Waking Up In The Maasai Mara, Part 2: Self-Sufficiency And Sustainability At Olarro Conservancy

A big smile spread across my face as I looked down into my hands at the pile of elephant dung I was holding. Dozens of worms gyrated their way through it. I’m sure if worms had faces they too would have been smiling in pleasure. I was with James Nangiyo, a Maasai who owned a rather unusual unusual farming business. It was a worm farm.

olarro wildebeest

Wildebeest in Olarro (photo by Stuart Butler)

I was traveling around Kenya’s famous Masai Mara region. I’d visited the reserve itself and marvelled over its silky golden lions and herds of herbivores, but I’d found greater reward in a simple Maasai homestay programme recently established just beyond the confines of the reserve and in which I had learnt that not all was perfect in Eden. Now my Masai Mara journey had taken me further north to the Olarro conservancy and lodge. With its plunge pools, gourmet dining and sense of total exclusivity (just 18 guests can be accommodated at any one time) a stay here was a world away from the village homestay from where I had just come.

The 7000-acre conservancy has had something of a rocky past and is a good example of how safari tourism and local needs can work, and also of how things can go wrong. Villagers told me how some past leaseholders “spoke only with government ministers and never with us.” This led to a great deal of local resentment and consequently a plunge in wildlife on the conservancy. Today though Olarro has new leaseholders and things are very different indeed. In the space of just a couple of years the conservancy has turned itself around. Wildlife numbers and diversity are increasing at a rapid rate — as was proven during my stay when the first lioness with cubs in a number of years was seen.

But maybe the most impressive change though was the attitude of most of the local Maasai people to the conservancy. On the second day of my stay the head ranger and I clambered into a Land Rover and set off to visit some of the conservancy-sponsored projects. The first stop was the local school. Recently renovated and now serving 142 pupils, the headmaster was gushing in his praise for the conservancy. “Olarro have helped the community a lot. They’ve rehabilitated the water tanks and the school, so yes, the conservancy is a good thing.”

james nangiyo worm farm

James Nangiyo (Photo by Stuart Butler)

Not all the conservancy projects were as grand as rehabilitating a school though. Virtually swimming through a crowd of dozens of goats, and an almost equal number of children, came James Nangiyo. With a big grin he led us into his small manyatta to see what he intriguingly described as a “worm farm.” Dozens of plastic containers filled with worms, all carefully sorted into groups of similar sizes, were organised in a tight circle around a huge pile of compost. Supported by Olarro, James sets out daily to gather elephant dung from the surrounding countryside which he “feeds” to his worms. The resulting compost is then marketed in Nairobi by conservancy staff. The money generated through the worm farm helps financially support around 13 people, but it also has the added benefit of changing attitudes toward elephants: where once they may have been regarded as dangerous crop-raiding menaces, they are now viewed with pride. In fact, unlike around the Masai Mara proper, almost every local I spoke too had only positive things to say about the presence of the conservancy. Even those with no direct financial gain from the conservancy commented on how the conservancy was “helping preserve the grass for grazing cattle and in times of drought we can take our cattle inside the conservancy.”

Olarro, like most private and community conservancies, only really works because of the money generated by high-spending tourists. But what happens when there aren’t any tourists with sacks full of money? Behind Olarro a stack of hills rear up like angry ocean swells. Rising to heights of over 2600m, the Loita Hills might be physically close to the Masai Mara but in terms of landscapes, climate and even tourism impact they couldn’t be further away. Home of the Loita Masai, the mountain range is made up of high grass plateaus, dense forests and a network of small family-owned shambas (farming plots). The forests that cover the hills and tangled valley floors were, I had been reliably informed by a friend in Nairobi, busy with large animals, but what had really intrigued me enough to endure the dreadful “road” out here was the fact that such a forest existed without any official protection or government aid.

jan's camp

Courtesy of Jan’s Camp/Maasai Trails

The base for my stay was the idyllic bush-chic luxury Jan’s Camp. Relaxing after my arrival, and before setting out on a long forest walk (the main activity at the camp), the camp staff, who are all from nearby manyattas, explained how the forest had remained so untouched despite the lack of official protection. “Within the forest are a number of sacred places which the local community use for rituals and initiations. Nobody is allowed to cut or damage the forest without the permission of the community elders. Also, when Maasai and their cattle come from elsewhere they have to keep their cows with ours so we can control where they graze. There’s no conservancy here and no outside help or finance, but people and animals are living together.”

As if to prove the point about wildlife and people living together a troop of colobus monkeys, their long black and white hair shimmering as if they’d just stepped out of a shampoo advert, hurtled through the trees above us. Other wildlife was also flourishing. Walking through the forest areas always brought a lump to the throat. Signs of bushbuck and buffalo were everywhere and I noticed how my Maasai guides always became very alert when walking through the forests.

hiding lion olarro

Photo by Stuart Butler

During my travels around the Mara region I’d met people with both good and bad things to say about the presence of the reserve, conservation and tourism. The problem was that everyone I’d met had likely only told me what they wanted me to hear. What I really needed was a neutral opinion. Back in Nairobi I found myself in a stone cottage in the upscale Karen district chatting to Ali Kaka, regional director of East and Southern Africa for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest independent body working and advising on good conservation practices. Soft-spoken and with decades of knowledge of East African conservation, he talked in general about tourism, poaching and conservation, but when I mentioned the Masai Mara National Reserve he smiled and raised his eyebrows. He told me what so many had already said about local politics being behind the general decline of the Masai Mara Reserve. When I asked more specifically about whether the stories I’d heard about lodges and camps within the reserve itself “pretending” to help the local community had any basis of truth, his reply was “There are two types of [safari] operator. Genuine ones who do try and work well with the community and the ecosystem and those who just want money and pretend to do something, but they are there for the bottom line and suck out what they can.” Wishing to confirm what he meant by this I said, “So, basically they are lying to tourists when they say they are supporting the local community?” “Oh, yes,” he replied without a second’s pause.

During my journey around the Masai Mara I’d seen how tourism, conservation and the rights of local people don’t always meld smoothly together, but I’d also seen how, with a bit of effort, things could work for the benefit of all. But perhaps it was in the cool air of the Loita Hills where I’d been most impressed. Out in this far-off corner of Kenya local people were working to preserve their environment and the animals that lived there without any real outside help or cajoling, and with virtually no tourist dollars to inspire them. Some people say that private conservancies are the future of conservation in Africa, but in Loita the future might mean simply preserving old tribal thoughts.

Read part 1 of Stuart’s series here: Waking Up In The Masai Mara, Part I: My Homestay In A Maasai Manyatta

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