I recently returned from the Mara Naboisho Conservancy in Kenya where I had the most enlightening, inspiring, and exciting travel experience of my life. It was the first time that I felt as though my presence as a tourist was really valued, and that I was a direct contributor to an infrastructure that is mutually beneficial for both locals and visitors. The experience opened by eyes to the importance of knowing how tourism dollars are distributed, and how that distribution affects the local environment, wildlife and people in addition to the tourist’s experience.
I have traveled to developing countries before and have always felt a certain discomfort in not knowing exactly where my money was going. We always want to be positive contributors to the local economy, but it’s hard to really know our impact. Particularly in a place like East Africa, where travelers can spend upwards of thousands of dollars on safari tours, owned and operated not by local agencies, but by large, sometimes international, organizations; I wanted to be sure that when I engaged in a similar experience, my dollars were going into the right hands.
This is where the beauty of conservancies comes into play.
Conservancies are big pieces of land that border national parks or reserves, sharing the same ecosystem and wildlife. What makes them unique, however, is that they’re all governed and operated differently, and by local agencies or individuals.
“We want to be positive contributors to the local economy, but it’s hard to really know our impact.”
I explored the Mara Naboisho Conservancy, just adjacent to the Masai Mara National Reserve and north of the Talek River. The 50,000-acre conservancy has only 5 small camps and can sleep a maximum of 124 guests at any time. (Compare this to the 8,000 vehicles that enter through the Talek Gate into the main reserve every day!) This makes game drives feel really intimate and wild. When we came across of a 13-lion pride, for example, we were one of only two vehicles at the sighting. If we were in the reserve itself, we would be fighting for a position with 30 other groups.
The conservancy is divided into over 500 plots of land, each belonging to a local Maasai man and his family. The camps pay rent to the landowners every month and earn revenue from the conservancy fees that each guest pays. There is a board, made up of 3 Maasai elders and 3 camp operators, that governs the conservancy, ensuring that everything runs smoothly and that all parties involved are happy. Having the Maasai elders at the table ensures that the local people they represent are satisfied and acting on their own will. This is not a case of locals being unwillingly pushed out of their homes by those who are wealthier and more powerful; the local Maasai have voluntarily moved to the peripheries of the conservancy where they maintain grazing rights for their livestock. By moving, they help preserve that ecosystem for the wildlife, which draws in tourism and turns into revenue. This relationship is understood and approved by all those involved.
Although staying at a private lodge or camp in a conservancy is more expensive than a hostel, you know that your money is going to a sustainable and admirable initiative, supporting wildlife conservation as well as the local people. During my time in Naboisho, I stayed at Encounter Mara, a tented camp, and was treated superbly well. The staff was beyond accommodating and the local Maasai guides were so knowledgeable and open about their lives and their customs. The management talked honestly about the politics of the conservancy, the challenges they face, and the benefits of their way of operating.
“There really is something to be said about knowing exactly how you are contributing to conservation and community development.”
My days at Encounter Mara started early, around 5:30 am. After being woken up by a staff member, I rolled out of bed and walked to the mess tent for pastries, fruit, and coffee. A small group of us would then go out on a bush walk with an armed ranger who would teach us all about the local earth, wildlife and birdlife, as well as the history of the land. My favorite walk was one where we almost came head to head with a small herd of elephants. Luckily for us, the wind was blowing from the elephants towards us so they didn’t realize we were there. Rather than continuing on our intended route, however, we respected the animals, watched them from a distance, and then took a new path.
We’d return to camp in time for a big brunch, then have a couple of hours to relax. In the afternoon, we’d go out on long game drives in search of the plentiful resident big game: lions, leopards and elephants; buffalos, cheetah and wildebeest; hippos, zebras and giraffes; and countless bird species. Once the sun started to set, our guides would take us to a prime lookout spot for sundowners. They’d set up a table with snacks and drinks and we’d watch as the sun set over the plains. Once it grew dark, we’d drive back to camp where we’d sit around a fire and chat and eat with other guests and staff members before heading to bed, preparing for another day in the bush. I loved hearing the unfamiliar noises at night; I often couldn’t tell how far away they were from my tent but regardless, I always felt safe. In fact, the night sounds became soothing; the perfect soundtrack for sleeping.
My trip to the conservancy was unforgettable, from the amazing wildlife and landscapes, to the people, to the service. Had I not understood how my tourism dollars were being distributed, I would have found it hard to truly relax and enjoy my surroundings. The transparency around how I was contributing to conservation and community development put me at ease and because of that, I was able to fully take advantage of my experience.
For more information on responsible tourism, check out the Extraordinary Journeys blog.