is Black people, living or ‘poaching.’ Kenyans should know better.”
Kenya’s brand of conservation, he says, is tourism-driven, intrinsically racist and comes at a steep cost to indigenous communities that live near wildlife. After years as a researcher, Ogada, an ecologist who studies carnivores and earned his Ph.D. at Kenyatta University, teamed up with journalist John Mbaria to write The Big Conservation Lie, published last year.
Throughout his career, he’s always ruffled feathers. Ogada calls his fellow environmental scientists “prostitutes,” explaining they will find a “simplistic solution to feed back into donors looking for instant gratification.” Foreigners who love animals and have good intentions, he says, will propose facile solutions to complex issues. For example, fencing large areas of land to protect a rhino can disrupt livelihoods for herders of cattle or goats.
Space for Giants, an organization that protects elephants, declined to comment directly on Ogada but directed me to its values statement, which reads: “The conservation crisis is a human crisis. We understand wildlife and landscapes must provide people benefits. We are committed to conservation in a human context.” Four other well-known Kenya-based conservation organizations declined to comment on Ogada’s views.
Fellow ecologists attending Ogada’s Nairobi lecture found this unsurprising, telling me there is little productive dialogue between activists and large organizations. But Shivani Bhalla, executive director of Ewaso Lions, an organization dedicated to protecting lions and large carnivores, believes “Mordecai brings to light a lot of issues that require attention.” For her, “conservation is and always will be about how local people are engaged in conservation of the species around them. Mordecai is on board with this and our collective battle is to keep Kenyans invested … and bring more on board.”
Ogada didn’t get into the game solely to be an agitator. Raised by an agronomist father and a political scientist mother, Ogada seems a perfect blend of both. With a deep reverence for Kenya’s natural landscapes coupled with an activist’s spark, he knew he wanted to work in wildlife from an early age. His first degree was in zoology, but after finding it too emotionally difficult to work with sick and injured animals, he changed course and studied ecology.
While pursuing his master’s, Ogada completed field research on reducing the loss of herdsmen’s livestock to carnivores in Laikipia, which has the largest concentration of White landowners in Kenya’s 47 counties. Laikipia made international headlines in 2017 when local herdsmen invaded ranches and animal conservancies with their livestock, responding to brutal drought conditions and calls from local politicians, who many say were manipulating historical grievances.
As a master’s student in 2000, Ogada says Laikipia was “still very much [in] a colonial time warp.… For many of these ranch-owning families, I was the first sort-of educated African any of them had spoken to or sat down to lunch with.” When the ranchers drove their pickup trucks, he recalls, Black people sat in the bed, while the dogs sat up front.
Ogada’s supervisor on the field project once hired a helicopter from a ranch owner to track lions from the air, but the pilot refused to take Ogada up — flying Ogada’s White research assistant instead. While Ogada acknowledges racist attitudes are not universal, he says they are widespread in conservation, which he calls “colonialism’s last bastion in Africa.… Now, settlers are tourists.”
A person in the Laikipia community, who declined to be identified to avoid taking a public stance on a sensitive issue, insists times have changed and says if ranchers there have issues with Ogada, it’s due to his scientific approach, not his race. “The consensus among the conservation and ranching community is that Mordecai’s beliefs … ignore clear evidence of severe ecological damage in areas where pastoralist communities and wildlife cohabitate,” the person says.
But for Ogada, “pastoralists” simply means “Black people who are already living on the land.” He blames structural racism and profit motives for the current state of conservation: “Save the elephant, get money from [the] tourist.”
Instead, he maintains that pastoralist communities can live in harmony with wildlife, and removing the barriers will pay off for everyone in the long term. Working through the Kenyan tourism board, he’s pushing companies to market safari experiences that include seeing Masai people with their cows among the elephants.
These days, Ogada teaches and consults out of Nanyuki, Kenya, where he lives with his wife, an ichthyologist (fish specialist), and two children. Though he feels boxed out of traditional roles in the conservation sector, he will carry on rattling cages to change the system for the sake of his country — one exclamation point at a time.
“If you want to see an elephant, go to a zoo,” he says. “If you want to see wildlife without local herdsmen around, go to Botswana. The people, the whole ecosystem functioning, that elephant near a herd of goats — that’s magical. That’s what’s special about Kenya.”
5 Questions for Mordecai Ogada
What was the last book you read? What Is the What, by Dave Eggers.
What was the last film you saw? Not Black Panther, which my 11-year-old is pissed about! I watch a lot of kids’ films these days. Recently we watched Mrs. Doubtfire at home.
What do you worry about? Loss of social consciousness in Kenya. Be it in conservation, education and all that.
What’s on your bucket list? I want to see a snow leopard. For that, I’ll have to go to Pakistan or northern Indian states.
What’s your favorite food? Chapati. With any stew or with tea.
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.