Porini's 'small is beautiful' conservation concept

Serene: The plains of Maasai Mara. A group of tourists camping at the Maasai Mara
Serene: The plains of Maasai Mara. A group of tourists camping at the Maasai Mara

Get ready for the great migration. Already the action has begun. The beasts are kicking up the dust and hurtling towards the river, jostling aggressively for the best crossing. The same applies to the tourist safari vehicles.

The East African Wild Life Society and all who wish Kenya well, lament the decline in tourism that has robbed the nation of revenue and tens of thousands of jobs. And this is not to decry the amazement visitors take away from the wildebeest migration, nor the benefits of upmarket tourist dollars.

But there are other ways to enjoy the Maasai Mara natural miracle and that is through experiencing the serenity at Porini camps operated by Gamewatchers, whose CEO is Jake Grieves-Cook.

Porini is a Swahili word meaning “in the wilds,” and the camps teach us that Small is Beautiful. Established in private conservancies in wildlife dispersal areas adjacent to the Maasai Mara National Reserve, the Porini concept goes much further than a percentage of bed night income for the locals.

The conservancies on which the camps sit were a patchwork of individually owned small holdings until Grieves-Cook came along. He negotiated with the owners, offered them a guaranteed rental income and welded the resultant pieces into somewhere the animals could roam unhindered and unthreatened for small, low-impact camps based on the principle of a maximum of one tent per 700 acres.

There is also a limit on vehicles – one per 1,400 acres. “Fewer vehicles, fewer tourists mean not only a better wildlife experience for the visitor, it also means less pressure on the wildlife and the land, fewer tracks, fewer disruption to the ecosystem. It’s key,” says Grieves-Cook.

The owners of the land move outside the conservancy borders into the hundreds of thousands of acres beyond. This is also where they graze their cattle, lessening the chance of illegal grazing encroachment that is the bane of conservancies elsewhere in Kenya. “In return, they get rental income from a percentage share of the bed nights, and jobs. More than ninety percent of the people Gamewatchers employs are local people,” says Harry Maina, the Gamewatchers’ relief manager and a tourism veteran.

“When there is no tourism income, we have to bear the lease costs ourselves. In normal times, hosting a relatively small number of tourists covers the cost. However with the total collapse of tourism, we have to fund this ourselves and the money comes from our own business reserves,” says Grieves-Cook, who has 40 years experience in the tourism industry.

Ol Kinyei was the first conservancy established using in this process, in 2005. It has grown in size from an original 9,800 acres owned by 85 families to 18,000 acres and 150 families. “Where we are sitting, right here, was once a village with 150 people,” says Maina, as we share at lunch at Porini Mara camp. “They grazed their cattle around here, where lions, leopard and cheetah freely roamed. So if a cow was attacked, they went after the lion or leopard or cheetah and killed it. That was their way.”

“Now they don’t live here but have settled elsewhere. They have money in their pockets and some of their relatives got jobs. Today, I know where this lioness nearby with cubs barely a month old, is. That would not have happened before Jake.”

The Porini concept has also helped preserve parts of the outer Mara from massive fragmentation, fencing and development whilst improving the lives of the Maasai locals around over the years. Gone are many of the traditional mud manyattas they lived in. Nowadays they live in tin-roofed huts with satellite dishes to pipe down TV dramas and motorbikes to get around on. They are part of Kenya’s cash economy.

There are no fences dividing the conservancy from the nearest village. People come and go but there is respect for the boundaries that conservation demands.

Gamewatchers has put about $1million (Kes. 96Million) back into the conservancies in 2013 benefits, with no cost to the community at all. And all this has been done without funds from donors or the intervention of NGOs and Foundations.

Cynthia Moss, a conservation doyenne from the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, praised the establishment at Selenkay Conservancy where Amboseli Porini camp is located.

“Jake Grieves-Cook has been one of the pioneers in the conservancy movement,” she wrote in a recent letter made available to SWARA.

“The establishment of conservancies in Kenya has been the single most successful conservation initiative since the creation of national parks in the 1940s.”

WATCH: The latest videos from the Star