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An inside look at Kenya’s conservancies
Last year on a team trip to Kenya, we were fortunate enough to catch up with Justin Heath – a keen conservationist who manages three conservancies (community-led conservation initiatives) in Kenya. We discussed what his job entails, why tourists should support the conservancies, and the continuing threats to wildlife in the region. Here’s what he had to say…
What’s the difference between the Masai Mara Reserve and the conservancies in Kenya?
The Reserve is government land set aside for wildlife – very similar to a national park – and was established in 1962. The conservancies are on private land where people are choosing to set their land aside for wildlife, and they are a more recent concept with most being formed in the last 15 years. One of the key elements of the conservancies is that they restrict entry to those staying in camps such as Saruni, Kicheche and Ol Seki and have a set density of one tent to 700 acres, which gives tourists a unique experience with very few other people around. Low impact is the byword in the conservancies.
What is your job and how did you get into this role?
I oversee the day-to-day management of three conservancies in the Greater Mara Ecosystem – Naboisho, Mara North and Ol Chorro Oirowua Conservancies.These cover an area of just under 140,000 acres. We have more than 1,500 Masai families and landowners who have chosen to agglomerate their land into the three conservancies we manage. Community relations are a key component of our work. For example, we rotate Masai herds through the conservancies in a sustainable way. We also provide security including anti-poaching measures, sniffer dogs and armed personnel, and infrastructure structures such as road building and maintenance services. In addition, we work closely with the Kenya Wildlife Services Veterinary Department. I work for a family business and we are contracted to manage these three conservancies and the Mara Triangle, part of the Masai Mara National Reserve, which my father Brian is in charge of.
Why should tourists consider supporting conservancies?
There are three major reasons that tourists should consider supporting conservancies. First, the wildlife experience is spectacular. Along with Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, the Greater Mara Ecosystem has the highest density of lions in the world; we have our own wildebeest migration; and the leopard and cheetah sightings are second to none. In one week alone, Naboisho had more than 18 different cheetah sightings including cubs, while Mara North is home to Leopard Gorge, which the BBC’s Big Cat Diary frequently used as a location for filming. And you can have all this to yourself and a limited number of other guests. Second, the Kenya government cannot set much more land aside for conservation, because taking people’s land to do this violates their rights. So any major expansion is going to have to happen through the private sector, where people elect to use their land for conservation. Third, staying in a conservancy directly benefits the communities who have chosen to set their land aside. This provides incentives directly to the landowners and keeps the land open. Were it not for a thriving tourism industry, they may choose to convert it to agriculture or other competing land uses.
What day-to-day obstacles do you face?
Land use and subdivision driven by a growing population is a major challenge. This results in a constant struggle to make the land viable under conservation. Juggling the needs and wants of multiple stakeholders is another challenge, as is the constraint on resources, especially given the slow down over the past two years in Kenya’s tourism.
What are your ambitions for conservancies in Kenya?
We are finally recognised as a viable land use in Kenya through the 2013 Wildlife Act and the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association. Our regional Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association does great work raising our profile. At present, we have almost doubled the amount of land set aside for conservation and this is critical because a Living Planet Report in 2014 suggested that worldwide we have lost 50 percent of our vertebrates in the last 40 years. Kenya has seen similar decreases over the same period. I hope we can slow this through conservancies and become a valuable part of the economy, giving us greater recognition, protection and impact.
What do you see as the biggest threat to wildlife in Kenya?
The biggest threats we face are the lack of incentives for communities to protect their wildlife, fragmentation of rangelands, which includes an increase in human settlement, and the inability of wildlife to compete with other land uses.
What would you say is the biggest success of the Mara Conservancies?
The fact that they exist and that the concept is expanding in spite of the huge challenges and costs required to establish them, and that dedicated and responsible organisations like Saruni, Kicheche and Ol Seki are being proactive and making a difference is a major success. In addition, the ability to learn and the evolution of a second generation of thinking that is emerging is very positive.
Do you feel that the conservancies and the Masai Reserves are working towards the same goals?
Yes. Both sides have their challenges, and initially there was limited interaction and some parties saw the conservancies as a threat to the Reserve. However, these barriers are being dismantled and better relationships are being fostered at all levels.
What motivates you most in your role?
It’s challenging, but I believe I can make a difference and that’s what motivates me. Most importantly, we have a great team.