Mara Plains Camp, a small, high quality, 7-tented camp under canvas, is one of the latest additions to the forward-thinking Great Plains group. It is located within the private Olare Orok Conservancy and just a few hundred meters from the Maasai Mara National Reserve’s northern boundary. Guests can game drive in both the Mara and Olare Orok and be away from the crowds and the hordes of minibuses. In fact, Olare Orok boasts the Mara’s lowest vehicle density, only one guest per 700 acres. The conservancy has nearly 20,000 acres rich in wildlife, especially predators and big cats. Another new conservancy four times that size, Mara North, is being created nextdoor and is already being traversed by guests.
GETTING TO GRIPS WITH THE MARA
The Maasai Mara could be one of the planet’s premier wildlife reserves. It is a relatively small reserve of only around 150,000 hectares whose wildlife range has historically extended across unfenced borders into Tanzania in the south and northwards into neighboring tribal lands.
Most of the wildlife in the region once used to inhabit and migrate across the reserve into the vast open, surrounding, tribally owned plains. However, conditions have changed in recent years as the local Maasai have increased from about one person per square kilometer 30 years ago to about 25 people today. With these increased densities, conflicts between people, livestock, and wildlife have become increasingly prevalent, with wildlife numbers plummeting, most species declining by between 60 and 90 percent over the past two decades.
To compound matters, much of the prime land around the Mara has recently been subdivided into 60-hectare plots. These parcels of land are now owned by individual Maasai tribesmen. This change in land ownership is a real threat to the reserve, to the wildlife of the region, and to the annual wildebeest migration if not handled sensitively. If human habitation on the Mara’s boundary is allowed to grow unchecked, there is a very real danger that the wildebeest migration will be blocked by a barrier of people.
In this scenario the wildebeest and other wildlife will no longer migrate throughout the region, and possibly in time the annual wildebeest migration from the Serengeti will be forced to skip Kenya completely, allowing the northern migration from the Loita Plains to die out.
LIONS AND PEOPLE
However, if the land issue is resolved amicably, conservancies created, and Maasai communities meaningfully brought into the mainstream of tourism businesses – and income is meaningful and fair – the privately owned plots of land could be turned from being the biggest threats to wildlife to being the salvation of the Mara.
The prime threat to the reserve is that disgruntled Maasai landowners will move their homes closer and closer to the border of the Mara, at the same time bringing significant and unsustainable numbers of livestock to the area. Numbers of animals are already at such unsustainable levels that cattle and goats can almost daily be found grazing within the reserve itself.
After receiving a direct invitation from Maasai tribesmen and landowners in 2008, Great Plains became involved in the Mara region and became the catalyst for the creation of the new 80,000-acre Mara North Conservancy. These two conservancies have the potential to become the role models to solving many of the conflicts between the Maasai and the Mara wildlife, creating working examples to be copied throughout the whole Mara region.
Within these two conservancies the business model has been changed from the traditions of the past. Close on one thousand Maasai tribesmen and families have now contracted to lease their land to safari camps to create the two conservancies of around 100,000 acres along the northern boundary of the Mara. Each of these landowners now gets paid each month a guaranteed rental, regardless of what occupancies are in the lodges. The financial risk is back where it should be – on the shoulders of the safari camp operators.
To ensure that there is a viable and sustainable conservancy, the Maasai landowners have agreed to move away from the boundary of the Mara and back to their traditional homes, taking their livestock with them, leaving the area next to the Mara free of homesteads and livestock. This process has already happened in Olare Orok, which is now free of habitation, with the vacuum rapidly being filled by wildlife. Contracts were signed late in 2008 and early 2009, with the contracted Maasai landowners now being paid monthly rentals for their first time in history. The same is now happening in the Mara North Conservancy.
Mara Plains Camp is the only camp that pays monthly contributions to both Olare Orok and Mara North. This little 12-bed camp now makes payments of over $150,000 a year to the landowners of both conservancies.