Creating a conservancy in Kenya

Masai Mara

Cottar's 1920's Camp goes on a journey to set up a wildlife conservancy in the Maasai Mara

The Cottar family has been guiding safaris in the Maasai Mara area of Kenya for close to 100 years. Over time it has become clear that they had to help the Maasai get ownership of their land to prevent further fragmentation of the land and the destruction of the wildlife. The process leading to the setting up of the wildlife conservancy has been long but very rewarding. Here Cottar's Camp explain what's gone on behind the scenes...

Cottar’s 1920’s Maasai Mara Safari Camp is situated on Maasai community land, approximately 1 km from the border of the Maasai Maasai Mara National Reserve and about the same distance from the Tanzania border and the Serengeti National Park.

We have been a Long Run Member now for over a year, and in our endeavor to be certified by the Zeitz Foundation as a Global Ecosphere Retreats certified Long Run Destination, we have been looking at all aspects of our operations. One area of interest, which was started long before our involvement with the Zeitz Foundation, has been our long journey in setting up a wildlife conservancy. This is a description of the efforts it has taken for us to set up the conservancy.

The proposed conservancy is on Olderikesi community land, which borders the Maasai Maasai Mara National Reserve, the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, Naikara Community Ranch, Ilkerin Loita, and Siana Community Ranch.

This land unit has been, until very recently, under the colonial era ‘trust land’ laws, and was therefore functioning in a ‘tragedy of the commons ‘sort of way in that Maasai that were evicted from other land units as a result of land fragmentation and privatization were welcomed by the Olderikesi elders to create new villages in the age old Maasai tradition of ‘acceptance of others’ in sharing of natural recourses, especially for livestock. When we set up our permanent camp in 1998, there were nine villages on the land, surrounding an area of approximately 13,000 hectares, and today there are thirty.

The Olderikesi land unit comprises an area of 46,000 hectares, with a human population of approximately 10,000, and a livestock population of over 100,000, which includes sheep, goats and cattle.

It is a critical dispersal area for wild herbivores such as elephants, rhinos, giraffes and also predators from the Maasai Mara and Serengeti due to its flourishing ecosystem (the Maasai Mara is currently experiencing gradual environmental degradation from increasing elephant populations and bush fires), and other transient grazing species such as wildebeest and zebra which pass through on their migratory route to the short grass areas of the Maji Moto, Loita and Ilkerin and Bololeti plains.

In the past, as with all other trust lands, if an investor wanted to build a camp, it was normal to lease a small campsite area (100 acres or so) for the facility, with the Maasai landowners deciding who would be the  ‘owners’ or beneficiaries of the lease and the investors being free to transit the rest of the ranch.

Because there were no leadership structures and mechanisms to allow for better legal agreements, there were no other options but to follow this practice, with the downside being that very few Maasai landowners benefited from the tourism activities on the land.

While the majority of the population continued with their cattle grazing culture or focused on agricultural development, tourism and wildlife took a dive in the area and it became clear over time, that the Maasai were driven to getting more income from tourism by leasing out more small parcels of land for campsite plots to more investors, which lead to the fragmentation and unplanned developments of lodges and camps so evident today around the Maasai Mara.


With the lack of government building regulations, strategic planning and land use plans, the consequence of this has been poor quality facilities, an increase of poorly planned developments around the borders of the park, biased opinions against wildlife and a preference for agriculture instead of wildlife tourism.

We could see that with this fragmentation process, privacy and space around our camp and the wildlife product we are so reliant on would be destroyed. We could also see a community and culture in decline. We decided that we should do something about it. Our solution was to adapt a model developed in other parts of the country that focused on leasing land for a wildlife conservancy, or easement.

Our first step was to identify whom we could work with to make decisions that were binding in the long run.

There was the government administration of Chiefs and District Officers, but they were not elected by the local people and therefore could not represent them. There was also a Land Adjudication Committee made up of elders, usually the richest in terms of owning cattle, who did not want any talk of surveying the land or subdividing it because they feared they would end up having to pay for pasture or be denied access to the Maasai Mara reserve for grazing. Then there was the unrepresented youth, fast coming up in education and power, and we decided to help them form a Community Based Organisation in 1998.

