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.

Lots of nostalgia during our last day at Elsamere. We woke up, had one last breakfast and said good by to the staff and to the life we had become so accustomed to in just one short week. After some group pictures with the staff, and what can only be described as a car packing miracle (we had so much stuff!) we loaded into a pair of awesome safari land rovers, equipped with airplane type seats and roof hatches for better photographs. Spending around five hours in the car, we were able to see a lot of different Kenyan landscapes, everything from wheat fields to mountains and deserts.

As we came closer to the Mara we made a few pit stops to take out money and buy some souvenirs, one of which we can’t seem to shake. Roger hasn’t stopped playing the drum he bought for about two days now. Anyway, we got back on the bumpy road and started heading towards the Mara. I was absolutely amazed at the amount of pollution we saw. Driving through very flat land you could see human waste, mostly plastic bags, as far as the eye could see. Coming in without much knowledge of the area, we all had this idea that the Mara and everything around it would be a basically untouched landscape, with nothing but small Masai villages dotting the landscape. This was totally not the case though, especially as we got closer to the gate.

There were a good number of traditional Masai villages around though, and we were fortunate to stop and get a tour of one called Kishermorvak by the chief’s son and good friend of Munir, Ndaiya. He and his village were more than welcoming and eager to show us their traditional way of life. Before we entered the village, all the men came out and did a ceremonial dance that is typically used to scare Lions while on the hunt. It consisted of an awesome deep throated chanting, a sort of shuffle walk, and a spectacular show of jumping by each individual as they came before the group. Towards the end of this dance they invited us all to join them, and in a flash we went from stagnant tourists with cameras to jumping, shuffling and yelping along with the Masai. It was an absolutely unforgettable experience. Next the women came out and gave us a show of a traditional wedding song and dance, which was equally as amazing and easily imprinted in our memories. After the dances, we were invited to enter the village.

 

Ndaiya brought us in, and gave us as many details about Masai life as he could think of and we could think to ask. They demonstrated how they made fire, built houses, and even showed us inside one of the cow-dung constructed huts. I think we all had a hard time grasping the concept of sleeping in the same room with your goats next to a fire on a hard bed topped with a dried cow skin, but that made it all the more interesting and was the first time I had seen an indigenous type house outside of a museum. To top off the village experience, the people all laid out blankets with their crafts in the center, and we got to shop from a huge selection of handmade Masai bracelets, masks, bowls, dress, etc.

After spending probably too much money, we jumped back into the cars and headed for the Mara. At the gate we ran into a swarm of Masai women with loads of goods to sell. They were extremely aggressive, shoving item after item in at us through the windows. I bought a bracelet from one for a few hundred shillings (can you say rip off!) and accidently pulled out a thousand shilling bill when I went to pay. I could see her eyes light up and before I knew it I had pretty much everything she had been carrying shoved onto my lap, with the demand that that thousand bill could get me all of it. I really didn’t have a choice, ten bracelets, two hand carved statues and a huge wooden mask, and I wouldn’t have to gift shop again for the rest of the trip.

We got through the gate and were immediately given warnings that this was the offseason for animals, and to not expect too much on our first drive through the park. Boy were they wrong though! Within about an hour and a half of driving we had seen 11 lions, cheetahs, elephants, ostrich, secretary birds, topi, the eastern chanting goshawk and any number of other fauna. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my home in Colorado from the landscape, but then we’d see elephants walking around and it felt like we were on a completely different planet than where we’d come from.

 

 

Photo by Eric Newman

 

 

After a tiring day and seeing more sights than we could possibly take in, we arrived at our tent-camp located within the National Reserve called the Matira Bush Camp. Entirely Masai-run, the camp consisted of many zip-up tents, but it was far from roughing in. Inside each tent were two ridiculously comfortable wooden beds, reading lights, and anything else you could think of. We had an awesome dinner prepared by the Masai, and then topped our night off with a wonderful fireside chat about the park and many of the problems it faces. Come around 9:30 we were all exhausted and retreated to our more than comfortable beds for a restless night of sleep with no disturbances except for the territorial rumble of Lions in the distance.

On our last day, we drive south to visit the Kwenia hills area, home of a large Ruppell’s vulture colony. Along the way, we pick up Titus, a young Masai who is studying in Nairobi.

