Masai Mara Game Reserve is arguably the greatest wildlife destination on the planet. It is home to the highest lion densities on the continent and the locale of the famed wildebeest and zebra migration. As an extension of the Serengeti ecosystem (of Tanzania), it captures the essence of safari. Its matrix of acacia-dotted savannahs, rocky rivers, high escarpments and woodland host a staggering density of herbivores, reputed to be in the region of 230 individuals per square kilometre. With that density comes an equally prolific number of predators. The Masai Mara is iconic, and is also under considerable pressure.
Some of the most valuable land on Earth lies within proclaimed national parks and game reserves, and the Masai Mara is no exception. Yet, many of the world's poorest communities live on the boundaries of these same parks and reserves. For conservation to be sustainable, this anomaly needs to change. The land that surrounds game reserves, if zoned and developed carefully and sensitively, could become some of the most valuable land left on Earth if converted to wildlife. One of the conservation movement's biggest opportunities is to capitalise on this and to expand the amount of land under formal conservation protection while simultaneously uplifting the lives of impoverished rural communities.
The Masai Mara Game Reserve is 375,000 acres and is surrounded by a number of game ranches, which form a contiguous boundary with the Reserve. These ranches, which are owned by the Masai, operate under a variety of land uses, but most commonly livestock agriculture and wildlife tourism. These game ranches provide traversing rights to numerous safari camps and lodges located within their boundaries. Any given camp may have rights to traverse more than one game ranch in addition to entering the Masai Mara Game Reserve. In exchange for the right to traverse and operate on Masai-owned land, each safari camp and lodge has agreed to some arrangement with the Masai whereby Masai are able to graze their cattle and guests are able to view the wildlife, harmoniously. The challenge, however, is the sustainability of such an arrangement both from the standpoint of socio-economics and the environment.
Within this context, we introduce Olare Motorogi Conservancy. The Olare Motorogi Conservancy is an initiative that addresses both community upliftment and wildlife conservation on Masai-owned land on Masai Mara Game Reserve’s northern border. This is the objective of Mara Plains Camp, and the Olare Motorogi Conservancy.
This intriguing new conservation and land use initiative is just three years old and is set to become the blueprint for a sustainable greater Masai Mara ecosystem. Until recently, Olare Motorogi’s 30,000 acres of prime rolling grasslands and riverine forest were filled with rural homesteads and large herds of cattle and goats. The ecosystem was being overgrazed, risking the sustenance of both wildlife and cattle, and to the detriment of both. Sustainability was at risk for both the people and the wildlife.
After lengthy consultation with the Masai, it was agreed that a new community conservation vision was needed – one which addresses sustainability. Together, all stakeholders developed the Olare Motorogi Conservancy, a win-win for both the Masai landowners and the wildlife of the Masai Mara ecosystem. A lease agreement was developed to address the fickleness of the tourism industry, the culture of the Masai and the impacts of agriculture and wildlife. It was agreed that the Masai landowners would receive a steady monthly income throughout the year, regardless of how few guests have visited the area in exchange for halting grazing on the conservancy. This guaranteed income minimises the economic risk incurred by the Masai, while also supplementing the income lost from agriculture. It is paid by the camps within the Conservancy.
Today, the homesteads, cattle and goats have moved, and herd sizes have been reduced accordingly. The Conservancy has once again become a haven for big cats, a route of migration and now offers some of East Africa's finest year-round game viewing. Visitors to the Olare Motorogi Conservancy need not experience the crowds for which the Masai Mara has become known. There is a strict minimum of at least 700 acres per guests tent, and camps are banned from using mini-buses. Further, nature walks and night game drives - activities that are not possible in the Masai Mara Reserve - are possible at Mara Plains Camp, and in the Olare Motorogi Conservancy.
Mara Plains commits US$150,000 per annum directly to the neighbouring Masai communities to maintain and support the Conservancy and its wildlife – the highest paid by any camp in the region. This is conservation in action, a commitment to striving to ensure the livelihoods of both people and wildlife.