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February 23, 2019

WYCLIFFE MUGA: What exactly is a conservancy?

Wildlife conservation
Wildlife conservation

It could be argued that the Maasai, more than most other tribes in Kenya, have resisted all attempts to get them to change the way they live.

And yet some years ago, within Narok county, an odd thing happened: A Maasai clan which owned a large ranch adjacent to Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve, deliberately moved out of this area and took their cattle with them, leaving a vast empty plain.

After the next rainy season, as new grass filled these plains, the zebras, gazelles, wildebeest and other herbivores moved in; these were followed by the big cats that prey on them — the lions, cheetahs and leopards. And thereafter, elephants and buffaloes were also seen in this area.

In time, this area was full of wild animals of every kind. For of course, the Maasai had not systematically abandoned this large and fertile piece of land without reason. Eventually involving yet more clans and adding up to an estimated 50,000 acres, these are what are now known as the Ol Kinyei, Olare Orok and Olare Motorogi conservancies.

An agreement had been reached between the Maasai leaders and an elite tour operator, that his company would lease this land from them to create these conservancies with the view to providing a unique and exclusive safari experience.

Because these 50,000 acres represented only part of their joint land holdings, the clans still had plenty of grazing for their herds, further afield, away from the carnivores which previously strayed out of the Masai Mara to prey on their cattle. In this way was a win-win situation created for all parties: the landowners were getting a better return from their land and also employment opportunities in tourism.

The tourists who go there get to see plenty of wildlife without having to take their place in a long queue as often happens inside many of Kenya’s more popular game parks: As one writer put it, “…fighting with the crowds to get a clear view of a lion or rhino is a far cry from the at-one-with-nature experience most envisage when dreaming of Africa.” Above all, the wildlife from the Masai Mara had additional space in which to roam undisturbed.

There is sound science, as well as sound economics, behind the idea of conservancies: by making it economically viable for ‘land rich, but cash poor landowners to volunteer a portion of their land for use by wildlife and working to prevent the poisoning and poaching of wild species, it is possible to start restoring wildlife populations and their ecosystems.

The foregoing is actually extracted substantially from a report I wrote after a visit to the Olare Orok Conservancy, about a decade ago, to talk to the local community leaders about their experience as partners in this innovative tourism venture.

And since then, more and more grazing lands located close to Kenya’s game parks have in recent years been voluntarily opened up by the local communities for the creation of such conservancies. For example, in the areas adjacent to the Masai Mara alone, there are the Naibosho Conservancy and the Mara North Conservancy, among others.

It must be emphasised that in this area around the Masai Mara, the land which has been set aside for conservancies represents only a very small percentage of the total former group ranch land of Narok county. And that the pastoralists yet retain grazing areas in the over one million acres beyond the conservancies.

However not everyone is a fan of these conservancies. And the views of these critics are worthy of mention, even though I personally find it hard to take them seriously.

There are those who still hold that the conserving of wildlife, forests, and other natural treasures of the country are a sacred trust and a ‘priceless heritage’ which should be shielded from purely economic considerations. Basically, they argue that the Kenyan taxpayer — possibly supported by ‘the donor community’ — should shoulder the burden of supporting Kenya’s wildlife populations, in the face of increasing human population pressure.

As I said, I find it hard to take this seriously.

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