The Maasai Mara remains one of the most iconic wild spaces left on our planet. If the Earth is a body, the Maasai Mara National Park and the surrounding Greater Mara are surely the planet’s heartbeat.
Thanks in large part to television series such as Big Cat Diary, there are people all over the world thinking about the Mara at all times.
Home to some of the planet’s most beloved big cats (including the world-famous Marsh Pride lions); famed for its million-strong migration of wildebeest, and synonymous with the semi-Nomadic Maasai people themselves — iconic for their bright red robes and colourful beaded jewellery — the Maasai Mara is a unique place.
“People all over the world love the Mara; there are people who have never actually visited in person, but who are reduced to tears just talking about the big cats that live there,” naturalist and Big Cat Diary presenter Jonathan Scott explained in an online panel talk earlier this year.
“Big Cat Diary brought the wildlife directly into people’s homes and made it a very individual experience. These are real living, breathing animals; they’re individual living creatures in their own right.”
The territory of these cats, who have certainly captured a nation’s heart, actually extends beyond the border of the Maasai Mara National Park and into the Greater Mara.
The Greater Maasai Mara is an area of 6,000 sq km in Kenya on the border with Tanzania. It is part of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem of +30,000 sq km and encompasses the area travelled by what is known as the Great Migration — where 1.3 million wildebeest and 200,000 zebras move seasonally between the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Mara in Kenya.
“We think of it as The Last Place On Earth — there is nowhere like this,” Jonathan Scott tells me. “It is home to an estimated 40% of Africa’s large mammal species, yet covers only 0.1% of the continent’s land surface.”
“It’s unique in that it sets the standard for the rest of world. If the world cannot protect somewhere as unique and precious as this, what hope is there? For humans, and for wildlife?”
The Maasai Mara amidst a pandemic
Although the COVID-19 virus took hold in Kenya a little later than in the Western world (with cases rising in July and reaching a second, higher peak in November), the country was plunged into coronavirus response much earlier in the year; seeing a 98% fall in international tourism and facing a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the timing and magnitude of their own impending outbreak.
In Kenya, tourism contributes 9% of the Country’s GDP, meaning that at a time when the health care and other sectors needed investment to battle this deadly virus; the country faced losing more than $ 1.6 Billion in income from the tourism sector.
The concern for many conservationists was that such a drastic fall in international tourism would inevitably see a loss of many livelihoods, leading to fears of a potential increase in poaching out of financial desperation, and even hunger for illegal bush meat.
Early reports of increased poaching of endangered species in Botswana, coupled with neighbouring Tanzania failing to report any information on illegal poaching, left many waiting to see the full extent of the pandemic on Africa – and in even as the months pass, much still hangs by a thread, as tourism activity remains reduced to zero, with camps and lodges shutting operations and furloughing staff.
Added to that the closure of local markets, thus preventing most households from generating cash income from the sale of livestock, and the situation would seem somewhat dire.
Life around the Mara in 2020
In recent years, the population growth rate has reached 10% on the peripheries of the park, meaning there are a lot of young people whose parents depend on tourism for income. In many cases, each individual salary loss could be helping entire families of 10-15 people.
According to Jake Grieves Cook, former chairman of the Kenyan Tourism Board, when March arrived and the first case of COVID-19 was identified in an arriving passenger on a flight from overseas, the Kenya government took ‘prompt and decisive action aimed at preventing the rapid spread of COVID-19’ by stopping scheduled international flights coming into the country and by introducing a series of co-ordinated measures designed to keep Kenyans safe.
“Those actions undoubtedly slowed the spread of the virus at the outset and helped to keep it largely contained within certain areas, but they were made at the time when the virus was first known to have arrived in Kenya and before the country was in a position to fully assess the effects,” he explains.
Jake suggests that the early closure of the entirety of the tourism sector so early on had its own drastic impact on the lives of people living in Kenya, far beyond the reach of the virus.
