By Bob Bahr
Sure, many people care about conservation efforts. An even higher percentage of wildlife artists feel that way. But how many go so far as to buy bomas for sanctuaries?
Guy Combes does. So there’s one.
What? You have another question? Ah! A boma is a mobile enclosure for livestock. Think of it like a playpen for cows. It can be set up quickly and offers some protection against predators.
Now back to Combes.
Conservation comes naturally for him; it’s in his blood. Combes’s father, Simon, moved his family to the area now known as the Soysambu Conservancy in 1953 after nine years elsewhere in Kenya. The elder Combes was an artist, a legacy that, paired with his interest in conservation, helped shape Guy Combes. “He was very passionate about wildlife, like everyone in this room is,” Combes told the SKBers.
After Simon’s untimely death in 2004, the Soysambu area was rededicated to conservation, spurred by Guy, and Simon’s second wife, Kat. Now the Soysambu Conservancy is at a place in which new challenges call for new solutions and more funding. Guy is up to the task.
During the SKB Rendezvous in Dubois, Wyoming in September, Combes gave an evening talk about his conservation efforts in Africa. He explained how winning the Simon Combes Award from Artists for Conservation made him feel like things had come full circle. It’s an understandable feeling. He did receive a conservation award named after his father, after all–the person who imprinted the importance of conservation in Guy’s heart and mind.
It wasn’t the first time Combes felt this. Simon Combes was scheduled to teach at an SKB Dubois workshop, but he was killed by a cape buffalo before he could do so. Years later, Guy was able to serve as a featured instructor at an SKB Dubois workshop. At that workshop, he mentioned that he felt he had come full circle, fulfilling a promise to SKB that his father didn’t get the chance to fulfill. This year, his success in exceeding any expectations SKB may have had for him or his father was acknowledged and celebrated with Guy’s acceptance of the Rose Award, the highest honor given to SKB participants.
The Rose Award is given to an SKBer who consistently and generously gives of his or her time and energy to help the Susan Kathleen Black Foundation fulfill its mission in arts education. The award is closely tied to the Dubois workshop/Rendezvous, but is not exclusively pinned to simply acknowledging help with the workshop. Certainly, Guy’s constant willingness to help developing artists with art-related questions—and the levity delivered by his and partner Andrew Denman’s annual skit/game show/lounge act/variety show/comedy hour on the workshop’s last evening—have contributed heartily to the overall experience of the SKB Rendezvous.
But Combes’s history and experience in Africa and in the painting studio also help make him an inspiring mentor, teacher, fellow painter, and friend. One of the topics SKBers often find themselves discussing with Combes is protecting wildlife, especially the animals of Kenya.
Conservation is just as complicated an issue in Kenya as it is in the United States—just in different ways. Cattle are hunted by fierce carnivores, sparking anger in ranchers … but the Maasai—the great cattlemen of Africa, who believe that a god gave them divine right to owning all the world’s cattle—knew how to create an environment that allowed cattle and lions to share territory without undue losses. “The lions were there before people, and the early custodians of the land managed to keep the number of predators down and yet still conserve,” Combes says. “The Maasai and Samburu knew how to coexist with lions. They haven’t been able to pass that knowledge down, though.”
In the colonial era and into the mid 20th Century, the lions were hunted for sport and to control their population and their impact on game and cattle. “The last indigenous lions at Soysambu were hunted out by Lord Delamere, the Prince of Wales, Theodore Roosevelt, and other wealthy colonists. There were no lions on Soysambu from the early ’80s until three years ago,” says Combes. “Hunting them didn’t matter so much then because there were so many lions elsewhere, but now lions are on the red list as endangered species.”
Which means there is a very strong legal reason to protect—to conserve—the lions on Soysambu. But, conservation being what it is in this world, the people legally responsible for the lions don’t want to put forth the effort to manage them. “In Kenya the government technically owns the wildlife,” Combes explains. “So we called them about two pregnant lionesses, and they said, ‘They are your lions now; they are your responsibility.'”
Soysambu itself no longer tries to rely on raising cattle to keep it afloat. That’s why it’s now a conservancy. But area ranchers still must deal with the appetites of the lions. “Lions are very efficient predators,” Combes remarks. “At Soysambu, there are 5,000 zebras—and zebras are good at reproduction, are heartier than horses or mules, and they are aggressive. Without predators, there’s no balance to keep their numbers down. Then there are 2,000 cape buffalo, and elands, warthogs—a banquet for the lions. The wildlife overpopulation, the overgrazing, and the predation causes friction between the ranchers and the wildlife.”
In other words, the ranchers grew furious as the lions started to eat their cattle in significant amounts, even while other, wild herbivores muscled in on the cattle’s grazing areas. The solution? Bomas.
“Boma” is technically the name of a fence. It is set in a circle, one just big enough to hold the cattle. “Bomas are built of steel and mesh,” says Combes. “You can adjust the size. You stake them into the ground. The cattle must be packed in tight so they don’t panic and injure themselves if a predator comes around.” Because they are relatively easy to set up and take down, bomas are a flexible, affordable solution to keeping some animals in and others out.
Affordable doesn’t mean free, and to this end, Combes puts his art into the effort. Combes and Denman regularly paint in Quick Draw events—both on location and via streaming video—and donate the profits to Soysambu and similar causes. They have already funded the equivalent of 20 bomas at $2,500 a piece. “I took the Quick Draw idea from SKB and from the Jackson Hole Arts Festival,” Combes says. “It’s amazing. People just want to throw money at it, as they watch that painting develop. I can donate two hours in the studio, broadcast it online and make a lot of money for conservation. It helps me as well. I use it as a chance to challenge myself, like I’m doing an exercise. I’m getting better with each Quick Draw, so I will continue to do them. We raised $40,000 in the last year and half.” Ω
His efforts show how conservation works when there is an open dialogue among all interested and concerned parties. Combes won’t say it’s easy. But it’s worth it.
Want to help? You can start by purchasing a print by Combes that supports conservation efforts. Click here.
This original painting of a lion was set aside with 50% of the sale price going to the boma project. It was recently purchased by a conservation advocate.
Keep up with future fundraising quick draws by Combes through his Facebook page.