By Peter Muiruri
The Magic of the Maasai Mara, lying on the South Westerly edge of Kenya is incomparable to anything else in the world. The sheer richness of the wildlife population in this little triangle of heaven takes us back to a time when nature ruled over everything.
To a time when there was only one king of the jungle and every other subject struggled to survive under his rich mane. To a time before man started jostling for space with the very nature that had nourished him for so long.
Mike Rakwa remembers these times well. He remembers how as a child lion sightings were an everyday occurrence. A time when dinnertime conversations were held around the incredible herds of elephants. A time when fathers talked fondly of incredible wildebeest migrations that forced entire homesteads to move in anticipation of the shaking ground from the impact of the hooves from the passing animals.
But over the years, he has seen all this change. The king of the jungle has become less confident with his dominance challenged every season with man’s expansion and encroachment into territories that were once his.
The elephants no longer roam free. The wildebeest migration lasting for shorter periods than he remembers. In the years that have followed his childhood, he has seen change on incredible scale. He has seen the Maasai Mara ecosystem change. Change from a heaven to something else. And he doesn’t like it.
Rakwa, a driver and tour guide in Ol Seki Hemingways Mara’s camp speaks impeccable English. In any case, he has rubbed shoulders with foreign guests at the camp numerous times than he cares to remember.
But Rakwa, whose home lies on the edge of the 50,000-acre Naboisho Conservancy is like any other Maasai man. He is deeply attached to his cattle. It is the culture here, like elsewhere in the open plains that he has roamed since he was a child dreaming only of having as much land as possible for grazing the cows that bellowed in his dreams as a young boy.
With time though, he and hundreds of others have understood the sacrifice that stares them in the face. There isn’t more land to amass individually. The human population has exploded over the past five decades.
His village of Paiya hasn’t been spared either. Now, homesteads can be seen dotting the once open plains as land subdivision after the passing on of patriarchs takes centre stage. With each subdivision comes the erasure of one of his childhood memories. Each subdivision means less space for the thousands of species nourished by the Mara. Each subdivision means less space for the elephants to walk. Less space for the leopards to hunt. Less space for the squirrels to hide their nuts.
Every new boundary, a nail in the ecosystem’s coffin.
“If this continues, then the Mara will surely die.”Rakwa.
He speaks slowly, as if internalising the sacrifices that he, and many others have made in their decision to forfeit their right to individual land ownership for something that they believe will offer a lifeline in preserving some bits of their childhood.
Instead of owning individual titles, they have set aside personal land ownership ambitions for the establishment of the Naboisho Conservancy- a conservancy in the Mara heartland.
Rakwa is one of 600 individuals who formed the conservancy in 2010. The Conservancy is part of 17 of such within the greater Mara that have become lifelines to the endangered wildlife. Others include Ol Kinyei, Olare Motorogi, Lemek, Mara North, and Siana. Currently, over 14,500 landowners have joined their parcels of land to form the conservancies here.
According to Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association, the area under conservancies increased to more than 1,450 km² in 2019 from 970 km² in 2015. This is almost the same area covered by Maasai Mara National Reserve.
The conservancies have taken some pressure off Maasai Mara Game Reserve where human activities were starting to become unsustainable. In addition, several conservation reports have highlighted the dwindling wildlife dispersal areas as more human settlements crop up in the region.
Fencing, for example, is rife in the Loita region as more people buy land here and convert it into other forms of land use that are not compatible with conservation. The fencing has interfered with the migration of some herbivores from Loita to the Mara.
A recent study by scientists from the University of Groningen, Germany, revealed how regions bordering the Mara-Serengeti conservation area have seen a 400 per cent increase in human population over the past decade. In addition, wildlife populations in Mara side were reduced by more than 75 per cent.
“True, a growing population has seen more land that formerly served as dispersal corridors give way to farming, human settlement, and infrastructure development,” says Dickson Kaelo, head of Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA).
Kaleo also says that inadequate investment in national parks and a lack of a strategy to manage the more than 60 per cent of the country’s wildlife outside protected areas has resulted in a more calamitous loss of wildlife species.
But it is through the actions of men like Rakwa that hope exists for the wildlife in the greater Mara to thrive. In their former lifestyles, such men would have wasted no opportunity to spear a problematic lion. They have now become ardent defenders of the felines. It means cash in their pockets.
“We are now the local ambassadors for Mara wildlife. Our forefathers lived together in perfect harmony with wildlife. We are not just conserving for foreigners but for our own posterity,” he tells me as we take a drink in the camp overlooking a croton bush.