“In Kenya the demographics are [that] more than half the population is aged under 20, with an almost zero risk of death from COVID according to the data, and less than 3% aged over 65; of whom only a very small proportion — less than 150,000 — are in the high risk 80+ age group which suffered tens of thousands of deaths elsewhere. Added to that, most of those 150,000 are females, who are at less risk than males.”
“So Kenya simply does not have large numbers of elderly people who would be at high risk of dying and overwhelming the health services,” he adds.
“It seems that the vast majority of people in Kenya have no serious risk of death from COVID if they get infected unless they are elderly or if they have a serious underlying health condition, and it is those high risk people who need to be the focus of attention.”
Prior to the global outbreak of COVID-19, this part of the world had already suffered greatly at the beginning of 2020.
Back in January, more than ten lodges and camps in the Maasai Mara were marooned by flood water after the Talek River broke its banks amid ongoing heavy downpours in Narok county.
The flooding had already created a food shortage among local indigenous families, but with the additional challenges of both tourism safaris and livestock markets shutting down to mitigate the risks of rising cases of COVID-19, families are now facing an even more critical shortage of food – and in turn, wildlife is being put under increased pressure from poaching and the human/wildlife conflict.
Food relief response as the impact of coronavirus takes hold
Back in January, Jack Lekishon (The Wise Man), Director of Million Dollar Vegan Food Relief Efforts in the Maasai Mara, began a campaign to help Maasai communities suffering from food shortages. As the global pandemic and its wider implications took hold, Jack’s work and mission to help families in need intensified.
For the last 10 months now, he has been leading a team of volunteers on the front line, delivering donations made through the Maasai Mara food relief campaign.
“Since the the outbreak of the virus I’ve been delivering food packages and hygiene parcels on a weekly basis to these wonderful families, orphans and widows. It has been a long mission to reach the most needy families and the most vulnerable in rural areas and local villages,” he shares.
“The Maasai community relies on tourism on an approximate rate of 100 per cent,” Jack explains. “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kenya’s internal and external borders are closed and therefore, there aren’t any visitors. The livestock markets have been closed down too, making it difficult for the community to acquire food. They are also in need of hygiene products, soaps and sanitizers.”
Together with the Eco Youths volunteer team and Maasai Mara village elders, Jack has helped put together a bold food relief emergency plan to feed thousands of needy families, widows, orphans and the most vulnerable people – delivering not only food relief donations, but also masks and sanitizers, sanitary towels and other hygiene products, as well as delivering education programs to educate communities on prevention measures against COVID-19, while families stay safe at home.
“The Maasai community along the edge of the Maasai Mara National Reserve are already a vulnerable and marginalised population. Many locals have lost their jobs and their income has been cut off, and now families here are left with a critical food shortage due to a horrible collapse of food supply in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hunger and starvation is taking root in many desperate families.”
“As people across the world struggle against the COVID-19 pandemic, the Maasai people of East Africa have already had to change their ancient customs to minimize the impact of the virus. The poverty rates are high as people struggle for livelihood opportunities in an economic system foreign to their culture,” he adds.
“The local tour guides and all the tourism industry stewards have lost their jobs and many are struggling to survive. The local Maasai women living in the “manyattas” — homestead like structures — are unable to access the basic needs, especially in these times of lockdown and curfew, and schools are still closed, which creates a struggle for children – who would have received food at school.”
It’s not only the local guides and tour operators who have lost a means to sustain themselves. Many Maasai women also rely on tourism as a source of income through the sale of their bead work, selling products such as bangles, necklaces, hats, and Maasai cultural ornaments, as well as entertaining the guests in Maasai cultural villages.
“I am seeking to support the most disadvantaged women’s group in the Talek region of Maasai Mara in Kenya,” Jack tells me. “These are the women who maintain and enhance the handicraft skills, knowledge and designs of the Maasai’s famous bead and leather work.”
“They’re so happy and thankful for every bit of support they receive. These local women groups are watchdogs for wildlife and other natural resources especially in the conservancies (leased parcels of land for wildlife conservation) and they are in need of our support.”
