Olore Orok Conservancy. Photo by Roger Miller.

The headquarters of the Olare Orok Conservancy lies on top of a hill overlooking the Olare River that forms the northern boundary of the vast Masai Mara basin. Resident herds of wildebeest, zebra, impala and eland dappled the landscape below us while above, a kettle of at least 30 vultures circled in a column that stretched up into the stratosphere.

The difference between a wildlife conservancy, a national/game reserve, and a national park was blurry at best to most of us until we spoke to James Kaigil, the assistant manager of Olare Orok Conservancy.  Kaigil broke it down for us in the simplest terms he could while in the background, a team of wardens dressed in green military uniforms sat in the shade watching us with ambivalence.

The largest difference between these three categories of land is governance, explained Kaigil. National Parks like Nairobi National Park, and National Reserves like the Masai Mara, are governed by the federal and local governments, respectively. Conservancies like Olara Orok, on the other hand, are composed of private lands leased by local community members to a private conservancy. They are managed for both wildlife and livestock and are partly funded for by private investors who pay for the camps that tourists then pay to stay in. The money from the tourists is then allocated to pay a monthly salary to the landowners, fund local schools and hospitals, and pay the rangers and managers who maintain the land and wildlife. Unlike national parks and reserves, conservancies like Olare Orok allow the Masai to graze their cattle on certain zones of the land that are rotated in order to maintain the health and biodiversity of the ecosystem.

Each landowner in the conservancy is paid 3,000 Kenya shillings per acre per month; regardless of how many beds are filled in the camps, they are paid and given access to grazing land. Since Moi privatized and divided up the land in 1989, most Masai possess 150 acres of land. You do the math. What makes this arrangement profitable to investors, like Virgin Mobile founder Richard Branson, is that during the peak months during the wildebeest migration (June, July and August), camps are completely booked with clients who pay to reserve their beds up to a year in advance, more than making up for the losses accrued during the offseason. Ideally, this system works flawlessly to satisfy the needs of tourists, wildlife and the Masai; yet, as in many cases where lines are drawn in the sand, people and wildlife  tend to throw monkey wrenches into optimistic plans. Still a new model, conservancies are considered a work-in-progress.

Before 1989, the Masai had no concept of borders or private land rights. Thus, when conservancies like Olare Orok tell Masai that some zones are off limits to their cattle who form the keystone of a Masai’s culture and economy, it’s not hard to predict which entity the Masai will obey. When cattle are caught grazing in a zone that is off limits, whether that zone be in a conservancy, reserve or park, the Masai who is responsible can be fined or even tried in court after a certain number of offenses. That said, the arrangement the conservancies have with the Masai seems preferable to the outcome that followed the settlement the federal and local governments have made with the Masai in previous years. When these bodies of government sought to create parks and reserves for tourists, they bought the Masai’s land for 100 dollars per acre (very cheap in both senses of the word) and once the Masai had spent the money, they were left feeling robbed of their historic land. In addition, the profits of the parks and reserves that were supposed make their way back into Masai communities, seemed to magically vanish into the pockets of corrupt managers, wardens and councilmen. One way that the Olare Orok Conservancy has sidestepped this sort of corruption is by setting up bank accounts for each landowner that directly receive the monthly payments.

One study indicated that the soil of the Mara so fertile that the farming of wheat would yield many times as much money as eco-tourism currently rakes in every year. The president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, once said, “every insect must pay its way”; by this philosophy, the wildlife of the Mara seems to be behind on the rent.

Leopard. Photo by Roger Miller.

In a better world, a place like the Masai Mara would need no financial justification for its existence; in a perfect world, mankind might never have contrived agriculture and we all would have continued to cower in treetops and caves in fear of the great predators that stalk our nightmares. Realistically, however, we live in the world of Robert Mugabe; a globalized world dominated by capitalism where even the smallest blade of grass or tiny antelope is assigned a value. And in this imperfect world, it seems to me that conservancies are the best chance the Masai have of preserving their culture and livelihood against the onslaught of industry. We, who travel thousands of miles to see the Mara-Serengeti, are consumers of the beauty and dramas of the untamed, yet that which has taken billions of years to form can never be accurately valued. The irony is that, in order for places that remain untarnished by civilization to survive, civilization must place a value on them that exceeds the possible profit of destroying them.