One of Africa’s most iconic prides of lions were poisoned last week in the Maasai Mara, and it’s now time to implement Richard Leakey’s dream to consolidate all Kenyan wilderness under a single federal government agency.
Eight of the magnificent “Marsh Pride” were poisoned by Maasai herders, according to officials who have arrested two men.
Animal poisoning in The Mara is not new, but this killing is receiving unusual attention since this is the pride featured in the BBC documentary, “Big Cats.” The pride has resided for my entire 40 years of guiding outside Governor’s Camp near the Mara River.
Many Maasai believe that protecting the Mara for wildlife/tourism is an unfair usurping of their traditional pastures. This conflict grows at the margin of seasons (which is now) when new rains sprout nutrient grasses.
The problem is not endemic to The Mara or Kenya but exists throughout all the rapidly developing lands of Africa. Ironically, the problem may be exacerbated by Kenya’s faster and broader development compared to many other African countries.
The situation unique to The Mara, though, is extraordinary. It’s a mess: an entanglement of personalities, politics and corruption the likes of which belong in a TV sitcom.
First of all, there really isn’t “A Mara.” Elsewhere in the continent there is “A Serengeti” or “A Sabi Sands” surrounding “A Kruger.”
“The Mara,” instead, is a collection of government and private reserves each separately managed and funded. The map looks like a gerrymandered set of 10 districts in my dysfunctional state of Illinois.
“The Mara” is not a Kenyan national park: the main responsibilities for it rest with the county of Narok in which the wilderness is located. This is an freakish historical legacy of the local Maasai unwilling to share power or land.
Richard Leakey tried to change this decades ago when he was the country’s wildlife czar. He failed miserably, succumbing at the time to a very powerful Maasai politician, Ntimama.
Ntimama is today a very old mzee out of favor with the younger, more progressive regime in Nairobi. But it was only a few months ago that the old man resurrected the land issue of which the Mara is front and center.
The rectangular portion which borders Tanzania to the south is the “government” county reserve, but even that is divided into three administrative sections. The area to the north of the county land is made up of nine private conservancies, more than doubling government land.
It was the development of these northern private areas in the last 25-35 years that contributed so substantially to the increase of animal populations including the great migration.
(A similar situation exists with private reserves like the Sabi Sands which surround South Africa’s Kruger National Park.)
Traditionally all of these lands were used as pastures for cattle and goats by the Maasai. Had none of the lands been protected, the cattle and goats and Maasai would likely have eaten themselves out of house and home by now, identical to what you see today in so many other parts of Africa where overgrazing ends in societal suicidal.
From the point of view of the people living there, though, that’s not such a bad outcome if what comes next are highways and factories. IBM is still in the throes of a fraction-of-a-billion dollar deal to build a high-tech industrial park in what was once Kenya’s Tsavo wilderness.
I doubt you’ll find too many young Maasai today who will lament herding cattle for pennies a day if the alternative is writing computer code and driving to work in a Benz.
Equally sad, private tourism stakeholders are just as mercenary as the Narok Maasai. There have been periods of vicious competition among businessmen, some foreign nationals, vying for the best spots. In this management mayhem developed the private reserve map we see today, with little scientific or management rational and little or no interaction between the competing areas.
That spells disaster. BBC has the exposure to wander between reserve boundaries unimpeded, and thus the “Marsh Pride” became very special. But I’ve known several young field researchers who would have loved to work in the Mara ecosystem, but who turned to Tanzania instead because the politics and restrictions of working trans-reserve were too difficult.
The private reserves do everything themselves: anti-poaching, rules for wildlife management and intervention (several of the Marsh Pride that were recently poisoned were then treated by vets), fees and marketing. But the land has never been actually transferred from Maasai ownership: it’s leased, and that’s the private reserves greatest flaw:
Maasai owners could only be encouraged to compromise their age-old historical life style as pastoralists if they could be paid enough. For a while, they were. The revenues from tourism throughout the 90s were greater than the revenues from cattle farming.