“These most disadvantaged families have no vehicles to get to the market, and even if they could get there, they have no money to buy food stuffs. The rural area shops are shutdown and many find that they must walk long distances – sometimes taking the entire day — in search for water for domestic use.”
“The situation is becoming more critical due to the rise in cases of the virus still increasing and as a result the local indigenous populations have fear for their freedom of movement in search of food,” Jack explains.
“We’re now fighting against hunger and starvation as well as a COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these families are going for weeks without food at all. This makes me sleepless. In some remote regions, some do not even have access to water.”
“I am thankful for my Eco team of volunteers for coming out and aiding food relief distribution, using every energy needed to make this kind mission a success. And of course I have immense gratitude to all the people who have donated to this food relief mission.”
Jack admits that he also has concern for the protection of wildlife in the area. “As this Mara region is the most rich-wildlife region of Kenya-Maasai Mara National Game Reserve and Conservancies ecosystems, we fear for the future of conservation.”
“These people protect the most diverse wildlife conservation in East Africa, as guardians and eye-watch for the most iconic and incredible animals; such as the Elephants, Rhinos, Lions, Cheetahs, Leopards and Buffalos; as well as the Small 5, Shy 5 & the impossible 5 animals in the Maasai Mara.”
“By providing food relief, we control any attempt of poaching for wild meat and charcoal burning in the beautiful natural forests,” he explains.
“I am grateful to collaborate with the local village elders to ensure equal distribution of food to the most needy families, and to the youth leaders who have tirelessly volunteered to join me and give back to the community in food distribution and COVID-19 prevention measures awareness.”
“I am proud to continue to lead this mission to ensure these wildlife stakeholders get access to food security and clean water, as well as other essential items required.”
The vital role of the Greater Mara Conservancies in the face of pandemic
Roughly 25% of Kenya’s wildlife lives within the Greater Mara Ecosystem, a 4,500 km2 area of both community and protected lands.
The Greater Maasai is world-famous as the home to the great migration, but over half of the Mara’s ecosystem is unprotected and has lost over 60% of its wildlife over the last 40 years to habitat loss, fencing for agriculture and human wildlife conflict.
The Mara’s 14 wildlife conservancies – the first of which was established in 1992 – provide valuable buffer zones around parts of the reserve.
Conservancies are partnerships between landowners and tourism operators on private lands around the Maasai Mara reserve. The conservancy model in the Mara ecosystem pools hundreds of individually owned land parcels into larger tourism and livestock management areas.
They are the main mechanism for securing wildlife space, connecting habitats, and buffering parks and reserves in Kenya by acting as an economically sustainable means of making both the wildlife and the land equally beneficial to the livelihoods of local landowners.
Conservancies are also the primary mechanism for expanding benefits to rural communities impacted by human-wildlife conflict. The Greater Mara conservancies support the livelihoods of approximately 13,500 households, or an estimated 100,000 people, through direct employment and lease fees paid by tourism operators.
Because of Covid, tourism companies operating in the conservancies have limited cash on hand to meet lease obligations and conservancy operating costs until tourism resumes.
Under normal operations, the conservancies generate nearly $7 million of benefits to these communities. By July 2020, cancelled bookings in the Mara’s community conservancies already exceeded $5 million due to COVID-19.
Responding to the collapse of tourism
The collapse of the tourism industry during this pandemic has left parks, reserves, and wildlife conservancies stripped off the vital funding needed to manage land and reward communities and private landowners for the opportunity cost of coexisting with wildlife.
The major problem is that unlike parks and reserves that receive some funding from national and county coffers — albeit often inadequate — conservancies rely entirely on tourism and grants from conservation partners and charities. Tourism income contributes between 80-90% of conservation management costs in conservancies.
Core conservancy management costs include staff; mainly community rangers salaries, equipment and supplies needed to ensure the rangers are best prepared to actively prevent threats to communities and wildlife.
Without the frontline work of community rangers, human-wildlife conflict, poaching and illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products will intensify.
