Move afoot to keep the Maasai — and the animals — on their land

When I step down from the plane, the first thing I see is three gazelles sprinting off down the gravel airstrip.

The second, more significant for what’s to come, is a man dressed in scarlet robes waving to me from beside a Toyota Land Cruiser. In his hand is a mobile phone. This is not, I tell myself, going to be a standard safari. But how different can it be? Tonkey and I greet each other and set off, driving northeast, away from the Masai Mara national reserve, pausing briefly — with several other vehicles — to watch a pride of lions.

Then we leave the park and cross an area of dilapidated housing and a treeless plain dotted with herds of cattle. The contrast is stark — one land for tourists, filled with wild animals and gorgeous camps that might have been lifted from the set of Out of Africa and the other land, where most Kenyans live, unloved, unkempt and underresourced. But we are heading for Naboisho Conservancy, a place that attempts to bridge the gap between these two worlds.

While Tonkey drives, I examine his clothing: a traditional Maasai garb of scarlet robe belted with necklaces of silver, with a red chequered shawl thrown over the top. “Doesn’t that frighten the animals?” I ask him. “Shouldn’t you be wearing an olive-green sweater and khaki shorts?” I peer down at his feet. “And are those sandals made from car tyres?”

Tonkey laughs. “There is a story about these clothes,” he says. “When we started to wear them, everyone would stare at us, wondering what are those Maasai doing? Driving cars? Guiding tourists?” He glances at me. “Maasai never did any of those things before — and certainly not in their traditional clothes. People were amazed.”

I could have added that the Maasai are sometimes seen as a cool tribal accessory — welcome on any fashion shoot in Africa, as long as they never embrace the modern world. Now, it seems, people like Tonkey are shaking things up, demanding to hold the ­camera.

We pass a tawny eagle watching us from an acacia. The empty plain has turned into woodland and the track has become twisting and rutted. “This is the Naboisho Conservancy,” says Tonkey. “In Maasai it means, ‘coming together’.”

Protect and manage
Naboisho is pioneering an approach to protect and manage the land for the benefit of both wildlife and the Maasai people. Travel companies lease the Maasai’s land, ensuring that ecotourism provides them with an income. It was set up in 2010 at the suggestion of local Maasai landowners, as a joint project with the Basecamp Foundation, a non-profit organisation that was started in 1996 by Svein Wilhelmsen, a Norwegian venture capitalist, who stumbled on the area while holidaying in Kenya.

Camping on a patch of barren ground beside the Telak river one night, he was interrupted by the chance arrival of a local Maasai chief, Ole Taek, Tonkey’s father. A free-ranging, frank discussion ensued during which Ole Taek waved a hand towards the Masai Mara reserve, just across the river, and pointed out that the classic safari-and-game-park model of tourism in Kenya had led his people to absolutely nothing — no schools, no hospitals, no jobs, no money and a rapidly deteriorating environment.

Four hours later the two men had thrashed out a business plan. Within a year there was a camp on that spot, followed by reforestation programmes, training and education for local people, a health clinic — and jobs.

Basecamp Masai Mara relies mostly on Scandinavian visitors. Tourists wanting more involvement can sponsor one of several community projects, but even those who just want a wildlife holiday have the satisfaction of knowing their money goes to the right people.

In the souvenir shop each item is labelled with the name of one of 117 local women who made it — a guarantee that the profits go directly to that individual. “Total financial transparency,” says Wilhelmsen. “That’s vital when people have got used to not trusting those with power and money.”

Back in the car with Tonkey, I glimpse shapes of animals moving through the trees — the hazel-brown of impala, the grey of wildebeest, the pale tan of a hartebeest. Then there is a herd of cattle and a Maasai youth with two dogs.

“You allow cattle in the conservancy?” He makes a face. “In March 2010 there was a big meeting and all the Maasai landowners who wanted the conservancy signed up. More than 400 out of 504 came. Afterwards, they began to move their cattle camps out of the core zone, which is about 20 000 hectares totally dedicated to the wildlife. Later more signed, but a few still have not.” “Why should they?” He grins. “Money.”

Breaking new ground
That is the nub of the revolution for Naboisho. Money always went to politicians and outsiders, not the Maasai. In Naboisho local people are signing deals to make a wildlife conservation zone. They then lease that land to Basecamp and receive a monthly rent. Not only that, but they are also given jobs and training, because the workforce is entirely local.

There is even a training school that coaches a new generation of Maasai guides. The range and scope of benefits for the locals is impressive, but it is their involvement and commitment that make this so special — and hopefully sustainable in the long term. For a people like the Maasai, who never saw any benefit from the years of colonial-style parks and safaris, this is groundbreaking.

After a few hours’ driving we reach Basecamp Wilderness, a necklace of shady loggias, chalets and tents strung along the rim of a shallow valley where a waterhole hides under a tangle of thick bushes.