But how does the conservancy model work?
Ideally, a conservancy is a commercial venture and an alternative form of land use to the local Maasai community. Basically, a group of private landowners pool their parcels together to form a conservancy. Then they identify tourism operators willing to set up safari camps within the block of land.
Funds received by the tourism operator through bed nights are then shared between the landowners and tourism operators. For the Maasai landowners, this is a win-win situation.
In Naboisho, the local Maasai are the landlords to proprietors of high end camp such as Ol Hemingways, Asilia Encounter Mara, Eagle View and Kicheche Valley Camp. Richard Branson’s Mahali Mzuri as well as Kempinski’s Olare Mara are tenants at Olare Motorogi conservancy.
The important thing to the local communities remains the fact that the conservancy model allows them to practice controlled grazing, a double benefit to a people whose love for livestock is unmatched.
“We want to dispel the misconception that setting up the conservancy will prevent the Maasai from grazing within the conservancy. In fact, grazing has everything to do with conserving the wild animals in the greater Mara ecosystem. Usually, herbivores in the Mara dislike tall grass. It is not very nutritious while smaller antelopes find it hard to see predator in the tall grass. Thus grazing allows new shoots to sprout, attracting herbivores to these spaces,” says Rakwa.
The grazing, however, is done in a systematic manner. Usually, the grazing committee liaises with conservancy rangers so that livestock does not interfere with tourism activities.
On the other hand, camp operators have exclusive rights to game drives within the conservancies. The regulations limit the number of beds in a camp as well as the vehicles within the conservancy.
Guests accommodated within a conservancy have the benefit of early morning or night game drives, activities that are not allowed in government-regulated parks. That’s not all. Conservancies epitomise the luxury of safaris. From scenic sundowners in vantage locations, bush breakfasts with the backdrop of cuddling cubs and lunches next to the rushing, crocodile and hippo-infested rivers. Then there are bush walks in the open plains, where, with lions lurking in the shadows, just raises one’s adrenalin further.
“The animals seem to feel safe in conservancies as there is little disturbance unlike in parks that are overused,” says Raphael Rotiken, a tour guide in Ol Seki.
The conservancies have become a dragnet, reeling in employment opportunities to members of the local community who feel excluded by the country’s formal system. Many locals are employed as drivers, tour guides, chefs and security personnel within the parks.
Rotiken is one of them. He started working in Ol Seki soon after leaving the nearby Koiyaki Guiding School also located within Naboisho.
The lanky lad says involving members of the local community in conservation helps them see wildlife, not just a resource that benefits foreigners, but a means of reducing the highly emotive human-wildlife conflicts.
Young men his age would be busy going through the rites of passage that characterize the male members of the community. These rites include killing a lion, a practice he terms retrogressive at this age.
“As a stakeholder in a conservancy, it is to my advantage that wildlife is protected. Visitors come to conservancies due to the great wildlife viewing experiences. There is no way I can kill a lion here knowing too well that my economic wellbeing depends on these animals,” he says.
But even as men like Rakwa give out their land for conservation, there are those who feel the contracts between them and tour operators are skewed toward the latter.
The presence of high-end camps gives some the impression that they are holding the short end of the stick.
In September last year, a group of landowners protested around Mara North, protesting a change in the management of their community. One directed his anger to ‘foreigners’ – or camp proprietors whom he said enjoyed the good things in life while Maasai children wallowed in poverty.
“Their children live very well, they attend high-end schools, while ours continue to languish in poverty. So we’re taking our land back from the foreigners to plant maize and wheat, which are more profitable. We’ll do electric fences to keep out elephants,” Kennedy Lepore told Al Jazeera then.
With land lease payments amounting to more than Sh400 million annually, such flare ups are likely to erupt.
How landowners and tour camp operators handle such dicey situations can make or break the noble goal of setting up the conservancies. However, the biggest challenge currently facing the conservancies, and to an extent, all other tourism establishments is the lack of visitors owing to the ongoing Covid 19 pandemic.
Several conservancies sent out appeals for funding to their international clientele, if only to appease their landlords. Any challenges notwithstanding, there is a general consensus that the conservancy model is the way to go in preserving a natural resource that most of the world has lost.
And through them, the future generations too could marvel at the greatness of nature. The unpredictability of the buffalo. The surprising nurture of a mother elephant and the happy go lucky attitude of a dik dik couple looking for a nest.