The ecosystems within the Mara Conservancies are also under threat from local indigenous populations depending on charcoal businesses and poaching for survival – equally as much as the Maasai Mara National Reserve itself is under threat.
The Mara Conservancies serve a model for community-based conservation in Kenya and beyond, and the failure of the Mara Conservancy model in the face of this crisis would have ramifications for the viability of community conservancy models far beyond the Mara.
The collapse of functioning conservancies has both human and biodiversity implications, and at risk too, is 30 years of effort and investment in community-based conservation.
As presenter Jonathan Scott explained to BBC Wildlife earlier this year: “The current slump in visitor revenue has prompted the government to allocate US$10 million for the 160 wildlife conservancies across Kenya, highlighting the importance of the conservancy movement.”
At a wildlife conservation level, Kenya simply cannot afford a collapse on conservancies that today cover 11% of the country’s landscape. Parks and Reserves are vital, but they alone do not provide adequate protection and conservation for the plethora of wildlife that makes the Mara its home.
Support for the Greater Maasai Mara conservancies during a pandemic
The Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA) is a Kenyan commitment, to conserve the greater Maasai Mara ecosystem through a network of protected areas.
It is an umbrella organization representing a total of 15 conservancies covering an area of 1400 square kms – which is equal to the size of the Maasai Mara reserve itself — and represents over 15,000 land owners.
Those land owners come from different families, and usually receive a monthly income through conservation and tourism.
MMWCA fosters partnerships between tourism operators and landowners. Those landowners receive a total of nearly $5 million annually for the lease of their land in the conservancies.
This model has been hailed as perfectly balancing natural biodiversity and poverty alleviation – empowering Maasai families and communities to lead in those conservation efforts and afford access to education for their children.
I spoke to Daniel Sopia, CEO of MMWCA, who explained: “The major challenges that we face in the greater ecosystem [particularly in response to the decline in tourist numbers] are land privatisation and sub-division.”
“[The current situation around the Coronavirus crisis] has led to land sales and also people putting up fences, which can block the wildlife migratory corridors.”
Without at least a portion of their monthly lease payments, conservancy landowners may sell their parcels of land to generate cash for immediate household needs or convert land to agriculture to produce and sell food.
In order to prevent these outcomes, the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association has designed a collaborative strategy to coordinate a response to the COVID-19 crisis in the Mara.
The MMWCA has helped prepare the Mara Community Conservancies Emergency Relief Proposal, which sets out the risks that the current pandemic poses to the Conservancies in plain terms.
As well as poaching, conservancy landowners may be forced to sell and/or convert their land to agriculture – effectively destroying the conservancy model and with it one of the most promising and innovative conservation strategies anywhere in Africa.
“The failure of the Mara Conservancy model in the face of this crisis would have ramifications for the viability of community conservancy models far beyond the Mara,” Daniel reiterates.
“Not to mention that fences and sub-divisions of land could potentially block the wildlife migratory corridors that the great migration depends upon.”
In response to the proposal, key stakeholders have come together to invest in sustaining critical conservancy operations and lease payments to landholders during this time.
“Lease fees payments continue to be made to cushion landowners against this crisis, so as to deter them from thinking of selling land,” Daniel explains, “Conservancies with the help of MMWCA have negotiated for lease fees reduction by 50% during this crisis, given the loss in tourism, which is the source of revenue for leases”.
The Relief Strategy devised by MMWC in their Emergency Relief Proposal is focused on creating operating support for 10 conservancies that have been operating without donor support, as well as Lease Relief for seven conservancies that are structured on guaranteed lease payments.
“Conservancies that do not operate on guaranteed leases but rely on daily ticket fees from visiting tourists have a huge challenge ahead, and MMWCA is working hard to mobilize resources for leases and conservancies basic operating expenses,” Daniel tells me.
The plan aims to keep conservancies intact, maintain household income, limit poaching and human/wildlife conflict and minimize land-use change.
