Unforgettable tourism experience and community-led conservation success story in one: Discover the Maasai Mara Conservancies in Kenya.
This is one of those places in the world you feel instantly connected to – even if you've never been there. The Mara-Serengeti ecosystem in Kenya and Tanzania is one of Africa's most iconic landscapes, known to the world thanks to documentaries and images, but also movies – the opening shots of The Lion King, for example, show this very ecosystem.
But it's not only its beauty that impresses: The Mara-Serengeti ecosystem also contains more than 40% of the continent's larger mammals – on merely 0.08% of its area. For thousands of years, it has sustained both humans and wildlife. However, over the past decades, this symbiosis has been disrupted – with dramatic consequences: According to the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, Kenya has lost 70% of its wildlife in the last 30 years alone.
Researchers spearheaded by the University of Groningen found that the areas bordering the Mara-Serengeti – lands critically important for wildlife dispersal, migration, and breeding – have experienced a 400% increase in human population over the past decade, while larger wildlife populations on the Kenyan side were reduced by more than 75%.
Fencing, human-wildlife conflict, and poaching are among the biggest threats to the animals. Increased human activity is disrupting the ecosystem. Considering that 70% of Kenya's wildlife lives on those very rangelands outside protected national parks and reserves, the root causes for their drastic decline quickly become evident – but so does a way to reverse the trend.
Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies have found a simple, yet effective solution to stop the catastrophic ecosystem and biodiversity decline: Local Maasai landowners lease out their land to the conservancies, which offer safe living, migration and breeding areas for animals. Conservancies allow for a limited amount of tourism with a light carbon footprint, which serves as the primary source of income to finance the model.
This arrangement has benefits for all parties involved: landowners keep their land while receiving a steady income for themselves and their families; animals can live in peace and contribute to keeping the ecosystem healthy; and tourism creates jobs and income while offering travelers a breath-taking experience among the Big Five: lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and African buffalos.
In 2013, conservancy founders, communities, landowners and tourism operators came together to found an association to better coordinate efforts across the Greater Mara Ecosystem, and serve as shared platform, administrator, advocate and innovator: The Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA) was born.
MMWCA has since played a central role in advocating the Maasai communities' and conservancies' interests on a regional level and beyond. The organization is deeply rooted in the community and serves as a joint platform for all stakeholders, aligning respective interests and allowing them to act with a unified voice while championing the conservancy model and helping it grow. Since 2013, it has been instrumental in doubling the area protected through conservancies.
In line with LGT Venture Philanthropy's (LGT VP) approach to "provide more than funding", support for MMWCA has not only come via funds: Six LGT Impact Fellows have worked in the Mara since 2016, strategically strengthening the team on the ground in the areas of communications, fundraising, operations, monitoring and evaluation.
LGT VP has also worked with partners to provide capacity-building support for MMWCA's team, conducting training that enabled them to work together more efficiently, make strategic hires, and improve processes, reporting, data collection, and project management.
This year, the very foundations of the community conservancy model were put to an unprecedented stress test: The COVID-19 crisis brought tourism to a standstill, eliminating the main source of income to pay for land lease fees, rangers, and conservancy operations. Facing this existential threat, MMWCA immediately leveraged the strong relationships with local communities it has built over the years, and worked with a small group of trusted supporters, including LGT VP, to outline and fundraise a comprehensive Emergency Relief Plan to keep the Mara conservancies afloat for the next 12 to 18 months.
Simultaneously, MMWCA was able to swiftly reach broker consensus within communities and among landowners to accept a temporary reduction in land lease fees of up to 50%. The final plan includes a mix of grant funding and loan structures from small partners, government actors, and conservation behemoths such as Conservation International alike.
A large part of the necessary capital has been successfully raised in just a few weeks and the plan was immediately put into action, with first funds reaching conservancies in the summer. LGT VP contributed through a COVID-19 Emergency Funding Facility aimed at portfolio organizations whose operations suffer from the crippling effects of the virus. Donations raised from LGT employees, clients and private individuals in 2019 delivered additional support.
It is too early to say that MMWCA and the Mara conservancies will survive the crisis, but tourism is slowly coming back to the Mara, and thanks to the Emergency Relief Plan, MMWCA can take a breath and return some of its energy to its core operations and ongoing projects.
While fundraising efforts for the Relief Plan are ongoing, 2021 will also see the start of the construction of a new education facility, partially funded by LGT VP. The new Wildlife Tourism College is aimed at providing vocational training in hospitality and ecosystem management, but also seeks to become a research hub with international partners already on board.
In addition, MMWCA will intensify activities and efforts around establishing alternative income streams for conservancies, to reduce its dependence on tourism, the model's now-exposed Achilles heel. LGT VP has been and will continue to promote these efforts, particularly around reforestation and exploring the potential of carbon credits.
Images: Siegfried Modola
LGT Venture Philanthropy (LGT VP) is an independent charitable foundation striving to improve the quality of life of disadvantaged people, contribute to healthy ecosystems, and build resilient, inclusive, and prosperous communities. LGT VP deploys philanthropic capital to organizations with effective, innovative, and scalable solutions to social and environmental challenges, thus directly contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals. The foundation primarily supports organizations based in emerging markets, focusing on high-impact sectors, including education, health, and environment. LGT VP is the venture philanthropy arm of LGT Group. They are also happy to forward donations to the respective organizations.