There are now more than 25 permanent camps and lodges in the Masai Mara National Reserve, and it's a relatively small park. The minibus safari may appeal to those on a strict budget, but it's quite off putting for many of those looking for a unique experience. Kenya is an incredible safari destination, with beautiful landscapes, an abundance of wildlife, and unique cultural attractions to boot. However, getting stuck behind ten minibuses while checking out some lions, is not how anyone wants to experience a safari. While some safari operators have been steering their clients to Tanzania to avoid the crowds, a better solution is to enjoy a safari in Kenya's conservancies. Actively seeking out a safari that includes a conservancy is a great way to be a responsible traveler. Find out why below.
What's a Conservancy?
Conservancies are large tracts of land, often adjoining National Parks, that eco-tourist operators rent from local communities or private ranches. The agreement is based on the understanding that the rented land is not used for grazing cattle or farming, but left alone for the exclusive use of wildlife, and a small tourist population armed with cameras. It's been a win-win situation for both wildlife, tourists, and traditional cultures like the Maasai and Samburu who live in these areas.
How Did This Great Idea Come About?
The Maasai and Samburu are nomadic pastoralists who have experienced severe constraints on their traditional way of life in the past few decades. The land that they freely moved their cattle around on has been dramatically reduced in size and quality due to commercial farming and environmental changes. Wildlife has also been affected as natural migration routes have been blocked and animals have come into increasing conflict with farmers protecting their crops. By the 1990's, the most popular safari destination on earth, the Masai Mara, was not weathering the impact of more tourists and less wildlife very well. Something creative had to be done, and founder of Porini safari camps Jake Grieves-Cook had a good idea. He managed to persuade 70 Maasai families to set aside 3200ha of their land exclusively for wildlife. This was the Ol Kinyei Conservancy – the first community-owned sanctuary to be established on the rangelands adjoining the Masai Mara National Reserve. It paved the way for a host of other conservancies to follow suit, not just in the Mara eco-system, but also around Amboseli (Selenkay).
In the Laikipia region, the northern rangelands, of Kenya, the Craig family has been instrumental in establishing conservancies with more than 17 communities and ranches. The success in terms of community-based conservation has been astounding in Loisaba, Lewa and Ol Pejeta, to name just a few. Not only is wildlife thriving (including the highly endangered white and black rhino) but the conservancies have also helped establish schools and clinics throughout the region.
In fact the Conservancy model is working so well, new conservancies are cropping up throughout Kenya, like the Mbulia Group Ranch which is set to make its mark in the Tsavo area.
Going on Safari in Kenya's Conservancies - Is it Just for the Rich?
Many conservancies cater primarily to the luxury market for several reasons. Because conservancies are established in more remote areas, tourists have to be flown in, which obviously adds to the cost of a safari. Supplies, water and food also have to be flown in. Conservation is a big driving force behind conservancies, and the more a client pays for his/her safari, the more money goes directly to wildlife conservation and community projects. The theory also holds that while luxury in the bush can appear less than environmentally responsible, the eco-footprint is in fact relatively light given the small numbers of tourists who can afford a very costly safari. But, there are budget options in conservancies that actually offer a great "authentic" safari experience. See below for safari suggestions.
Besides Being Less Crowded, Are There Other Advantages to a Safari in a Conservancy?
I'm glad you asked, because besides the benefit of having the wildlife to yourself, conservancies allow for various other activities that are not allowed in National Parks. National Parks are regulated and have rules that keep the masses safe. Conservancies can get more creative, since they are responsible for just a small groups of clients.
- Walking Safaris -- On a conservancy you can enjoy guided walking safaris. It feels very good to stretch your legs after some long game drives, and work off some of those large meals you tend to enjoy on safari. The safari walks are usually guided by a local Maasai or Samburu (depending where you are). This gives you lots of opportunity to interact one on one in a more natural manner, than when you're in a group visiting a village that is on every other tourist itinerary. Walking safaris also allow you to "smell the bush" up close. Safari drives are great when you want to see the Big Five, but not so when you want to check out the Little Five. And take it from me, the little guys, along with birds, trees and insects, are all equally fascinating to watch and learn about.
- Night Drives -- If you're interested in seeing leopards and aardvarks then you're usually out of luck in the National Parks because they happen to be nocturnal. Conservancies allow for night drives, and they are very exciting. You'll obviously see a lot less than during the day, there's only so much a strong flood lamp can show up at night, but what you get to see, will be unique. The stars alone are worth being out at night and you may be surprised how loud things get in the bush once the sun goes down.
- Benefiting the Local Community -- Concessions benefit the local community and offer a very direct and visible means to sharing tourist dollars. It's a fact in Africa, that communities living closest to national parks are among the poorest. Their crops get destroyed by wildlife, their land sometimes gets appropriated to create larger parks, and they're often far away from any commercial centers and access to jobs and markets. It's no wonder poaching becomes an attractive means to feed the family, or send the kids to school. If conservation is to stand a chance, the local communities must see a direct benefit from the thousands of dollars that are spent every day by tourist on safari. Conservancies aim to do this, and have so far done it very well. Not only do local communities benefit from direct payment of rent, but safari camps offer valuable employment opportunities as well. Most of the staff, trackers and guides at safari camps in conservancies are from the local area.
And Finally - My Picks for Best Safaris in Kenya's Conservancies:
- Gamewatchers (Porini Camps) are conservancy pioneers and they offer a variety of unique safari camps and itineraries that suit all budgets. Their standard bearers are exclusive tented camps, located in: Selenkay Conservancy (near Amboseli), Ol Kinyei Conservancy (Mara), Olare Orok Conservancy (Mara) and Ol Pejeta (Laikipia) conservancies. These comfortable tented camps are all-inclusive of food, drinks, game drives, game walks etc. and are best booked as a package. I'd recommend at least two different camps with a bare minimum of two nights per camp. Check out some sample itineraries.
Porini is now offering a great budget option in the same conservancies where you enjoy 4x4 private game drives with excellent guides, while staying in comfortable, regular (mobile) camping tents. A week long camping adventure safari starts at just $1790 per adult sharing and is all-inclusive. The fly-in camping safari is suitable for children over 8 and makes a "real" African safari affordable (see review by The Guardian).
- Cheli and Peacock operate luxury safaris using remote camps in conservancies throughout Kenya. Their sample itineraries are listed here, and include stays at real gems like Elsa's Kopje (Meru), Lewa Safari Camp (Lewa Downs), Elephant Pepper Camp (Mara) and Loisaba (Laikipia).
Micato - luxury safari operator Micato offers an interesting itinerary for those who wish to meet some of the pioneers in conservation efforts in northern Kenya. Their 9 day Kenya Conservation Safari includes a luxury camp in the Ol Pejeta conservancy with visits to nearby ranches, agricultural cooperatives, as well as chimp, rhino and elephant sanctuaries.
- Natural Habitat - offers a 10 day Best of Kenya itinerary that includes camps at conservancies in Ol Pejeta, Siana and a mobile camping safari in the Mara. You can also check out their Maasai Hiking Adventure.
- andBeyond - offers a 9 day fly-in safari, Karibu Kenya, that includes 3 conservancies in the beautiful Meru, Laikipia and Mara regions.
- Custom Safari Itineraries - contact your closest African safari specialist, or any of these responsible African safari operators to book a safari at conservancies in Kenya: African Portfolio, Natural High Safaris, Tribes, and Hoopoe Safaris.