“There are 2 major financial reserves needed to provide for the short-term functioning of the conservancies while paving the way for their long-term resilience as a self-sustaining ventures once this crisis has passed. These are are a Conservancy Operations Fund and a Lease Relief Fund.”
The Conservancy Operations Fund refers to pooling support from multiple donors, to provide resources for the monthly operating costs of the conservancies, normally funded through tourism revenue, for a period of 12-18 months.
The Lease Relief Fund is for tourism partners to provide access to funds (low-interest loans to cover 25% of their lease obligations) that would allow them to meet lease payment obligations to landowners that are sufficient to sustain the lease agreements.
Some individual conservancies and companies are launching their own fundraising efforts to help offset costs, all of which will be factored into the distribution of available funds; building transparency and collaboration across the conservancies.
“Although The proposed strategy includes significant sacrifice from each of the main stakeholder groups: It is in the best interest of the landowners, the tourism partners, and the donors to work together to sustain the conservancy model – protecting future conservation value, community benefits, and tourism profits,” Daniel says.
“It is vital now that work is done to maintain perceptions of conservancies as a positive force in the Mara, central to developing solutions and delivering relief for local people during the crisis and to strengthen collaboration and collective, coordinated action between key stakeholders, including landowners, communities, tourism partners, NGOs, donors and government.”
Back in July Daniel Sopia reported “All of our Mara Conservancies are operating well at the moment normal monitoring patrols. MMWCA is operational, all our staff still have jobs and are working from home and we’ve not lose any of our existing partners or funders.”
The fear is that in the ensuing months and uncertain year ahead as we enter 2021, that may well change yet.
Life on the Mara after Covid-19
For all the value that tourism brings to the local economy and indigenous communities in the Mara, there’s no denying that prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the balance had begun to tip in recent years when it comes to the environmental impact.
“Tourism is a mainstay of Kenya’s economy and vital to funding the conservation of areas like the Mara. But the explosion in camps and lodges means up to 100 vehicles now jostle at river crossings, impeding the safe passage of wildebeest and zebras, while dozens crowd around predator sightings,” Jonathan Scott penned in BBC Wildlife earlier this year.
The combination of too many vehicles, an ever-growing abundance of new camps and lodges, and the ongoing emergence of new, independent safari guides and experiences has certainly had an altering effect on this famously open landscape.
Could Coronavirus be an opportunity to re-balance?
One outcome of these current times of virus controls and national lockdowns is that once domestic and indeed international travel begins to re-open, many people will be looking to go back to nature and outdoor holidays, rather than busy hotels.
Although currently impacted by a peak in the virus’ transmission rate, Kenya has a good domestic tourism market when not impeded by Covid-related restrictions. Unlike Rwanda and Botswana, who have invested entirely in their high end international tourism, the Mara’s appeal and accessibility to its neighbours may go in its favour financially when the tourism sector begins to recover.
The African Travel and Tourism Association confirmed that prior to the most recent rise of Covid transmissions in Kenya, the local market — especially the expat community in East Africa — had been taking advantage of special offers rolled out while the international travel market is on hold.
The Maasai Mara is also in a position to cater for a predicted shift in visitor behaviour, where family or friend groups may be looking to rent entire camps as a private group instead of mixing with others.
One concern raised at online webinar titled ‘The Fine Balance Between Tourism and Conservation in the Maasai Mara’ in July this year was that – at that time – safaris were still operating, but social distancing measures meant that vehicles were carrying no more than 4 guests a time, instead of up to 10.
“Long term concerns post-corona, are that we may be increasing the number of vehicles by having fewer people per car, but will return to having the same numbers of people arriving in the Mara eventually. The presence of too many cars has already been affecting river crossings, even with the rules of five cars per wildlife viewing,” Jonathan Scott explained.
It’s evident that panellists at the event felt that the Coronavirus crisis may present an unexpected opportunity to re-address the balance in the Mara and Greater Mara conservancies – a chance of fewer tourists and/or better enforced rules.
