Wildlife in Kenya: National Park Vs. Conservancy

An interesting development is occurring in Kenya of late that has sparked my interest as a conservationist. Birthplace to word “safari“, Kenya has long been synonymous with hunting and much latterly the preservation of East Africa’s wildlife.

It is amazing to think, back in the day, that European hunters set off with a vast caravan of porters, supplies and so called essentials (gramophones and Zinc bathtubs) for the wild plains of Africa. Shooting indiscriminately as they went for pure pleasure with the sole aim of returning with an important trophy. The porters went ahead of them and dutifully erected mess tents, sleeping quarters, sourced and gathered water, set out the bath and heated water to the perfect temperature so that the gentry did not have to rough it too much. Sipping scotch and G&Ts as they discussed the arduous days trek, these testosterone fuelled Europeans had no idea what precedence they were setting.


Kenya, the place to see wildlife

As the popularity of safaris grew in Kenya so did the tourism industry. It soon outstripped everything else and became their biggest commodity. Literally hundreds of lodges, international hotels groups and travel companies sprung up, seemingly, overnight and the Kenyan government cashed in on this bonanza. Kenya became known as THE place to see wildlife.

And that’s when the problem started. The government imposed strict measures on what could and couldn’t be done within the national reserves to try and control this rise in mass tourism. There would be no driving off road, no-one was allowed in the park after sunset and certainly no-one was allowed to set foot out of their vehicle.
With the modern invention of walkie talkies and CB radio (latterly mobile phones) local operators were able to communicate with each other with ease. This meant that if one guide saw, say a lion kill; he would tell the others who would all come rushing to see this macabre yet fascinating event. This meant that you had sometimes 20 or 30 vehicles all jostling for that all important view to allow their clients the best photographs and memories. This unfortunately began to sully the whole experience for tourists who did not want to have pictures of a blood soaked face of a cat with a wheel or radiator grill in the background and people started looking to other countries for more authentic experiences.

The effect on wildlife

What was not thought about at the time, though, was how this would affect the wildlife itself. To some extent the predators used this to their advantage, and anyone who has watched Big Cat Diaries would have seen the episodes when the female cheetah used the roof of the Land Rover as a look out point. But it has a dark side to it as well. Animals generally prefer their own company and were being disturbed by the constant click click of cameras, the stage whispers of excited safari goers and the constant starting of engines as drivers moved the vehicles.
Nothing scientific but this must have had an effect on natural animal behaviour.

The local tribes had no incentive to keep the wild animals and habitats as they were not benefiting from them. They were looking for grazing for their cattle, which for them is a sign of wealth, and there were constant battles fought when cats preyed on the livestock or elephants rampaged through vegetable patches in search of an easy meal.


The much needed change

It wasn’t until fairly recently that a group of forward thinking people looked at the problem and recognised that things had to change and they had to change quickly. Bordering the national parks were large swaths of land owned by local tribes. By approaching the tribe and negotiating for the use of the land as a private concession they set up exclusive and luxurious eco-camps with no permanent buildings and the promise to share the wealth with the local peoples.
The concept has really taken off, with other camps springing up in other areas and to date more and more are being set up using this unique business model.
The leasing of the land provides a long term income for the tribe and the daily concession fee provides a more immediate income. No one knows the land better than the people who were born on it, worked it and continue to live on it – so it made sense for the camps to train some of the warriors to become guides. To ensure future generations, local schools are being built and outreach programmes create awareness of the profitability of wildlife and promote a natural protective cordon around the conservancy.
Some of the core principles also include strict numbers of tents in the conservancy (about 1 tent for every 700 acres). Each camp can have no more than 12 tents and there is strict observance of the maximum number of vehicles round animal sightings.
It is interesting to note that sightings in the conservancies seem to be more than in the reserves and more and more reports come in of the more endangered species such as rhino are taking up residence on the private land. A real testament to the pristine habitats the conservancies have become, are the recent sightings of wild dog which have been on a drastic decline in numbers for many years – a true barometer.

Again without any scientific basis, it would appear that the animals know a good thing; and if they are happy, relaxed and safe then overall the visitors are going to see more than they dreamed of, thus increasing the income to the people most in need of it, who in turn are likely to value and protect it more. All round it is a win win situation.


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