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Local conservancies create new hope for wildlife in Kenya’s Maasai Mara (commentary)

The savannah and grasslands of the Mara conservancies are home to a spectacular abundance of wildlife, lying at the northern end of the greater Serengeti ecosystem. Photo Credit: Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association

The savannah and grasslands of the Mara conservancies are home to a spectacular abundance of wildlife, lying at the northern end of the greater Serengeti ecosystem. Photo Credit: Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association.

  • Naboisho and roughly a dozen neighboring conservancies in Kenya’s Maasai Mara are made up of hundreds of individual plots owned by local Maasai residents of the Mara, who converted their traditional communal lands in this part of Kenya to individual holdings.
  • Tour operators with existing camps around the Mara have worked to pool together individual Maasai landowners who had subdivided their lands into larger groups that could then lease a large area of land to the tour operators.
  • Each landowner is paid a monthly lease fee of around $235, amounting to over $900,000 of landowner income annually.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.

Set amid the open plains and rolling savannas of Kenya’s Maasai Mara landscape, Naboisho conservancy hosts some of the finest wildlife viewing that Africa can offer. Covering around 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) directly adjacent to the Maasai Mara National Reserve (MMNR), Naboisho hosts thousands of zebra, wildebeest, gazelle, giraffe and other wildlife.

This profusion of prey supports healthy predator populations. Naboisho itself is home to about 50 lions, and the surrounding conservancies contain another 110 adult lions and additional cubs. The density of lions in Naboisho and neighboring conservancies is among the highest in Africa, and actually higher, according to research published in the journal Conservation Biology, than in the adjacent Maasai Mara reserve itself. This abundance of large predators is not only a local conservation success, but holds important lessons for reversing lion declines across Kenya and other parts of Africa.

Naboisho and roughly a dozen neighboring conservancies now contain a total of about 162,000 hectares (400,000 acres), an area greater than the extent of the Mara reserve itself. These conservancies constitute a totally unique new conservation model for East Africa. The conservancies are made up of hundreds of individual plots owned by local Maasai residents of the Mara, who converted their traditional communal lands in this part of Kenya to individual holdings of about 40 hectares (100 acres) during the 1990s. The conversion of communal rangelands to individual plots — which people could then fence off, cultivate, or sell to outside commercial agricultural interests — poses a major threat to the Maasai Mara, and indeed to the greater Serengeti ecosystem as a whole.

Integrating livestock production with wildlife conservation is a key to the future of the conservancies in the Maasai Mara. Photo Credit: Nicholas Lapham

Every August and September, at the height of the dry season, hundreds of thousands of wildebeest complete their northbound migration to the Mara from the Serengeti plains to the south in Tanzania. These herds find grazing and water to sustain them until the rains send them moving back south into Tanzania again. But much of the habitat that wildebeest and other wildlife use lies outside the reserve boundaries, on the Maasai lands that surround the reserve. Over a decade ago, there was already evidence that the resident wildlife in the Maasai Mara had dropped by around 60 percent during the previous 30 years as a result of conversion of savannas and grasslands to commercial wheat farming in parts of the ecosystem.

The process of subdivision of all the Maasai lands in the Mara, and the threat posed by further conversion of lands to farming around the Mara, has been a key factor in the recent spread of conservancies in the area. Tour operators with existing camps around the Mara have worked to pool together individual Maasai landowners who had subdivided their lands into larger groups — the “conservancies” — that could then lease a large area of land to the tour operators. Importantly, while the reserve itself has become increasingly overcrowded — it is not uncommon for 40 vehicles to surround a single cheetah or pride of lions there — and an unpopular example of mass wildlife tourism gone wrong, on the private lands outside the reserve, tour operators are able to negotiate with landowners for more exclusive and carefully managed access in the conservancies.

The key threat to the Maasai Mara ecosystem comes from land fragmentation, particularly the fencing off of individual plots of land, which has spread rapidly in recent years. Photo Credit: Nicholas Lapham

Naboisho itself is made up of over 600 individual plots that together constitute the conservancy. Each landowner is paid a monthly lease fee of around $235, amounting to over $900,000 of landowner income annually. Across all the Mara conservancies, local landowners receive around $4 million annually from these lease payments.

These are among the most substantial financial returns that small-scale local landowners are earning from wildlife anywhere in Africa, and the conservation success of the conservancies shows what is possible when local people are able to do business directly with conservation-minded tourism operators. Twenty years ago, direct earnings by local Maasai from wildlife tourism in the Mara were limited; like most places in Africa, most of the economic gains went to private operators, government bodies, and a few individual landowners clustered around the borders of the reserve. The conservancies have created a mechanism to spread benefits much more widely, and give local people a clear economic share in wildlife’s rising value. New technologies such as mobile money transfer and banking systems make it feasible to make payments to thousands of individual landowners around the Mara every month.

The savanna and grasslands of the Mara conservancies are home to a spectacular abundance of wildlife, lying at the northern end of the greater Serengeti ecosystem. Photo Credit: Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association

The challenge now is to improve the management of the conservancies and expand the area under their coverage so that all the key wildlife habitats and migratory corridors around the Mara can be protected. Improving livestock management in the area in ways that both access growing markets for beef in Kenya, while capitalizing on the ability of cattle and wildlife to co-exist in these savannas, is a key to improving the overall economic returns to landowners. Naboisho and other conservancies are working to adapt livestock production models from other conservation ventures in Kenya such as Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a private ranch that has successfully integrated commercial ranching and wildlife tourism.

In the far north of the Mara ecosystem, an innovative company called Mara Beef has played a key role in establishing the Enonkishu Conservancy with about 30 local landowners, and restoring grasslands that were under commercial corn production less than a decade ago.

These are the kinds of locally rooted, entrepreneurial approaches that will be needed across Africa to turn the tide on declining wildlife populations. The Mara conservancies are a reminder that where wildlife can generate sufficient economic returns for local landowners, people’s relationship with wildlife can shift from persecution to conservation. Ensuring these models are strengthened, spread and inform conservation strategies across Kenya and the wider region will be a key to conservation success.

About the authors:

Daniel Sopia is CEO of the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA), which supports the development of the conservancies around the Maasai Mara, including several of the entities mentioned in this article.

Fred Nelson is executive director of Maliasili, which supports leading African conservation organizations to help them become more effective, sustainable, and grow their impact.