Together panellists called for a higher value to be placed on this unique part of the world; with higher prices to reflect that, noting that, “even current park fees are not representative of the value of the Mara.”
The primary concern was that the Mara – an already under-valued asset — would end up further under-cutting itself in attempt to draw visitors back in.
“One reasonable solution would be a tier system of different park fees for different areas, but reduced fees for local Kenyans,” suggested wildlife photographer Adam Bannister.
Other ideas included: conservation tax (an idea initially raised by renowned field biologist Dr George Schaller); a lottery system for those wanting to see the wildebeest migration as a means to reduce the number of vehicles at river crossing, and an enforceable moratorium on building new camps to reduce the number of pop-up tour operators undercutting prices.
For the same reason as the latter, it was put forward that driver guides in Southern Africa are required to spend a year qualifying – and perhaps it is time for Kenya to follow suit.
What’s next for the Maasai Mara following Covid-19?
It’s clear that the most important move going forward beyond this awful health crisis is to make the Mara more sustainable.
“Significantly, a campaign has been launched at local and national level to have the Mara designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO – a process to be completed by 2022,” Jonathan explains.
“A coherent management plan for the whole reserve, with a moratorium on the construction of camps and lodges and stricter control of tour vehicles as the desired outcomes. This has long been the norm in the Mara Triangle, which is administered by the Mara Conservancy”
Alongside the tireless work of individuals such as Jack Lekishon and his Maasai Mara food relief campaign relief programme; Daniel Sopia’s work with the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association and the ongoing campaign work of Jonathan Scott – who along with his wife Angela has been a global advocate for the protection of the Maasai Mara for a long time (and particularly during this pandemic); independent businesses are also coming up with new and novel ways to protect this unique and spectacular wild landscape.
Adopt-an-Acre of the Maasai Mara
Through the “Adopt-an-Acre” plan from Gamewatchers Safaris, contributors can adopt an acre of land in the conservancies for a year with a donation to the Wildlife Habitat Trust.
Wildlife Habitat Trust has been set up as a fund to help to pay the land leases — so that the Maasai families can continue to receive the fees for the renting their land, and the conservancies can continue to exist without the income usually acquired through tourism, needed to pay those rents.
Each year, the 42,500 acres of protected wildlife habitat leased by Gamewatchers Safaris would usually provide an income of almost US$1.5 million to the community, generating US$35 per acre for the local people, with US$20 going to payments for land rents and US$15 to wages.
Adopting 1 acre of land for a year through this new scheme requires a donation of US$35, of which US$15 goes to conservancy and camp staff wages and US$20 goes to the families. Adopting 5 acres requires a donation of US$175, meaning US$75 going towards the wages of the 247 Maasai staff and US$100 going towards rent payments to hundreds of families. And adopting 30 acres requires a donation of US$1050, with US$450 going to wages and US$600 going to the families.
As an added incentive to draw visitors to the area once tourism is restored, organisers are offering supporters who adopt 30 acres or more the chance to receive credit from Gamewatchers Safaris for the same amount donated, to be used for payment of a stay at any of the Porini Camps in 2021 or 2022.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new reality that we hope will make protecting the natural world a priority for every country,” Jonathan Scott observes.
“The Mara is the jewel at the heart of Kenya’s tourism industry. If nurtured, there is no reason why it should not prosper, and why it’s magnificent grasslands should not echo with the roars of iconic creatures. If I had one day left, Angela and I would spend it in the Mara.”
To support the Maasai Mara food relief campaign in delivering food and hygiene parcels to Maasai families in need, click here.
If you would like to know more about the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association visit: maraconservancies.org
If you would like to adopt an acre of the Mara, please visit: www.porini.com
Learn more about the Maasai Mara
- Empowerment through conservation – Guest post by Maasai warrior Philip Ole Senteria
- Read Part 1 of my interview with Jonathan & Angela Scott about the Sacred Nature book
- Read Part 2 of my interview with Jonathan & Angela Scott
- Discover Tales by Light
- Big Cat Tales: A return of the Maasai Mara’s big cats