Steve Felton is currently touring East Africa, and he sends this report from Nashulai Maasai Conservancy, just north of the famous Maasai Mara in Kenya.
Joseph Koishikere’s ear lobes were cut when he was a boy, and hang like loops. The Maasai tradition seems at odds with his highly polished brown Sunday shoes. He is the Warden of Nashulai Maasai Conservancy, which at 2,000 hectares is the smallest of the 15 Maasai communal conservancies situated north of the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
The conservancy was founded in 2016. The first conservancy, Mara North, started up in 1995. Together, the conservancies total over 144,000 hectares – similar in size to the national reserve and, for comparison, to the 15 Zambezi conservancies in Namibia. Another Mara conservancy is to be added soon, which will make the area covered by conservancies larger than the famous Maasai Mara Game Reserve, which draws thousands of tourists to view the wilderbeest migration.
The Warden, Community Liaison Officer and Treasurer of Nashulai kindly made time to talk to me while I was on holiday, and were eager to learn about Namibia’s communal conservancies. What emerged from our discussion were a lot of similarities, and a shared vision of living together with wildlife.
The Maasai have always been pastoralists, who grazed their cattle over areas larger than the current Maasai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania. But in the 1990s other tribes, I was told, began to expand into Maasai territory. So to preserve a core area for the Maasai in Kenya, the land was divided into freehold units. This runs counter to the idea of the traditional nomadic life, which the people wanted to preserve – so the conservancy idea was born. Put simply, the Maasai landowners in a large area would pool their land and raise income from tourism to benefit the pastoralists. Nashulai, in the Maasai language, means “to come together”.
Looking for a holiday place to stay with my daughter, the lodges just outside the Maasai Mara were frankly unaffordable; the starting price is around US$ 900 a night. But the fly-in tourists are directly subsidizing conservation and the Mara conservancies, which have made deals with private sector operators who pay monthly leasehold fees and an agreed levy on bed nights. And like in Namibia, the conservancies stipulate that locals should be employed in the lodges, bringing income to families.
Nashulai does not yet have a private sector partner, so in 2009 it started Oldarpoi Mara Camp, with just five tents funded by community members. Now it boasts 15 luxury tents with showers and toilets, and a simple restaurant with wi-fi. The profits from the camp are reinvested, or flow to the conservancy. That’s where I stayed with my daughter. I can strongly recommend the hospitality, as well as the quality of the guides: Maasai ‘warriors’ who took us on a guided walk up a hill to view the area, and told us about their traditions and the conservancy.
The landowners are paid a monthly lease by Nashulai, which raises the money from the camp and donor funding. Other benefits include educational bursaries, solar lamps, water filters and boreholes. When the conservancy was starting up it developed a business plan, which was presented to the Norwegian donors that are providing initial funding for Nashulai, after which it should be able to pay for its own operations.
The Kenya Wildlife Service is a strong supporter of the conservancy idea, but does not exercise any control over conservancy operations. Its main intervention is when there are human wildlife conflict incidents. The Kenyan government pays full, market based compensation for stock losses, provided that the herders have taken sensible precautions to prevent predators from taking livestock. Payments are slow in coming, I was told, but fair.
I asked about female representation and was told that Nashulai has two female committee members. Ten of the landowners are women, and wives are joint landowners with their husbands.
So what is the main difference between Maasai and Namibian conservancies? The answer is trophy hunting, which was outlawed in Kenya in 1977. I outlined the economic and conservation benefits of hunting for Namibian conservancies, and asked if it would be a good idea in the Mara. There was a chorus of “No”. Tourism is the way to go, they said.
But can tourism provide sufficient income? The Mara conservancies are grouped under the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association. In a study reported on their website, on average the Mara conservancies make a direct payment to landowners of US$ 30-50 per hectare per year, whereas livestock pays at least $ 40-50 per hectare. But focusing only on the money is too simple an analysis, according to the study. With other additional benefits, the true value of the land under conservation per hectare is US$ 112 per annum. And conservancy residents benefit from both livestock and wildlife based tourism. For full details see www.maraconservancies.org.
Taking aside the economic benefits, and standing on a hill top with two Maasai warriors, spears in hand, gazing across the eternal landscape, it was evident that conservation pays in much more rewarding ways than cash alone. For these young men, their way of life is being secured, alongside that of the wildebeest on the plain below.