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.

Today was yet another full day of learning and awesome experiences. After breakfast, we were joined by Andy Hill, editor of SWARA Magazine. SWARA is one of the top conservation magazines in East Africa, informing locals and also international readers of the environmental changes and problems East Africa is experiencing. Andy led a session on media training, teaching us the crucial aspects of what the media wants from us as citizens, the inner workings of media, and the importance of advocacy in creating change. His discussion with us was very interesting and helpful, especially since Andy is experienced in many fields and knows exactly what you need to do to be a successful journalist.

Our day continued with a visit to Soysambu Conservancy, a privately owned conservancy, covering a total of 48,000 acres around Elementaita Lake. Turning off the main road onto a road that puts New England potholes to shame, we spotted an African Long-Crested Eagle which has large black feathers on the top of its head. It was quite a site, especially being so close to a raptor we have not seen yet. We were met at the conservancy by Juliet Barnes, a writer and native Kenyan, who has lived there for twelve years. “Is it four-wheel drive?” she asked, referring to our van, which was not. “Well, that means we’ll have to push!” she joked, followed by a quaint laugh. Juliet joined us in our van, telling us about the conservancy while we snapped photos of the beautiful landscape and wildlife.

Elementaita Lake. photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

Early in our adventure, Juliet spotted a dead pelican by the lake’s edge. The pelican showed no fatal wounds, which worried Juliet. Apparently there is a timber plant on the other side of the lake which seeps chemicals and toxins into the lake when the rains come. It’s not too hard to see that this seepage threatens the survival of many animals in Soysambu. Although deeply concerned by the image, Juliet was determined to show us the success of their conservation efforts. “Smell that. Green smell, isn’t it?” Juliet queried in the thick forest of Acacia trees. As we drove through the conservancy, we spotted impala, Lilac breasted rollers, flamingos, spoonbills, black-wing stilts, Augur buzzards, elands, water buffalo, southern ground horn-bills, water buck, crown-crested cranes, a black-shouldered kite, a silver-back jackal, and other species.

Crown-crested cranes. photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

Lilac brested roller. photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

In the middle of the lake are islands known as Pelican Islands which, as expected, attract vast numbers of pelicans. The site was truly amazing, seeing so many pelicans condensed into little compact islands, while hundreds of other birds were swarming around and creating a constant “CAWW!” The immense amount of land the conservancy covers limited our ability to spot any Rothschild’s giraffes, one of the main species Soysambu is dedicated to protecting in their conservation efforts. With thunder looming in the background and the onset of rain, another day in Kenya came to a close.

Black-shouldered kite. photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

Pelicans on Pelican Island. photo credit: Tyler Pidgeon

After a couple of days rest in Nairobi, and time to start working on final papers and journalism articles, not to mention laundry, we headed back out of the city to Game Reserve Limited, or GRL. Owned by John Hopcraft, the 20,000-acre land is just an hour from the city in the Athi Plains and has been in the Hopcraft family since 1906 when J.D. Hopcraft, arrived from South Africa after fighting in the Boer War. Once, this land provided a tremendous amount of “bush meat,” animal from game meat of impala, gazelle, oryx and more, until the practice was made illegal seven years ago. Today, they struggle with how to make the land a viable ranch while protecting the land and wildlife contained within, including  280 species of birds and 20 species of animal. Protecting places like this is crucial, given that 80% of Kenya’s wild animals live outside of the country’s protected reserves.

Lukenya cliffs / Meera Subramanian

We spent the last two days here, learning from Sandy Simpson and Nashon about the work to make this land an official conservancy and their hopes to raise the money needed to fully enclose the land with an electric fence that will keep poachers out. (An ongoing problem, for example eland poachers were once caught on this land and are now serving five-year jail sentences.) Ideally, a conservancy could be created in collaboration with other neighboring private landholders, potentially creating a 50,000-acre block of land. Without the protections, hope for the animals that live within the ranch is limited. Even within the expansive Nairobi National Park, which is enclosed on three sides, the fourth side has all but been lost for migrating animals due to extensive human settlement, poaching and poisoning/killing in response to human-animal conflicts (ranchers losing livestock or farmers losing crops to wild animals).

White-backed vultures / Meera Subramanian

The land supports a healthy colony of white-backed vultures, and we also see black-shouldered kites, martial eagles, bustards and more. But surrounding the land is extensive development, including major flower farms and a new concrete factory right next door.

An ostrich with a backdrop of neighboring greenhouses. / Meera Subramanian

Wild giraffes... / Meera Subramanian

...live among cattle whose meat will be sold to the Middle East. / Meera Subramanian

sunset / Meera Subramanian

Arian and Munir around the campfire. / Meera Subramanian

Drew turned 21! And we celebrated with cake and his first (legal) Tusker.

Happy Birthday, Drew! / Teeku Patel

And we did a nighttime safari with Nashon, entering a whole different world inhabited by bush babies, bat-eared foxes, spring hares, African hares, and grey nightjars, as well seeing — in the bright beam of Nashon’s flood light — a huge pack of 20 hyenas.

It seems miraculous that this, like Nairobi National Park, can exist so close to the exploding city of Nairobi, now estimated to be inhabited by 3 million people.