The Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya is one of the best-known and most visited safari destinations, for the wildlife is plentiful and easily visible on its gently undulating grasslands. A host of books and films set in this hallowed Eden transported my husband, Anshu, and me there long before our first safari in 1989.
That year, when rivulets of the two-million-strong bands of wildebeest began flowing in from Tanzania’s Serengeti grasslands in their annual ritual, we watched the tawny grass plains turn black. Zebra, topi, Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelles were part of the flow, swishing their tails, cropping grass, dropping soil-nourishing manure. Their predators—lions, hyenas, cheetahs, leopards—were spoilt for choice.
We found ourselves amidst an unparalleled exuberance of life forms. Radios crackled and safari jeeps careened towards the Ovaltine-coloured Mara river where cold-eyed crocodiles with Jurassic jaws picked off the migrants.
On the plains, cheetahs streaked after gazelles, herds of elephants foraged contentedly and giraffes cropped thorn trees in straight lines, begetting umbrella-shaped silhouettes. In his book Every Species Is A Masterpiece, Edward O. Wilson writes of biophilia, “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living creatures”. Biophilia had us in its grip. We were hooked.
This intact ecosystem of the Mara was quite small—until recently. The area spanned 1,500 sq. km, a tenth of the Serengeti to the south. In the north and east, beyond the unfenced borders, were settlements of the pastoral Maasai tribes, whose cows grazed the land.
Starting 2006, a rare and unexpected alliance emerged. Maasai landowners and tour operators came together and wildlife conservancies began popping up. Given the demand for lodges and safaris, tour operators felt confident they could set up high-end camps outside the Mara, and they convinced the locals to lease their land for 15 years at a time. The Maasai, who had watched tourists from half-way around the world visit, and seen their own people grow as jeep drivers, camp hands and guides, agreed. For the first time, they were getting a regular income for leasing their land and moving their homes to its outer edge; around $250 (about ₹18,500) per 100 acres is wired directly into their bank accounts every month.
Older conservation successes in Kenya, such as Selenkay and Ol Pejeta, made it easier to gain the trust of the northern-Mara parties. The Maasai elders viewed privatisation as a great opportunity. Their people could continue to graze their cattle—albeit in a regulated manner—without spilling close to the campsites.
Today, conservancies such as Naboisho (214 sq. km), Olare Motorogi (133 sq. km), Mara North (320 sq. km) and around 12 others add up to 1,700 sq. km—the land under conservation has more than doubled. Management committees resolve issues such as grazing too close to camp or noise from villages. Rangers keep an eye out for wildlife and vehicles. The owners of camps hire locally and have provided micro-finance, sanitation, set up medical centres, schools, borewells, reservoirs, The Maa Trust (where women make and sell beaded jewellery and objects) as well as Koiyaki, a safari guiding school.
The tourism partners have stuck to a “low-impact” policy, limiting themselves to a handful of camps and lodges in each conservancy. One bed per 3 sq. km and a maximum of 12 tents and 24 beds per camp help maintain the serenity of the area. Night safaris can be enjoyed without too many other vehicles in sight.
Over time, the Maasai have withdrawn to the outer edges of the conservancies and the wildlife has begun roaming more freely. There are more lions within the conservancies than in the reserve. About 150,000 wildebeests now live within it too. Except for views of the wildebeest river crossings, the safari experience is just as rich in the conservancies. If you are staying at a lodge in a conservancy, you can get a permit to drive in the Mara reserve—but not vice-versa. The other advantages are off-roading, going for walks with an armed guide, and experiencing nocturnal safaris. These activities are not allowed in the Mara reserve.
This October, we stayed at the elegant Naboisho Camp within the Naboisho Conservancy, established in 2010. Elephants, giraffes, buffaloes, zebras and wildebeest grazed close to our canvas tent. At night, we could hear the primordial calls of the lion prides we had seen during the day. They have come home with me as my ringtone.
To get a local Maasai’s perspective on the conservancy idea, I spoke to Kaitikei Karia, a guide. “Tourism wanted conservation and the animals to survive. We said, our land will be saved. We did not cut trees, or sell it. We decided to agree. Maasai don’t eat any wild animals. We eat only cows and sheep and goats. During the circumcision ceremony, when young men go off into the wild for a month, the tradition was to kill a lion, and the man who did it was a great hero. Buffaloes would be killed and skinned for shields. All this is over. We fought with animals not for food but for fun. And now we benefit from conservation as guests pay a fee. We can have permanent homes and send our kids to school.”
“There were teething problems indeed”, says our guide, Andy Campbell. “And we wish these conservancies had been set up 20 years earlier. But they came through. Without them, this wilderness would have been gone by now.” Both sides took a hit during covid-19 but seem confident of weathering it.
India can create similar win-win alliances between tourism partners and tribal landowners at the edges of its sanctuaries. We can certainly count on biophilia and the immense demand for visiting reserves to make new ones commercially viable. Over the long term, the forests will take root and we will have untold benefits from carbon sequestration, biodiversity and ecosystem services. It all starts with dreaming of the impossible.
(To learn more, reach out to the MMWCA, the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancy Association.)
Geetika Jain shares notable notions from around the world. She can be followed on Instagram @geetikaforest