We caught up with conservationist Justin Heath about the threats faced by Kenya’s wildlife, and why he believes private conservancies are the answer. In the area surrounding the Masai Mara there are nine privately managed conservancies set aside for wildlife conservation, which together are almost equal in size to the Mara Reserve itself. Justin manages three of these conservancies, and here he explains what his job entails and why tourists should support the conservancies.
What’s the difference between the Masai Mara National Reserve and the conservancies in Kenya?
The reserve is government land set aside for wildlife – very similar to a national park – and was established in 1961. The conservancies are on private land where people are choosing to set their land aside for wildlife, and they are a more recent concept with most being formed in the last 15 years. One of the key elements of the conservancies is that they restrict entry to those staying in camps such as Saruni, Kicheche and Ol Seki and have a set density of one tent to 700 acres, which gives tourists a unique experience with very few other people around. Low impact is the byword in the conservancies.
What is your job and how did you get into this role?
I oversee the day-to-day management of three conservancies in the Greater Mara ecosystem – Naboisho, Mara North and Ol Chorro Oirowua – which together cover an area of just under 140,000 acres. We have more than 1,500 Maasai families and landowners who have chosen to agglomerate their land into the three conservancies we manage. Community relations are a key component of our work. For example, we rotate Maasai herds through the conservancies in a sustainable way. We also provide security including anti-poaching measures, sniffer dogs and armed personnel, and improved infrastructure such as road building and maintenance services. In addition, we work closely with the Kenya Wildlife Service’s veterinary department. I work for a family business and we are contracted to manage these three conservancies and the Mara Triangle, part of the Masai Mara National Reserve, which my father Brian is in charge of.
Why should tourists consider supporting conservancies?
There are three major reasons to support conservancies. Firstly, the wildlife experience is spectacular. Along with Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, the Greater Mara ecosystem has the highest density of lions in the world. We have our own wildebeest migration, and the leopard and cheetah sightings are second to none. In one week alone, Naboisho had more than 18 different cheetah sightings, including cubs. Meanwhile, Mara North is home to Leopard Gorge, which was frequently used for filming the BBC’s ‘Big Cat Diary’. What’s more, you’ll share all this with a limited number of other guests.
Secondly, the Kenyan government cannot set much more land aside for conservation, because taking people’s land to do this violates their rights. Any major expansion is going to have to happen through the private sector, where people elect to use their land for conservation.
Thirdly, staying in a conservancy directly benefits the communities who have chosen to set their land aside, providing incentives to the landowners to keep the land open. Were it not for a thriving tourism industry, they may choose to convert it to agriculture or other competing land uses.
What day-to-day obstacles do you face?
Land use and subdivision driven by a growing population is a major challenge. This results in a constant struggle to make the land viable under conservation. Juggling the needs and wants of multiple stakeholders is another challenge, as is the constraint on resources.
What are your ambitions for conservancies in Kenya?
We were finally recognised as a viable land use in Kenya through the 2013 Wildlife Act and the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, meanwhile our regional Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association does great work raising our profile. We have almost doubled the amount of land set aside for conservation since we started, which is critical because a Living Planet Report in 2014 suggested that we have lost 50 percent of our vertebrates worldwide in the last 40 years, and Kenya has seen a similar decrease over the same period. I hope we can slow this through conservancies and become a valuable part of the economy, giving us greater recognition, protection and impact.
What do you see as the biggest threat to wildlife in Kenya?
The biggest threats we face are the lack of incentives for communities to protect their wildlife, fragmentation of rangelands (which includes an increase in human settlement), and the difficulty wildlife has in competing with other land uses.
What would you say is the biggest success of the Mara conservancies?
The fact that the conservancies exist and that the concept is expanding in spite of the huge challenges and costs required to establish them is a huge success. The fact that we have dedicated and responsible organisations such as Saruni, Kicheche and Ol Seki on board who are being proactive in making a difference is another major success. In addition, the fact that we, collectively, have proven an ability to learn and that the evolution of a second generation of thinking is emerging is very positive.
Do you feel that the conservancies and the Masai Mara Reserve are working towards the same goals?
Yes. Both sides have their challenges, and initially there was limited interaction and some parties saw the conservancies as a threat to the reserve. However, these barriers are being dismantled and better relationships are being fostered at all levels.
What motivates you most in your role?
We were finally recognised as a viable land use in Kenya through the 2013 Wildlife Act and the Kenya Wildlife It’s challenging, but I believe I can make a difference and that’s what motivates me. Most importantly, we have a great team.