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The Maasai Mara Ecosystem

In September 2017 our chairman James Welch visited the Maasai Mara Ecosystem as part of a volunteering trip. This section of the website written first hand hopes to give everything an understanding of the trip.

The idea of this visit was to get a better understanding of the problems lions face in the wild and to see the threats first hand. As well as seeing the fragile habitat this also gave a brilliant opportunity to see lions in the wild and to get to see wild lion behaviour first hand. This section of the website aims to give you an idea and some history of the Maasai Mara National Reserve. The home of 'Big Cat Diary' and the setting of countless nature documentaries watched by millions all over the world. Often hailed as the 8th wonder of the world this spectacular place is visited by thousands every year desperate to see the wildlife on its iconic wildlife that seem to go off into the distance never ending. The Maasai Mara National Reserve stretches for 1,510 square kilometres or 580 square miles. To put this into context of how large this is for those in Britain my home county of Bedfordshire is only 465 square miles.

The Maasai Mara is home to one of the most spectacular sightings on the planet, when in June the wildebeest and zebra populations from the Serengeti arrive in their thousands as they migrate to the grassy plains in search of new food. They join the herds from the Loita Plains who have a much closer commute to the lush green plains than those from Tanzania. Once the grass green from the long rains in May is nothing of use to the great herds they head back to Tanzania to their birthing grounds of the Serengeti. The following information is inspired from the text from Brian Jackman's and Jonathan Scott's brilliant book 'The Marsh Lions'.

The Maasai have lived in this area of Kenya for centuries but did not occupy the vast grass and bush of the Mara due to the heavy populations of tsetse fly living in the bush. 'Mara' in Maa, the common language of all Maasai tribes means 'The Spotted Land' - inspired by the depth of scattered bush originally found in the Mara. Once the hunters arrived and shooting became incredibly common after the second world war roads became cleared through the bush and the local tribesman fired the land to clear it. The firing of the bush allowed the Maasai to repopulate the vast grasslands as the tsetse fly that had not allowed the Maasai and the cattle to enter happily had no bush to cling on to.

In 1889 tragedy struck the local people and their cattle was struck with rinder-pest and the tribes were struck with smallpox. When the first European settlers arrived the Mara was rich with game and the trophy hunting began, quickly wiping out the impressive lions and the huge herds of big game that the Mara was so famous for. in 1948 the 'Mara Triangle' became a National Reserve. This 200 mile square area is situated to the left hand corner of the Maasai Mara, in between the escarpment, Mara river and the Tanzanian border. In 1961 500 square miles were added to form the Maasai Mara National Reserve. The hunting of wildlife and human settlement within the Reserve ended and wildlife was given the chance to thrive.

In the past the Maasai have always lived in seemingly cooperative harmony with the wildlife, proof shown by the truly massive herds of wildlife seen when the first explorers arrived. What with the huge rise in population growth over the last fifty years, this has seen a catastrophic impact on the Mara as the tribes grow and their herds of cattle in which they are so reliant continue to grow in number, and whose reliance on grass continues to compete with that on the native wildlife.

Above all the Mara is famous for the abundance of the famous 'Big Five' - elephant, black rhino, cape buffalo, leopard and of course the lion. Although the rhino is now no longer as plentiful as they once were, only 40 rhino are thought to be living in the Reserve, now much more plentiful in other reserves throughout Kenya. The big cats were made famous when 'Big Cat Diary' started filming in the late 1990's with the BBC. With that and the rising popularity of Nature documentaries, the lions of the Mara are possibly one of the most famous in the world. The most famous of these lions are a pride known to the Mara as the 'Marsh lions' due to the Musiara Marsh that they inhabit.

The Maasai Mara without a doubt is an incredible place, it's vast plains going on for miles as far as the eye can see. Offering the animals the freedom that they deserve. Of course the success of the Mara and the protection of the animals rely partly from the popularity of the area, the tourism aspect that needs the animals to remain in order to keep being a popular destination for tourists all over the world. However the growing population of the local people and the distractions from the western world add to the intensity of the conflict between humans and the wildlife. Fortunately local schemes such as the creation of the conservancies within the dispersal zone give benefits to both the wildlife and the people. More information can be found on conservancies below.

The Naboisho Conservancy was where our chairman was based for 2 weeks in September 2017. The Conservancy is part of the Maasai Mara ecosystem and is right next door to the Maasai Mara National Reserve. The map below shows the Naboisho Conservancy sat right in between the Reserve and the community land. The Naboisho Conservancy is situated to the north of the Reserve nestled in amongst a cluster of other conservancies.

The following information is from the Naboisho website which can be found here. I believe that the best way to explain the Conservancies is through their own words.

"The Mara Naboisho Conservancy – a 50,000 acre community pastoralist and wildlife conservation area – is located in the Great Rift Valley, Kenya. The conservancy, which falls within the Greater Mara Region and was carved out of the Koyaki-Lemek Group Ranch, borders the world famous Masai Mara National Reserve to the south west, the Olare Orok Conservancy to the west, and the Ol Kinyei Conservancy to the east.

Naboisho, which means “coming together” in the Maasai’s Maa language, is a community response to the challenges of the privatization of group ranches in the Greater Mara Region. Strain was put on the soil, endemic vegetation, and the wildlife as a result of intensive herding and various tourism activities such as camping and off-road vehicle activity. The conservancy provides the opportunity to conserve the land and wildlife, whilst simultaneously creating wealth for the landowners.

There are approximately 500 local Maasai landowners in Naboisho. Inspired by their neighbours in the Olare Orok Conservancy, these landowners asked the Basecamp Foundation Kenya to facilitate the formation of the conservancy as a community wildlife area. In 2008, a forum – which brought together community leaders, upcoming community champions, dedicated resource managers, seasoned conservationists, experienced socio-ecologists and tourism investors – was convened to chart out a broader framework for the development of Naboisho. It was agreed that the conservancy model should combine conservation of nature and cultural heritage, tourism, and the enhancement of livelihoods for the local communities. On the 28th of March 2010, the landowners formerly signed a 15-year lease to create the Mara Naboisho Conservancy.

The Mara Naboisho Conservancy is now the second largest conservancy in the region. Once the conservancy was established, a plan was put in place to ensure that the environment was given a chance to recover, that wildlife was protected, and that the landowners benefitted, both financially and from a social development perspective."

Together the Conservancies offer a space outside the National Reserve where the animals can be safe and protected and where grazing is only carried out on a limited basis allowing the environment to settle.

The Conservancy model has been replicated many times and has seen to be a huge success both for the wildlife and for the communities. The Conservancy itself being privately owned can only be visited by those who are staying in one of the camps, this makes it quieter and less crowded than the Government owned National Reserve. The Conservancies are in what is known as the 'Dispersal Area' this is where the herds from Tanzania will go during the migration before heading back to their home country. There are however plenty of animals that stay in these areas all year round, lions are one of these.

Staying in Naboisho allowed me to see first hand the challenges of keeping the wildlife and the people happy together. There are always going to be issues to face to ensure that the wildlife and the people benefit equally. From setting up the Conservancy the local people rented their land and gave it over for the wildlife. From this they receive rent from the tourism operators. The wildlife benefit from this because of the protection offered to them whilst in these conservancies but the people benefit when the wildlife are there. The more wildlife in the Conservancy the more tourists will want to come and see them, but in particular the larger wildlife - The elephants, the leopards, the cheetahs and most importantly for us, the lions.

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