But with political instability followed by terrorism which effected Kenya so seriously from 2007-2012, tourism revenues fell precipitously. Although safari revenues in neighboring Tanzania have planed or shown a slight increase, this has yet to occur in Kenya.
In their heyday the private reserves became extremely sophisticated, bettering the government reserves in anti-poaching and educational efforts. Like all bureaucracies, though, their appetite for capital grew well beyond the simple lease payments to the Maasai owners. Since 2008 virtually all the private Mara reserves have fallen into arrears.
Stefano Chile, the chairman of the second largest private conservancy, the Mara North Conservancy, wrote to supporters recently that “our ability to pay and cover all these costs is seriously challenged.”
He said the conservancy needs $355,000 to become sustainable, again. The first appeal for donations launched at least a month ago has raised only $13,000.
Cheli is one of the most creative and long-time entrepreneurs in the East African tourism industry, perhaps best known for building Tortilis Camp in Amboseli. But in my estimation this is way beyond his or any other excellent tourism manager’s job.
For one thing were a campaign like this successful it would hardly be the last time private reserve officials came to us hat in hand. Which of the nine reserves would you decide to support? I have a hard enough time juggling contributions to two public radio stations serving my area. If appeals came from nine of them, a distinct impression is created that nobody knows what they’re doing.
Collectively that’s the point, they don’t.
Private wildlife reserves have been a very important part of Africa’s conservation efforts for more than a half century.
But nowhere else in Africa is a collection of hodgepodge private reserves so terribly organized and so terribly suspicious and competitive with each another as in the Mara, and trying to treat them as charities is overwhelmingly impossible.
What will work is the Kenyan government getting serious. The photographer Jonathan Scott reported on his blog two days ago that may be happening.
From my point of view there’s only one answer. The government must take over the whole kitandkaboodal. This will really freak out the private reserve stake holders.
But it’s time they listened to themselves: if wildlife conservation is the goal, then look at Amboseli. Look at the Aberdare. Look at the heroic efforts in Nakuru. Look at all the other wonderful national parks in Kenya.
Frankly, it’s time the Maasai of Narok, and the stakeholders of the private reserves were all sidelined, and that the Kenya Wildlife Service takes the whole thing over.
Richard Leakey’s dream was right then, and it’s right now: The Maasai Mara National Park.
Thank you for your usual blog and comments about the Masai Mara. I feel you failed to reinforce what a great wildlife area this is and I believe still the best in the world. I also feel that you did confuse the issue between the reserves and the conservancies. We all agree that the National reserves need to all be managed better and taken over from County Governments, either given to KWS to manage or to entities like Africa Parks that hopefully will soon manage Shaba & Buffalo Springs in the Samburu area. However bashing the conservancies which have doubled the size of the reserve and is all private Masai land is not fair. I’m not sure when was the last time you visited the conservancies and the 3 main ones for that matter, which are MNC, OOC and Naibosho. What has happened in this area in the last 10 years is remarkable and this thanks to some dedicated tourism partners and off course the Masai Land owners who have agreed to share their cattle grazing land with wildlife and tourists. The National reserve as an island would not survive and it would also compromise the survival of the Serengeti. So these extra 1,500 sq miles of conservancies are essential. The conservancies are not terribly organized and are not terribly suspicious of each other and infact we work together a lot and we all work through the MMWCA (Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association) We are however underfunded as all the conservancy fees we collect from our good clients go into leasing the land and we need funds to manage these massive areas. We are also now looking at a body that can under one umbrella manage all the conservancies and we potentially talking to Africa Parks. Jim, we need good positive news from Kenya and its too easy to just trash and criticizes, we all work very hard to make it all work. Do please donate to MNC, it easy just click on donate and $ 50 will go al long way. Stefano Cheli
two important notes: 1) you have ignored possibly the most important development in 2015. The successes of Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association, including funding. 2) Please note you are using my map without my permission and without credit. That map is also out of date.