Kaai Titus / Meera Subramanian

He has been working with Munir to try to further vulture awareness among the Masai people. He takes us to his mayatta, and we meet his mother. He is one of ten children, his mother one of his father’s three wives. They all live together in a cluster of mud homes and generously offer us hot tea heavy with goat milk.

Typical Masai home. / Meera Subramanian

Titus with the family goat herd. / Meera Subramanian

Another family member does some woodworking. / Meera Subramanian

Goats / Meera Subramanian

Titus shows us a small reservoir that the family has built to secure steady water in this arid region. It is an indicator of the transition from a nomadic tradition to something more sedentary.

Students look over the new small reservoir. / Meera Subramanian

Farther down the valley, at the vulture site, Munir shows the students how to use photographs and a scope to undertake long-term surveys of nest sites.

Munir shows the students photographs of the cliffs. / Meera Subramanian

Chris and Brian look on. / Meera Subramanian

Murage haws been our expert driver for weeks, safely transporting us along the rough roads of Kenya. Now, he returns us to Nairobi on the last day of the course.

Murage / Meera Subramanian

The Masai tribe — with their distinct red clothing and great herds of cows that they depend on — have become emblematic of Kenya. Touring their manyattas, simple circular villages made of mud huts and surrounded by thorny acacia branches, is often part of visiting the region. Over the course, we visited a few of these, comparing ones that are heavily geared toward tourists (like the one we went to today), and others that we had a rare opportunity to visit through a family member where we could witness the Masai simply going about their daily lives.

We visited the manyatta outside of the growing town of Talek in the Mara and began to think about important questions regarding authenticity. The students are invited to dance with the tribe (men compete to see how high they can jump, and then later, the women stand in a long line singing). We are given a look inside one of their small homes. We watch as they start a fire with sticks. We are offered a wide of array of beaded handicrafts for sale. Throughout we investigate whether they are imparting their cultural heritage or whether we have fallen into nothing more than a tourist trap.The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Masai warriors singing. / Meera Subramanian

Masai dance / Meera Subramanian

Chris joins in the jumping. / Munir Virani

Arian in the long line of women. / Meera Subramanian

Maria joins in on the fun. / Munir Virani

We also visited Basecamp Masai Mara, a local eco-lodge, for a tour. In addition to high-end yet low-impact lodging, the camp is also connected to the Koiyaki Guiding School, which trains local Masai to be naturalist guides, and a women’s collective, where they can make traditional handicrafts for sale in which they receive a much larger percentage of the profits than the conventional sale through a middleman or distribution company. There are no flush toilets, and they collect their rainwater, plant trees and limit their electricity use. Here’s how they heat their water:

Solar hot water heater / Meera Subramanian

In the evening, after settling into Ilkeliani tented camp, Meera taught another environmental journalism class by candlelight before we sat down for dinner, fighting over the Tabasco!

St. Lawrence University’s public health course and conservation media course joined together to visit Kibera, Africa’s largest slum. An estimated one million people inhabit 250 hectares on the edge of Nairobi – an area the size of New York’s Central Park – only walls topped with broken bottles and barbed wire separating them from the surrounding middle-class housing and green agricultural lands lush from this year’s heavy rains. Contained, Kibera is a sloped sea of corrugated metal roofing linking one home to the next. The rusty roofs blend with the red earth.

The staff of SODIS (Solar Water Disinfection) greet us. Their crisp white t-shirts and matching baseball caps are emblazoned with an explanation: Solar Water Disinfection, and in parenthesis, SODIS. Tibu Maji kwa Miale ya Jua.  A bright yellow sun shines upon plastic bottles filled with clean blue water. The premise they’re promoting is simple. Fill a clear plastic bottle with water. Place in the sun for six hours in the middle of the day. Longer if it’s cloudy. UV light kills much of the bacteria that causes diarrhea, the leading cause of death in children who live in the developing world. To educate people, SODIS goes door-to-door, meet children’s and women’s groups, visit schools, and attend soccer games, teaching people how to at least partially treat water, especially for consumption by kids five and under. Little habits such as keeping soap in the house and washing hands after using the toilet get woven in. We got to visit school groups, a biogas toilet/shower facility and see inside the homes of several residents.

After Kibera, the Conservation Media group peels off from the public health group and heads to Lake Naivasha, a little over an hour’s drive from the city, but a whole world apart. We arrive to a bit of rain at sundown, and are welcomed to the Elsamere Field Centre with a warning to have an askari (guard) escort us to our rooms, since the hippos emerge from the lake at night to graze on the grass among the buildings!