Natural World Hero

Richard Roberts

Founder of the Mara Elephant Project (MEP), established in 2010 to track and protect elephants in the Mara, kenya

Founder of the Mara Elephant Project - Richard Roberts

Born in Kenya and raised in the Maasai Mara, Richard Roberts has an incredible passion for this part of the world. His love for the people and wildlife that call it home is evident through his incredible stories that resonate with a lifetime of knowledge and the personal rapport he has built with the locals of the region.

Seeing first-hand the threats to the elephant population in the Mara, Richard began to develop a plan to monitor elephants to better understand their movements and to influence their survival.

Bringing together a team of researchers, conservationists, government officials, safari operators and wildlife advocates, he established the Mara Elephant Project (MEP) in 2010 to track and protect elephants in the Mara.

With continuing hands-on management of the project, Richard is a driving force behind the future of elephants in the Mara. 

He has become a leader in wildlife conservation, reaching out to a vast network of contacts, establishing partnerships with key stakeholders and obtaining important recognition for the project.

After spending time with him at Richard’s Camp in 2013, Will Bolsover, Natural World Safaris MD said “Richard’s vision and passion for the Mara’s wildlife is contagious. His hands-on approach, and tireless work at the front-line of conservation, has had a significant impact on protecting elephants within the Mara while raising wider awareness on human conflict with the wildlife in this region. He has firmly put the challenges of elephant conservation in the Mara on the international stage."

We are delighted to recognise his work in the field of conservation by selecting him as one of our ten Natural World Heroes.

Interview with Richard Roberts 

Why is the Masai Mara such an important natural world location and why does it need protecting?

I was brought up in the Maasai Mara and have spent most of my life here. Having been lucky enough to travel many of the other amazing wildlife areas of Africa I have come to realize how incredibly special the Mara is. With year round wildlife densities in this giant open ecosystem, the Mara is hard to beat.

What has been your best natural world experience to date?

It is hard to pick one. We did a helicopter trip around the Virunga national park to visit the chimpanzees and gorillas. The astounding biodiversity of the oldest national park in Africa really did get us going. A volcano was erupting while we were there, shooting lava 1000ft into the air from ground level and we watched the lava flows slowly moving through the rain forest, trekked for gorillas and chimps, flew around the mountains of the moon and camped the night looking down into the bubbling lava lake of Mount Nyaragongo - an incredible trip.

What high priority conservation challenges do you feel the natural world is facing at the moment?

Our biggest challenge here in the Mara is the un-checked encroachment of people across the traditional wildlife range land. People plant crops and farm livestock coming directly into conflict with thewildlife. Elephants and buffalo break fences and destroy crops while lions and hyena kill the livestock, so a fight begins and wildlife rarely wins. Our human population is increasing and there will be more and more pressure on our natural resources. In the end, wild areas will have to be producing enough benefit to the local people so that the people themselves agree to leave the land as it is.

Tourism is a great way to raise funds, employ people and pay the way for wildlife / habitat protection, but with the way the world is at the moment we have found we cant rely on it, We urgently need to find other ways of making these areas sustainable.

Can we as members of the public do anything that genuinely helps preserve the natural world?

Without the great support, hard work and input of a few great people who first came to Kenya as tourists, the Mara Elephant Project may never have got off the ground. I think people can help by visiting projects on the ground when they travel. It can give a great insight into the good and bad of an area. Meeting people with real passion and dedication to the natural world can be quite inspirational.

Do you have a single most influential or defining moment when you knew that you had to take action to try and protect the declining elephant population in the Mara?

For years and years, we treated elephants with conflict wounds and as time went by, the problem became worse and worse. We had a big beautiful matriarch elephant that lived her life with her family group right around our Forest Camp; she came back one day from one of the conflict areas with horrendous wounds from spears and arrows and although we treated her three times, she finally died a few hundred meters from our camp where she felt safe. Sadly we couldn’t save her little calf who died not long after. Over time you begin to feel a real connection with individual animals as you get to spend time with them. I think this old ladies’ fate sealed our commitment to push on and get MEP under way.

What were the biggest challenges you faced when establishing the Mara Elephant Project and how did you overcome them?

Our greatest challenge when setting up the Mara elephant project was finding the funding. We had never run a charity or fund-raised before so we had no experience or track record to get us started. We managed after six years to finally get the fledgling project funded and up and running.

What is the most effective approach to human-wildlife co-existence and conflict?

Sadly I think its all about money in this day and age. If communities that share their land with wildlife benefit enough from the wildlife then they can coexist.

Who is your own personal Natural World Hero and why?

Well I have quite a few but here are just three of them.

My father Willie Roberts for his work in the Mara against all the odds years ago. He challenged the government for the right to collect revenue from wildlife on private land. This paved the way for community benefiting tourism around Kenya and saved a huge chunk of the Masai Mara from being converted into wheat land.

Emmanuel DeMerode for his devotion and huge personal sacrifice to the Virunga National Park.

James Ekriu, senior warden of MEP who is out there right now keeping our elephants safe

What is your dream natural world destination, somewhere you haven't yet travelled to?

I look forward to someday visiting Chad and Niger, for ancient rock art, and the vast Sahara and Gabon for rainforest wilderness, surfing hippos and elephants on the beach.

What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?

Enjoy the natural world and if you can, do something to look after it.