Amboseli conservancies

“There were rhinos here once”. It’s a sad fact that across East Africa there are more and more reserves for which this regrettable statement is a harsh truth. Amboseli is no exception. Happily, however, its elephants have not headed into the hands of poachers in the same way as their pachyderm cousins. A community-driven approach to conservation has meant that the ivory poaching crisis that has crippled elephant populations across East Africa has by and large by-passed Amboseli.

Staying in one of Amboseli’s community conservancies directly benefits Masaai landowners – providing additional income to support traditional pastoralist lifestyles and in doing so helps restore the peaceful coexistence of people, livestock and big game that has been a hallmark of their way of the Masaai way of life for centuries. And with only limited numbers of guests in just one or two lodges – and the option to enjoy spine-tingling walking safaris, night drives and an insight into traditional Masaai culture – safaris here are a much more intimate, personal affair than in the national park proper.

What does a safari in an Amboseli conservancy entail?

Decide to include Amboseli in your Kenyan holiday and you’ll undoubtedly be offered the chance to stay in one of its conservancies. Safaris in the Amboseli conservancies are exclusive affairs – you’ll only be exploring them if you’re a guest at the conservancy lodge and with limited accommodation it means even in high season you’ll enjoy an intimate, secluded safari. With plenty of opportunity to see the same wildlife you’ll encounter in the national park itself.
While exclusive, they’re not necessarily any more expensive than a safari in the main national park; in the Selenkay Conservancy, for example, Amboseli’s oldest, accommodation is in a basic tented camp, which is comfortable and, for camping at least, pretty luxurious. Think real beds, tasteful furniture and under-canvas en-suite bathrooms. However, don’t expect the swimming pools and facilities of a high-end lodge; the aim is to give you a feeling of being away from it all in the African bush.
You’ll still get to venture into the national park itself, but what really sets a conservancy safari aside is the opportunity to head out on foot. Imagine walking quietly through the bush, every sense heightened with every crack of a twig reminding you that you’re part and parcel of the landscape now, not just a visitor looking in from the safety of a vehicle. It’s spine-tingling and unforgettable. And Masaai guides will not only seek out wildlife for you but introduce you to the tiny details you’ll miss in a safari vehicle – opening up a world of freshly printed tracks, lion scat, birds and plant life. You’ll also be able to enjoy night drives, when wildlife is most active and hunting. Keep your eyes peeled for the glint of red eyes in the torchlight.
Your Masaai hosts are not simply guides here – you’ll become part of a Masaai family for a few days, introduced to a unique pastoralist culture that stretches back generations and have the chance to learn more about their intimate knowledge of the land, flora and fauna in southern Kenya. This is not culture put on for display, but a chance for you to become immersed in a way of life that is, through responsible tourism, able to endure and benefit financially from the wildlife it has existed with for centuries.

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Amboseli’s community approach

When Kenya established its national parks in the 1960s, Amboseli required a different approach. Located in the heart of Masaai land along the southern border with Tanzania, Amboseli (and the Masai Mara) were covered by the Masaai Treaty, meaning that unlike in other parks, local landowners, in this case the pastoralist Masaai, couldn’t simply be denied access to land annexed for conservation purposes.
The Big Life Foundation is a non-profit conservation organization focused on preserving the wildlife and habitats of the Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem of East Africa through community-based and collaborative strategies. Jeremy Goss, Conservation Scientist, explains why a community-centred approach to conservation is essential for Amboseli:

“Amboseli National Park is relatively small, and although it provides formal protection for some key natural resources the ecosystem is semi-arid and both humans and wild animals need to range over large areas to find the food resources that they need to survive. As a result, animals move in and out of the park according to the season, and the park alone would sustain only a fraction of the current ecosystem wildlife population. Critical then is the communally-owned Maasai land outside of the National Parks of the ecosystem, which has remained largely intact as rangeland used traditionally for livestock grazing. This livelihood approach is compatible with wildlife conservation, but there is a cost to the Maasai. Some of this can be offset by the tourism industry that has grown up both within and outside of the park, but the benefits of tourism do not match the costs of wildlife (which include damages like livestock predation, crop destruction, and in extreme cases human injury or loss of life). We understand that without Maasai community tolerance of wildlife the ecosystem would collapse, and so we have developed a number of innovative programs that both try to distribute conservation-related benefits to Maasai communities, and offset some of the individual costs of co-existing with wildlife populations.”
This kind of community- based approach in Amboseli was controversial – conservationists at the time advocated protectionist policies that removed people and their livestock from the parks in order to create a wild, wildlife-focussed space – and it has not always been successful. The system, by which Masaai landowners were paid a twice-yearly wildlife user fee and provided with water sources for livestock outside the national park boundary, has periodically broken down with disastrous consequences for its fragile wildlife. Goss expands on the challenge in Amboseli:
“In Big Life’s case, many programs were started 25 years ago, which was at a time when conservation paradigms largely dictated that people and wildlife should not occupy the same spaces. In Amboseli, of course, this was impossible as most of the land that is important to wildlife is owned by local communities. So the challenge has been to incentivise communities to actively participate in conservation of wildlife species and habitats.”
The government could annexe it and create a national park but the fate of Amboseli has always rested in Masaai hands – and the spearing of its wildlife has been their way of fighting back against the injustice of unremunerated land grabs.
As a result of more efficient governance from the Kenya Wildlife Service, the work of NGOs such as the Big Life Foundation and increased investment into conservation in collaboration with traditional Masaai landowners, the elephants of the wider Amboseli ecosystem have enjoyed greater protection than other areas of Kenya. Protection measures include Kenya’s first system of community scouts, which patrol the area and protect its wildlife from poachers.
Jeremy Goss, Conservation Scientist at The Big Life Foundation adds: “There is still a lot of opportunity for further development of tourism on community-owned land outside the park, provided that operators set up transparent methods of sharing of sufficient benefits. Some of these areas include key wildlife corridors and dispersal areas, which will need to provide income in future or risk conversion to other land-uses, and tourism can be one source of this necessary income.”
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: Regina Hart] [What does it entail?: Regina Hart] [Community approach (giraffe herd): Regina Hart] [Maasai farmers: Regina Hart]