I’ve followed your dedication to East African tourism for a very long time and am honored by your remarks. If we could wave a magic wand it would be hard to imagine a better czar to follow Leakey than yourself… As I said in the blog, private reserves throughout Africa have been a critical part of African conservation, but in the case of the Mara my opinion is that’s it’s gotten out of hand. Great news about new efforts for cooperation between the reserves but ultimately you sit on a private/public system considerably different and more corrupt than elsewhere on the continent which makes addressing very difficult issues, like local community development, harder to accomplish.
My apologies, and if you’d like the map pulled will do so immediately. Even better, send me a corrected one… The image was lifted from a Google search of images that led to a different blogger in the UK.
The Mara has been a disaster for at least the 45 years I have been in and around Kenya. unless the KWS (which has its own problems) is allowed to take over and manage the whole ecosystem, it will one day cease to be useful to either the Maasai, the greater Kenyan public, or the tourists who fund so much of our budget. on the bright side, maybe tourists would start to spend more time in our other great parks!
The conservancies which have been established on Maasai lands adjacent to the Mara Reserve are playing a key role in protecting wildlife habitat. Conservancies like Mara North, Olare Motorogi, Naboisho and Ol Kinyei are all on private land comprising thousands of small plots which have been leased from the individual Maasai families and put together to be set aside as protected habitat for wildlife. Within these Conservancies wildlife numbers have increased and the lion population has reached the highest level seen for decades.
Our aim has been to protect an extensive area of wildlife habitat adjacent to the Mara and all along its boundary by establishing the Conservancies which have already expanded the area available for wildlife and created a buffer zone to prevent livestock grazing in the Reserve. By promoting the Conservancy model we will continue to provide livelihoods for local people, to ensure alternative income sources from rents for the Maasai landowners and to encourage the switch to banking rather than keeping all wealth in the form of livestock on the hoof.
You seem to feel that the private lands on which the Conservancies have been established should be taken over by the government, in effect “nationalised”. That would be a disaster, as the individual landowners would never agree to this and it would be the wildlife that would suffer. I cannot see why you would wish to do this as the Conservancies have actually been a great success in conserving wildlife and allowing the regeneration of vegetation in an area that was previously overstocked with cattle and shoats. Our main challenge has been to keep paying for the Conservancies while tourism has been at a low ebb for the last 3 years. However the good news is that following the lifting of various Travel Advisories and with the realisation by many that Ebola is not a threat in Kenya, we are now seeing a surge in demand and safari bookings for 2016 are coming in at an all-time high.
The description that you give of mercenary tour companies competing to grab the best spots and setting up conservancies that do not co-operate and have no rational management is not the case today. Over the last 12 years in the Mara I have personally been involved with others in establishing three of the conservancies linking together over 100,000 acres as protected habitat in Ol Kinyei, Naboisho and Olare Motorogi. This vast tract of land is connected to the Reserve and thus forms one contiguous area of habitat for wildlife. Within these conservancies we have a formula of a maximum of 1 tent per 700 acres and a maximum of 1 safari vehicle per 1400 acres which ensures a low density form of tourism. We also co-operate closely together. You can see more details of the formation of these conservancies on my blog here:
And in addition to the 3 conservancies mentioned in which I have been involved, my friend Stefano Cheli led a group of other safari camp operators in establishing the Mara North Conservancy on similar lines to ours, adding another 74,000 acres. Calvin Cottar is doing the same at Olderikesi Conservancy and Olarro Lodge is setting up a Conservancy in the Siana area. Between us we are helpeing to prevent the wildlife dispersal area adjacent to the Mara Reserve from being fragmented and fenced off as is happening in most of the rest of the community land beyond the Conservancies.
The challenge for those of us involved in wildlife tourism on land leased from Maasai communities in the Mara eco-system alongside the Reserve is about achieving a balance between conserving wildlife, creating alternative livelihoods and jobs for members of the communities living next to the Reserve, generating income for the local and central government from wildlife tourism, boosting the national economy and encouraging better systems of animal husbandry and livestock rangeland management for the cattle owners on land beyond the conservancies.
