have made my home in the Mara, a place of such natural beauty and wildlife magic that it takes my breath away every day, as it does for all who visit.
The question for me though since I was a small boy has always been “is it fair for us non-Maasai tourism and conservation people to ask the Maasai to keep this land open and full of wildlife and expect them to remain in their old way of life, living in mud and dung huts, with little or no medical care, and little food security?”
Keep in mind, only 10% of the ecosystem (1,650 sq kms) is secured by law for wildlife as the “Maasai Mara National Reserve,” while the remaining 8,000 sq kms is in the ownership of hundreds of thousands of very poor Maasai families; it is on their land that 35% of Kenya’s entire remaining wildlife populations live, wildlife that is the primary resource for the tourism industry.
Unfortunately, this land is being converted to fragmented fenced farming at a frightening rate (8% per year), with the remaining forests being cut down, charcoaled, and poor soils being ploughed for failing subsistence crops.
The tragedy of this is that the 250 camps and lodges underpinning the US$2 billion Kenya tourism industry and centered on the tiny part of the Mara ecosystem in and around the Maasai Mara National Reserve have always had more than enough financial capability to fund biodiversity in the entire ecosystem to stop the land conversion wave.
I am glad to say – and to answer my own question above – that Cottar’s 1920’s Camp, Cottar’s Safari Service and Royal African Safaris have been amongst the few organizations in the ecosystem who have had the foresight to experiment and offer the Maasai an alternative that actually funds them to keep biodiversity on their land intact.
Through biodiversity easement leases on Olderkesi Conservancy through the Cottar’s Wildlife Conservation Trust, we and 15 other conservancies are showing how this new approach to conservation can be practically achieved.
The 15 conservancies cover 2,000 sq kms and are entirely community owned land. The key for the model has been to provide sustainable lease financing to the land owners at a similar or higher income possible then from any other land use so that biodiversity becomes the preferred land use, a simple model that is equally effective at funding people out of poverty.
Being on the board of the Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association allows me to not only look at how the remaining tourism operators can see the importance of themselves contributing to this funding of biodiversity leases in the wider ecosystem, but it also allows us to explore new revenue streams such as the carbon sequestration market, the “dual use” model of conservation with controlled numbers of domestic livestock, government biodiversity subsidy programs, and tax deductible philanthropy.
Strangely enough, one upside of the Covid crisis has been an increase in interest and funding for these non-tourism revenue streams as the realization has set in that no one revenue stream can be relied on.
It is a race against time before the fences cut off critical migration routes and habitat. In our Olderkesi area, Cottars and RAS are focusing on the Sand River corridor for elephant between the Maasai Mara National Reserve and the Naimina Enkiyo forest 80 kms to the east. This is a particularly important corridor for up to 4,000 elephant a year.
The other exciting part of this biodiversity easement model of conservation is how it immediately pulls some of the poorest people on the planet out of poverty; the biodiversity easement effectively transitions into a universal pay model that is dependent on whether the biodiversity in their control continues to exist or not.
Connecting poverty alleviation with biodiversity conservation must be one of the most important single things we as humans can be doing right now in these times of crisis for the planet, and I am proud to be part of the Mara Conservancies initiative. You as an RAS alumni have been part of this as well, thank you!
Please do come out to Africa again soon, when Covid allows, and see the progress we are making. Every safari you take and donation you make will help secure the magical Greater Mara ecosystem.