Tonkey hands me over to Saningo, my wildlife guide for the stay, and John Saruni, the manager of the Naboisho community projects. “Down there by the waterhole tonight,” he says, “you will hear all sorts of animals. We’ve got three prides of lion here — probably the highest concentration of lion activity in Kenya.”

We jump back in the 4×4 and head deeper into the conservancy. Saruni wants me to see the village on the far side, where there are various projects. “The idea is that the land lease not only brings money to the people, but that there are other benefits.”

At Olesere I am taken to see a clinic under construction, a school and water projects — all new. Later on, while Saruni talks to the building contractor for the new clinic, I wander around the cattle bomas with Saningo. An elderly tribesman, Samau, stops to chat. He’s got a sheep with him that is limping. “A leopard attacked last night,” he tells me. “It jumped inside the boma and grabbed this one and a lamb. I ran over with my spear, but it escaped — taking the lamb.”

The sheep is not looking well — its neck bears the marks of leopard teeth. “We don’t sleep these days,” says Samau wearily. “This leopard comes every night.”

Brutal logic
Predator attacks have always been a danger for the Maasai. Saningo shows me the scars on his arms. “A male leopard was trying to steal my sheep.”

In the past human-predator conflict had a brutal logic to it. The parks protected wildlife to bring in tourists; local people bore the brunt of that protection without seeing any benefit. Samau is one of the local landowners, with 150 hectares of land in the conservation scheme. And is he happy, despite leopard attacks?

“In the drought last year I lost 50 cattle,” he tells me. “Times have been hard, but these conservancy payments are good. It makes up for small losses like that lamb.”

That evening, as promised by Saruni, I sit on my terrace at Basecamp Wilderness and listen to the lions roaring in the valley below. With the beam of my torch, I catch the eyes of animals moving quietly in the bush — a line of nervous impala, drawn towards the water and yet jittery with anxiety, then a lone male buffalo, unconcerned. It would take a concerted attack by ­several lions to bring him down.

At 4am I am startled awake by the roar of a big lion close by. I grab my recorder but it doesn’t come again. An hour later the dawn steals up in soft pinks and blues. From the terrace I spot a hyena loping away, watched by a lone reedbuck. At 6.30am I am ready to walk. There will be four of us: myself, Saningo and two Maasai guards armed with bows and arrows, swords and spears. We set off down into the valley, almost immediately stopping to examine lion tracks from the night. Saningo draws a finger around one pug mark. “That’s a big male.”

I look around. Seeing a lion while on foot is, I’m sure, a seriously exhilarating experience. “If we do,” says Saningo, “we don’t run. We bunch together and then slowly move away.”

But for now, in the delicious cool air of dawn, it’s the birds that are making themselves known to us. Saningo whispers a running list: Abyssinian scimitarbill, green woodhoopoes, Van der Decken’s hornbills, white-browed bushchats — it’s a delight to be with an expert.

This land is hugely significant for Kenya’s wildlife because it stands at the apex of two great migrations — the well-known Serengeti movement of about two million animals and the less famous Loita, which comprises about 150 000. All these creatures, mostly wildebeest, converge on the region in August and September every year.

But with growing pressure from the human population, the freedom of these great herds to roam can no longer be taken for granted. In Tanzania there is the threat of a road across the Serengeti and in Kenya multinational corporations are eyeing land for agriculture. Will it be wildebeest and lion, or mangetout for Milton Keynes?

Wilhelmsen’s belief is that, without the Naboisho Conservancy agreement, the fences would have started going up within six months, destroying the migration. Now the continued success of the conservancy is vital.

We walk steadily for an hour, the red-robed guards keeping pace ahead of us like two pillars of fire leading us through the trees. When they stop, we become watchful. On one occasion, we see a newborn impala lying just a few feet away, its flanks still heaving with its first breaths. Then, suddenly deciding it has been seen, it leaps up and darts away in a zig-zagging sprint to mother, umbilicus dangling.

After another hour, we stop on the edge of an open grassy area. On the far side, the grass blends into thick bush that descends into a watercourse.

Saningo, like the others, never gives any sign of being particularly watchful, but then his arm goes up. “Cheetah!” And there one is. On the edge of the far bush, just turning and loping away into the woods.

With my heart pumping, I set off with them, walking quickly now and, when we reach the spot where the cheetah had been sitting, we are rewarded with a distant view of it, sauntering through a clearing, turning its head to establish that we are no threat.

My companions are as excited as I am, but they have seen something else ahead — vultures circling and a dead antelope beside another thicket of bushes. No sign, yet, of any lions, but they point with their spears at the thicket. They become watchful now, then go forward all the same.

I wait a second, watching, and have a mental image of this place as it might have been — turned into monotonous fields of green beans, with these men employed as day labourers. Mercifully, that has not happened.

I glance across to where the cheetah disappeared into the trees and get one more glimpse of him. He is in the shade of a huge acacia, rocking back on his hind legs, his white-tipped tail upright. He is, I am sure, marking his territory. — Guardian News & Media 2011

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