We should recognise that grassland must also be secured beyond the Conservancies as rangeland for the Maasai cattle owners who need space on which they can raise their livestock. Areas should be reserved as livestock pastureland to accommodate this and improvements should be made in animal husbandry to avoid over-stocking and to achieve higher quality cattle with lower overall numbers. If this can be done then we will achieve the balance required between conservation of wildlife, creating economic benefits from tourism and meeting the needs and aspirations of the local community who wish to continue engaging in pastoralism.
We deserve your support and recognition rather than unfair criticism!
Gamewatchers Safaris & Porini Camps
My friends herein have covered many of the issues, in their related replies to your blog. So as the CEO of the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA, http://www.MaraConservancies.org ), I am simply adding a few comments and particular a few facts.
In the recent years, there has been a significant increase in the proportion of land under protection in the greater Maasai Mara region owing to the establishment of conservancies outside the Reserve. Since 2005 (starting with Ol Kinyei conservancy) a Mara-wide conservancy movement in the community lands has developed, with eight operational conservancies developing organically in the past ten years to cover 948 km2 (two-thirds the size of the Reserve) and another four in nascent development potentially covering an additional 610 km2. This mix of protected areas currently increases the protected area coverage to 43% of the total landscape, excluding the potential additional coverage. The creation of these conservancies was catalyzed by the realization of both the tourism operators and private landowners of the opportunity to create conservancies to provide a reliable income source while minimizing land-use changes and protecting the land for prosperity. As a result this also means that almost 3,000 landowners are directly benefiting from land lease payments each month, translating to almost 25,000 people. In addition to this, is the almost 1,200 jobs provided across the conservancies and the protection of high numbers of predators, the second wildebeest migration and the greater Mara rangelands.
Obviously there’s still much to be done and many issues to be tackled, but the Mara conservancies bring together the private sector with the residents and landowners of the region and we are reaching out to the County Government, Kenya Wildlife Service and other important authorities to see how we can all work together to better protect the greater Maasai Mara ecosystem.
I do not consider myself able to provide the expert comments like the others who have responded to your blog. However, I work with many conservation based organisations and funders internationally and I have been a regular visitor to the Mara Conservancies for many years.
For many of the reasons you cite and others I have stopped staying in the Maasai Mara National Reserve. On the other hand the conservancies are a breath of fresh air. Generally well managed and well protected. Yes, the visitor may have to pay a little more in the conservancy camps than in the myriad of lodges in and around the Reserve but the wildlife experience is incomparably better. I am not sure when you last visited the conservancies – I visit a few times each year – I talk to the local community, other visitors and tourism partners and I do not see what you see.
The Conservancy model is a win, win, win situation for wildlife, local communities and ecotourism. A few years ago my son when he was 17 wrote an interesting report on this https://www.linkedin.com/in/rustom-framjee-739b0484
You are right in saying that there is much to be addressed for the future. Land prices, increasing cattle numbers and decreasing grazing land and alternative use options will be a real threat to the preservation of important wildlife habitats and dispersal zones. However, the answer you suggest of conservancies being “nationalised” and managed by KWS fills me with trepidation.
As you rightly say, wildlife tourism in Kenya has had it ups and downs and a more nuanced funding model is needed. Elsewhere in the world revolving stability funds are being set up to cater for cash flow issues and temporary funding gaps in a way that preserves important wild life habitats and conservation initiatives.
My understanding is that conservancy partners are trying to take a more joined up approach with greater collaboration to ensure the sustainability and resilience of the conservancy model. Suggesting that the concept is unworkable is defeatist and does not stack up with the facts. The long and the short of it is that without the foresight of those that set them up and those that now manage them an important wildlife habitat would have gone the way of other land – fenced, burned and depleted.
I am more optimistic about the future – what is needed is more people getting the positive messages about the efforts being made to preserve wildlife in Kenya.
Thanks for your interesting blogs – but I hope you will change your thinking about the conservancies.
With best wishes for a Happy New Year
This is the correct link to the report that I have referred to in my previous comment https://lnkd.in/dUSAFxF
Please will you insert it instead.