Willie Roberts was one of the greatest and most instrumental ambassadors for wildlife conservation in Kenya. He set up the first Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya in the Maasai Mara, essentially founding the ‘conservancy movement’, saving the greater area from being carved up for farming, laying down a clear path of success for community conservancies in Kenya and setting an example and an inspiration for others to follow.
In the 1980s, Willie and Sue moved to the Maasai Mara with the intentions of setting up a farm, but soon realized the land is better suited for wildlife. Willie was the first in the Maasai Mara to convert his rented land into a conservancy that the Maasai landowners could collect wildlife-based income from – he called it Ol Chorro Oiroua Group Ranch.
At the time, the area was rife with human/wildlife conflict, inspiring Willie to change their plan to farm. Instead, he set out to persuade the Minister of Environment to change land use policy so local communities benefitted from wildlife. The legal battle was long, but the lawyer who won the case in Kenya’s High Court, Stephen Mwenezi, was one of the speakers to pay tribute to Willie in the Mara on April 27, 2019. Over a thousand people attended Willie’s memorial in the Mara, including many Maasai who now protect wildlife as an asset.
“At a young age, he navigated political minefields, negotiating with President Moi, Paramount Chief Ole Ntutu, and many Trans Mara County Council representatives, to set up the Ol Chorro Oiroua Wildlife Management Association. Group Ranch, and the Mara North Conservancy. Willie achieved all of this under great political pressure and personal risk, and it marked a turning point in the Kenya Conservation Landscape. Today, conservancies are well established throughout Kenya thanks to his pioneering work.” – Prof. Judi Wakhungu, former Minister of Environment, Water, & Natural Resources for Kenya.
Willie didn’t stop there - he went on to establish the Mara Conservancy in an area that was known for its rampant poaching and hunting.
Ian Craig, the founder of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and Willie’s brother-in-law and lifelong friend, attributes the success of the rhino population on Lewa to Willie, who in 1992 bid on White Rhino at an auction in South Africa. With scarcely the money to even transport the rhino back to Kenya, Willie gambled with characteristic confidence. That starter population of 5 rhino from South Africa resulted in the 80 White Rhino on Lewa Wildlife Conservancy today, nearly three decades later.
His final legacy, Sirikoi, evolved from Willie’s lifelong commitment to wildlife conservation combined with community development. On hearing a large parcel of land adjacent to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy was at risk of development, he and partners purchased it to secure it for wildlife and incorporate it within Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Once again they converted farmland into a wildlife sanctuary, but this time, at the forefront of sustainably green design, added solar-powered energy and a garden supplying vegetables, fruits and flowers to the lodge. Sirikoi soon became Kenyas top Eco lodge. 3 months before Willie passed away, Sirikoi was voted Africa’s Leading Luxury Lodge 2017 in the World Travel Awards, becoming the only lodge in Kenya to achieve this title.
Willie spent his life in conservation and helping communities living in wildlife areas to exist in harmony with each other. Willie was a true visionary, and one of the forefathers of wildlife conservation in Kenya.