The conservancy is the new face of conservation; and the new face of tourism. It’s the ultimate compromise between mankind and wildlife; the only way in which humans and wildlife can live in a state of harmony; and in which both can prosper. In the past, tracts of land were set aside for the use of the wildlife alone: today land is at a premium and man is multiplying. The solution, elegant in its simplicity, is to set aside areas where wilderness and wildlife can be protected, where communities can benefit from the presence of wildlife; and where everyone can enjoy their birthright: the enjoyment of the glory of nature.
On Kenya’s conservancies visitors can experience the wilderness secure in the knowledge that its endangered species are protected, its biodiversity enshrined and its people prospering. They can also be accommodated in beautiful eco-lodges, horse-ride, camel-trek, walk, trek, bike and interact with the local communities whose past and future is woven into this land.
In the following pages, we’ll explore the many faces of the conservancy movement in Kenya… and learn how it works for wilderness, wildlife, working communities and the world alike.
National Park? National Reserve? Or Conservancy?
Visitors to Kenya can be forgiven for wondering what the difference is between a conservancy, a national reserve and a national park. We’ll try and make it simple. Broadly speaking, a national park is owned by the Kenyan government, managed by the Kenya Wildlife Service and exists for the sole use of the wildlife. A national reserve, however, is owned and managed by a local council and is an area where some human land use is permitted – such as cattle grazing. In both cases the tourism revenue is used to maintain and protect the wildlife and wilderness. A conservancy is an area of wilderness that might be owned by a community of landowners, such as a group of Maasai; or by a single landowner. Typically, this land is leased to professional tourism partners for the purpose of building a lodge or tented camp and creating a managed wilderness. Tourism revenue is then shared with the local community and ploughed back into conserving the wildlife and wilderness.
Happily, all three types of protected areas have their advantages and their combined reach, in terms of total land area under protection, has delivered immense benefits to Kenya’s wildlife and communities alike. Indeed it is estimated that over 70% of Kenya’s wildlife exists outside the boundaries of the national parks and reserves. Because many of the conservancies encircle the national parks, they effectively extend the reach of the park and this allows migratory corridors to function and wildlife to move according to the dictates of nature rather than man, which has also reduced human versus wildlife conflict. Additionally, what was once marginal land has now been regenerated thus enhancing the Kenyan ecosystem as a whole; and the inclusion of community in tourism and conservation has generated jobs, promoted national unity and preserved heritage.
The main advantage of a visit to a national park or reserve lies in the fact that the national portfolio includes some of the really ‘big’ safari names: the Masai Mara, Amboseli, Tsavo, Samburu and Mount Kenya to name but five of the ‘must sees’. They also host some of the nation’s most iconic lodges and tented camps, and tend to offer more choice when it comes to style and cost of holidays.
The conservancies are a much more recent arrival on the scene. It was not until the 1990s that a number of Maasai communities were persuaded to lease their land to tourism operators. The results, however, were hugely successful and today some 150 conservancies dot the country. Conservancy models vary greatly but typically numbers of beds and vehicles are limited. This not only reduces congestion and pressure upon the wildlife but also delivers a much more exclusively privileged and intimate tourism experience. It also allows the local communities to work in tandem with the tourism operators; and the tourism revenue to be channelled into community education, sanitation, infrastructure, welfare, job creation and the preservation of culture and heritage. More importantly, the creation of conservancies has allowed for the development of new activities such as wilderness walking, camel trekking, horse-riding and night game-driving, none of which are permitted in the national parks and reserves. All these factors have contributed to the creation of an enhanced Kenyan tourism experience that is of benefit to the industry as a whole. The wise visitor, therefore, should aim to enjoy the best of both worlds by experiencing the high-profile thrill of the big national parks and the intimacy and greater range of activity on offer in the conservancies.
Learn more about Kenya’s conservancies
For an insight into the scope of Kenya’s many conservancies, visit the website of the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association – www.kwcakenya.com
Alternatively visit the websites of the regional associations: Northern Rangelands Trust (nrt-kenya.org); Laikipia Wildlife Forum (laikipia.org); South Rift Association of Land Owners (soralo.org); Amboseli Ecosystem Trust (amboseliecosystemtrust.org); Rift Lakes Conservancies Association (kwcakenya.com); Athi Kapiti Wildlife Conservancies Association (kwcakenya.com); Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (maraconservancies.org); and the Taita Taveta Wildlife Conservancies Association (kwcakenya.com).