In recent years a number of private wildlife conservancies have been created on Maasai rangelands that adjoin the world famous Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. With its iconic reputation, especially as a safari destination for the annual wildebeest migration, the Masai Mara attracts huge numbers of tourists every year with many visitors not considering the surrounding conservancies as a suitable alternative. The guide books and wildlife documentaries lead visitors into the Mara itself despite the fact that the experience is not always as wild and exclusive as the pictures may suggest.
There are now over 25 permanent camps and lodges in the Masai Mara NR and large numbers of safari vehicles crossing the reserve, which means that the chances of exclusive wildlife sightings are limited in peak season. Sadly, the reserve is estimated to have lost well over half of some of the major game species in the past 25 years, including a staggering 75% decline in buffalo and 95% in giraffe numbers. Tourism pressure is believed to have played a role in this decline, but the effects of climate change and an increasing pressure from commercial cultivation around the periphery of the reserve are the biggest culprits.
The areas outside the actual national reserve’s boundary are important dispersal regions for wildlife, particularly in the dry season, which includes the peak European summer holiday months. The Mara itself accounts for just one third of the entire eco-system (red-brown area in map below) with the so-called dispersal zones playing a crucial role in supporting the large herds of game and associated predators. It is here, in these Maasai owned rangelands that private conservancies are emerging, providing the type of wilderness experience that was once possible in the Masai Mara itself. It all began in the mid-1990’s with Ol Kinyei Conservancy that was established by a partnership of 70 Maasai families and a local tour operator.
The years since have seen more and more conservancies created with staggering results for the local Maasai, the tourists, and the wildlife populations. Naboisho Conservancy now e.g. has the greatest density of lion in Kenya. The BBC have moved their filming of the Big Cat Diary to the Leopard Gorge region of Mara North conservancy in recognition of the excellent game sightings available there.
Traditionally, the Maasai have always lived in harmony with the wild game that shares their pastoral land. Whilst regular burning to open the bush for game viewing and the breakdown of vegetation by numerous safari vehicles has impacted the Mara itself, the conservancies remain close to optimal conditions for most game species. By capping tourist numbers entering the conservancies not only ensures a true wilderness experience, but also reduces the pressure on the Mara ecosystem from tourism. As a result at a time when key species, particularly lion, are declining rapidly in number across Africa, the Mara conservancies are providing hope for the future. Without the conservancy status, these areas may well have been privatised and fenced off for commercial agriculture or burnt to open up for grassland.