We channeled funds to the local school, ambulance services, teacher salaries and wildlife compensation through their organization named Saruni CBO in return for a cattle free area around our camp, but because there was no legal backing to the plan, we never got the results we wanted and cattle and agriculture continued to close in on us from the east.

Over time it became clear that we had to help the Maasai get ownership of their land. We started by assisting their land committee with funding to survey of their borders and the legal processes to do this as well as to resolve border disputes with the surrounding group ranches Siana, Naikara and Ilkerin Loita.  It was at this point that we earned the trust of the traditional opinion leaders in the community and the land committee.

Over the years we have assisted the Maasai community to get their ranch declared an ‘adjudication section’ which cleared the way for them to elect a new committee (which ended up being much the same group of elders) and to start the process of subdivision to individual ownership.

During this time, we financed 5 major trips around the country for over 300 elders to visit other conservancies and discuss with landowners about the pros and cons of such a plan. They came back every time convinced this was the way forward.

We had the advantage over other conservancies we had seen started in the Maasai Mara area in that we were starting on a clean sheet and that the land was still not subdivided.

It was agreed that we begin with a trial ‘small scale’ conservancy where the community would set aside the most important area along the Maasai Mara reserve as a single conservancy, with all members of the original ranch having equal membership through a legal entity called the Olderikesi Wildlife Conservation Trust (OWCT). The OWCT would then enter a management agreement with Cottars Wildlife Conservation Trust (CWCT) which would also be the guarantor of the lease payments. CWCT would in effect be responsible for collecting fees from any third party users of the conservancy such as camps, tour operators, camping fees, landing fees etc, which would be the basis for funding the conservancy land lease fees.

After many meetings, it was negotiated that the payments would be made on a retroactive quarterly basis, so that deductions could be made by CWCT to OWCT from these payments for breaches of the agreement by individuals from their membership or intruders – we at cottars were in no way interested in becoming an aggressive police force in the same manner as the old ‘wildlife against man model’ of conservation that has been practiced historically in Kenya.

This new model makes those breaking the rules (poaching, cattle grazing etc) answer to the collective community membership for their illegal activities in the conservancy. The CWCT would manage the daily activities of the OWCT scouts to identify and verify any rule breakers, and the OWCT would then  have the responsibility of fining or applying any other punitive action they see fit.

Cottar's Camp, The Honeymoon Tent

Cottar's Camp, The Honeymoon Tent

We would have preferred the lease monies to be paid by mobile phone banking directly to every member of the OWCT and indeed we negotiated hard for this, but the committee felt that the amounts being paid (which are the highest compared to other Maasai Mara conservancies at Kenya shillings 4,000/- per ha) for such a small area being divided between 3000 + members was just too small an amount to be seen as enough compensation for the lost opportunity of having no access for cattle grazing land in the area, and it was decided instead that we would finance a central OWCT account to pay for community development projects such as schools, hospitals, a wildlife compensation insurance scheme, school bursaries, and ambulance services amongst others.

To promote a fair management structure of the conservancy, a conservancy management plan is to be developed by a neutral third-party expert on behalf of the OWCT, CWCT and Cottar’s 1920’s Camp.

The community members asked for CWCT to have one of its directors be made a compulsory signatory on the OWCT account to promote enhanced management systems toward greater transparency and accountability to the broader community on how the money is used.

Over the next five years, if the community sees the initial conservancy model as beneficial, we hope to expand the conservancy model to the adjoining newly subdivided private land, and if so, will utilize the direct phone banking mode of payment to reach the broader community members individually.

The agreement was signed on January 5th 2013 to commence on 1st July 2013, giving the OWCT six months to move the fifty or so villages from the area of the conservancy in a voluntary manner.

Twenty six of these villages are home to the local community, the rest are from Tanzania and Siana.  CWCT and OWCT have agreed to facilitate much of this move to other parts of the greater land unit, with transport provided and a resettlement fee paid out on a per family basis.

The process leading to the conservancy has been long, but we hope the participatory approach will make it sustainable and mutually beneficial – to the community; to commerce, to culture and to conserve the wild lands and wildlife.

Cottar's Camp is part of the Long Run Initiative, bringing together locations that are commited to acheiving sustainability through the balance of the 4Cs; conservation, community, culture and commerce

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