In Kenya, the Maasai are leasing out their land to the Mara Naboisho Conservancy. This unique model proves that sustainable tourism can protect both the ecosystem and the wild animals that live there. And it can also promote development among the Maasai people without compelling them to betray their traditions.
It is half past five in the morning when Daniel Korio, a shepherd from the tribe of the Maasai, wakes up. The wiry man slips under the mosquito net, gets out of bed, puts on his shirt, trousers and black rubber boots. From the threshold of his little house, he looks out over his "manyatta," his family home. Next to his house, ehich he shares with his main wife Kerempe, stand the houses of his co-wife and of his four brothers, plus the traditional hut where his mother lives – a windowless dwelling made of dried cow dung and mud.
The most important thing is the kraal in which the whole family’s cows, sheep and goats spend the night. "In former times, the cows were our pride and joy," he says. "And our survival depended on the well-being of our animals." Things are rather different today. Every month, Daniel Korio receives a "salary" worth 11 000 Kenyan shillings – some 110 Swiss francs. It’s roughly a quarter of what he needs for his family in a month. He gets the money for leasing out his land to the Mara Naboisho Conservancy.
He is just one of 554 Maasai landowners in Naboisho who have signed such a contract. It is an appealing region for travelers because it’s full of game and is situated on the edge of the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
Daniel trudges across the muddy ground left by the recent downpours to the enclosure and opens the wooden gate. Some 50 cows, sheep and goats crowd their way out. Daniel gives them a visual check, just as he does every morning. He needs to be sure to identify any injuries or illnesses at an early stage. However, the care he lavishes on his cattle wasn’t enough to save all of them during Kenya’s severe drought of the past three years. "Many of the cows died. The ones that survived were so thin that they hardly brought any money when we sold them."
In years gone by, such hard times would have meant he couldn’t afford to send his children to school anymore. "Before we started leasing out our land, we always had to sell a few sheep whenever it was time to pay the school fees." But during the drought, his emaciated herd wasn’t worth anything anymore. Thanks to the lease, however, he was able to fall back on its monthly payments. "I’m grateful that the future of my children is no longer dependent on the rain," says this father of two sons and one daughter.
Once the early morning light comes, the vastness of the land becomes apparent. There’s no other settlement to be seen, just scrub and bush all the way to the horizon. In earlier times, the land belonged to the community, and it would never have occurred to any member of the Maasai to fence off a piece of it. Then, traditional land rights were joined by modern land law. 2005 the Kenyan government started privatizing the land of the Maasai in Naboisho. Since then, members of other ethnic groups have been able to buy plots of land in traditional Maasai areas. This was the moment the the Maasai understood that they would have to place their land under private ownership; otherwise they could end up without owning any of their ancestral homeland.
Quite a number of tourists are willing to pay a lot of money to be able to experience wild animals roaming freely. In Naboisho, a large proportion of the revenue generated is utilized to ensure the survival of the Maasai and the continued existence of their culture. The Norwegian investor Svein Wilhelmsen is one of the fathers of this model. In 1997 he made an acquaintance almost by chance that would change both his life and that of the Maasai in Naboisho.
One evening, as he was camping on the banks of the Talek River, an elder of the Maasai called Ole Taek came to join him. Sitting at the campfire, Taek told Wilhelmsen how he worried about his people. He railed against the "classical" tourism in the neighboring Maasai Mara National Reserve, because the profits bypassed the local population completely, and his tribe was even losing out from the so-called nature conservation practiced there. The Maasai were now forbidden from grazing their flocks in the reserve and had no more access to their ancestral lands. Instead, thousands of tourists came through every year, without his people benefiting from the revenue generated by tourism. There were still no schools and no hospitals, and there was no work for anyone. Wilhelmsen remembers well the warning given by the old Maasai: "We can only survive with nature. If it dies, our culture dies too."
Together, the two of them developed a model that would enable the Maasai to get their share of the revenue brought in by sustainable tourism. Half a year after their conversation, Wilhelmsen founded the company Basecamp Explorer, and the first lodge was opened on Ole Taek’s land in 1998: Basecamp Masai Mara. But before they could take the first steps toward creating today’s Conservancy, something else had to happen: Kenyan land law had to change. This is why the year 2005 was a milestone, says Wilhelmsen.
Privatizing the land created opportunities for investors, because it was now possible to make long-term agreements with landowners. But this also harbored great dangers for the preservation of the ecosystem and its animals. This was because private, fenced-off plots of land would cut across the migratory routes and the habitats of the wild animals, and also across the pasturelands of the cattle.
To both Wilhelmsen and his Maasai partners, setting up the Mara Naboisho Conservancy seemed the best way to prevent the worst-case scenarios. Instead of dividing up the region into building land, arable land or pasture for individual use, they could in this way preserve a single area of some 50 000 acres.
After a long day out in the savannah, Daniel Korio’s shepherd Lepakim has brought the herd back home to the kraal. Before they are corralled in for the night, the animals wait between the houses for the women to milk them. Kerempe is cooking tea with a lot of milk in a soot-blackened pot. Her seven year old is talking about what he did in school today. To him, learning is an exciting adventure. "I never went to school myself," says Kerempe softly, and you can hear her regret. Even just one generation ago, the Maasai hardly sent any of their children to school – and certainly not the girls. That has changed in recent years.
the Maasai have meanwhile understood that education is the most promising way of earning more money. That’s why Kerempe is just as convinced about the Naboisho model as her husband. "The wild animals attract the tourists, and they bring us money." Some of this money has already been invested in schools, water, health clinics and better roads. But Kerempe believes even more should be done. Daniel agrees. "We used to just milk our cows. Today you could say we’re also milking the rhinoceroses, elephants and lions."
Photos: Siegfried Modola
The Mara Naboisho Conservancy and the umbrella organization for wildlife conservancies in the Maasai Mara region, the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association, habe been supported by LGT Venture Philanthropy not only through funding, but also consultancy since 2016. LGT Venture Philanthropy has given them access to its networks and to the LGT Impact Fellowship. Fellows with the relevant professional experience have been recruited every year since 2009 to support the different organizations in their specialist fields.
This article was first published in LGT's client journal CREDO.