The Mara and Conservation

Our family has had membership tofthe East African Wildlife Society for over 20 years, supporting their work and enjoying their excellent Swara magazine. Last week I attended one of their Imre Loefler conservation lectures. The speaker was Justin Heath, manager for a number of community conservancies on the periphery of the Maasai Mara. The lecture was called, ‘The Mara Conservancies: Past, Present and Future’, and it was held at the Karen Country Club.

I met up with Justin the following morning to ask him some more questions. He explained that at present, roughly 200,000 acres of private land is formally protected under the conservancy model with another 35,000 currently being established. As of 2006, when Maasai families were issued title deeds, ‘group ranches’ converted to the conservancy model by registering and leasing their land to management organizations such as Seiya Ltd, who Justin works for.

In exchange for this, the Maasai families, currently numbering around 3000, get numerous benefits. The conservancies are mainly funded by lodges who incorporate a per bed-night fee into their rates. With the intention to minimize impact on the ecosystem and delivering the best possible tourism experience, everyone agreed to a maximum number of beds, ranging from 228 acres per bed in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy to 350 acres per bed in the Mara North Conservancy.

With the revenue, families receive monthly ‘rent’ that, for Mara North, reflects the average revenue the acreage would earn if it was leased to wheat farmers, an ever increasing trend. On top of the direct revenue, money is spent on education, alleviation of human-wildlife conflict, water provision, as well as livestock and grazing management.

Despite the progress, numerous challenges still persist. Most significant is the current downturn in tourism. Without consistent revenue, the conservancies are going to struggle to fund their various projects and lease schemes.

Ultimately, all title deed owners have the choice to do with their land what they please. If they are not registered to the conservancy models, there is little that can be done when land is sold for development or a new cattle boma is erected. Sub-division is an ever present issue, especially as economic viability, under virtually any land use, reduces each time the acreage shrinks. Justin described how fences are going up all over the greater Mara. From an environmental perspective, this fragmentation leads to increased pressure on soils and grazing and eventually threatens to cut off wildlife populations and their genetic flow.

Cattle are central to Maasai culture. Competition for grazing with wildlife, as well as occasional livestock losses to predators, are common issues. Management attempts to grow grass banks and also control the cattle herds to maximize the benefits to all parties. Graze rotation prevents overgrazing and reduces the need for or threat of fires. Ultimately, well managed herds will contribute to the landscape, Maasai cultural integrity, and also reduce instances of illegal grazing in the National Reserve.

The land on the periphery of the National Reserve is vital for the survival of the park itself. While most of the ecosystem lies across the border in Tanzania, sustaining the famous wildebeest migration, the conservancies fulfill another dispersal role. There is a wildebeest migration that runs to and from the Loita Hills. These herds used to go all the way to the Southern Ewaso Nyiro; that’s nearly as far as Magadi. However, with land use changes, the herds are largely restricted to the conservancies. Elephants roam widely and often make their way into areas such as the Mau. From the maps Justin displayed, most poaching occurs on the edge or outside of the conservancies, highlighting their role as a buffer.

It’s these marginal areas that urgently require attention. If tourism numbers begin to rise again, land peripheral to the reserve should run successfully on the conservancy model, if well managed. However, isolated areas are more likely to be converted to less sustainable land-use despite their ecological importance. Much like the Northern Rangelands Trust in Northern Kenya, they require alternative economic support. However, these areas have higher agricultural potential than the drier north, and while agriculture is imperative to the country, its development doesn’t need to be at total odds with conservation. After all, if it is to benefit the long-term viability of Kenya’s most important tourism destination, careful planning is a must.

And what can we do to help? With camps and lodges all desperate to stay afloat, numerous special offers are available, especially up until mid-June. While the bed-night fees are much lower for citizens and residents, so as to encourage local access to our natural heritage, our support is still vital. Visiting keeps people employed and supports the communities and wildlife of the wider Mara Ecosystem. And if that isn’t enticing enough, Justin ended his presentation by declaring that the conservancies now offer a more consistent wildlife experience than the main reserve, especially outside the migration period.

The Imre Loefler lectures are usually held quarterly. However, this coming Thursday, the 25th of March, conservation stalwart, Dr. Richard Leakey, will be speaking. EAWLS members can find out more by contacting rose.events@eawildlife.org or calling 0722202473/0734600632.