Every time Joe Charleson takes guests from Leleshwa Camp into the surrounding Mara Siana Conservancy, he notices something different.

Dry stubble has given way to fresh green grass. Giraffe and zebra hoofprints outnumber those of cattle. Where there were once flocks of goats, hundreds strong, there are now even bigger flocks of gazelles. And there are daily lion sightings, when a few years ago big predators here were rare.

For Charleson, founder and manager of Leleshwa Camp and head guide for Natural Habitat Safaris, the Mara Siana Conservancy is the realization of a vision that embodies a commitment to the welfare of this land and its inhabitants.

Maasai and safari guests at Mara Siana Conservancy, Kenya

Joe Charleson, accompanied by local Maasai, speaks to safari guests at Mara Siana Conservancy (copyright Joe Charleson)

He grew up in Kenya and has been guiding safaris in the secluded and scenic Siana region since the late 1990s. His dream is to see wildlife and sustainable tourism thrive while benefiting the local Maasai people upon whose land his enterprise depends. Increasingly, what makes that possible in Kenya is the conservancy model: a community-run entity enabling the harmonious coexistence of people, livestock and wildlife in their native habitat.

The 35,000-acre Mara Siana Conservancy was formally established on July 1, 2015. And Charleson has been instrumental in its creation. Safari tourism will fund the endeavor, and safari guests will benefit from it, too.

The Conservancy Movement: Protecting Wildlife & Wellbeing

The Mara Siana Conservancy is part of a growing movement in Kenya to address the challenge of conservation amid conflicts over land use. Typically, communities hosting wildlife see few benefits from tourism. There is little incentive to protect wild animals when they are seen as a nuisance to be fenced off or killed as a threat to life and property. The conservancy movement is changing all this.

A pair of lions in Kenya's Mara Siana Conservancy

A pair of lions in Mara Siana Conservancy

While Kenya has some of Africa’s most popular national parks, it has been struggling to protect its iconic wildlife. Maasai and Samburu lands comprise most of the key wildlife corridors bordering the country’s famous tourism destinations, such as the Maasai Mara National Reserve that the Mara Siana Conservancy abuts. According to the Kenya Wildlife Trust, more than 70 percent of Kenya’s wildlife lives outside protected areas. And while wildlife tourism has generated enormous sums, historically little of it has reached community members who often struggle with a low standard of living.

The conservancy model, however, incentivizes communities to protect wildlife and shares the economic benefits of tourism more equitably. Kenya leads the community-based movement, with some of the original and best-known conservancies such as Lewa and Ol Pejeta, as well as the fastest conservancy growth in Africa. A decade ago, only a few existed. By 2013, Kenya had 130 conservancies, and there are more than 200 now, encompassing more than 10 million acres. The Mara Siana Conservancy is a prime addition to the collection, home to all the main animal species found in the Mara ecosystem except black rhinoceros.

An Innovative Plan to Help Wildlife Thrive

Prior to the establishment of the Mara Siana Conservancy, the community’s 30,000+ acres were divided into some 3,500 individually owned plots as part of a government privatization program. Since no parcel that small can support grazing livestock, it behooves landowners to share rangeland — and to obtain economic sustenance through wildlife tourism.

Safari guests view zebras in Kenya's Mara Siana Conservancy

Safari guests observe zebra in Mara Siana Conservancy (copyright Joe Charleson)

Charleson spearheaded a plan, enlisting other conservation-minded colleagues in the safari industry and NGO realm, including WWF, to devise a structure to accomplish that goal. Six safari camps within the conservancy’s bounds, including Leleshwa, have agreed to donate revenues to local landowners whose property they use. Each operator pays an annual fixed fee per bed, plus a nightly fee per client, to fund the cost of running the conservancy. Payments are made directly to each landowner through electronic bank deposits.

Convincing the community the plan would work took some doing on Charleson’s part, who spent countless hours sitting under acacia trees explaining the arrangement to the Maasai, including the need to set up a bank account, which many of the pastoral herders do not possess.

“The administration of such a task is absolutely massive,” he said, but it is the key to ensuring buy-in from the community and protection from corruption. In turn, conservancy land is administered to return a portion of it to its natural state, attracting more wildlife to support safari tourism.

Siana’s Advantages for Safari Guests

Private conservancies also have benefits for safari visitors. Guests will find Siana far less crowded than the Maasai Mara National Reserve next door, without the fleets of mini buses convening around a single lion. There are the extra advantages of activities not allowed in the national parks: night drives in search of nocturnal predators, fly camping in the bush, and walking safaris, including Maasai-guided treks in the Loita Hills. Anyone who walks in a lion’s tracks just once will understand the value of a safari on a private conservancy.

Maasai and safari guests discuss local grassland flora

Joe Charleson and local Maasai guides discuss local vegetation with a safari guest (copyright A. Komarnitsky)

Charleson says recent guests “are already seeing a significant increase in quality wildlife sightings close to camp. Siana has amazing game, and we want to ensure that they have an environment within which they can thrive. We have wildebeest throughout the year, including the Loita herds that calve outside Leleshwa Camp in January and February. Saving this land for them is vital.”

The conservancy is also home to several resident lion prides, cheetah, leopard, buffalo and some of the biggest giraffe herds in the Mara. The area is an important migration corridor for big elephant herds, some with more than 200 individuals. African wild dogs are also making a return. Safari outings during the evening hours offer a chance to see bush babies, spring hare, mongoose and bat-eared fox, with rarer sightings of porcupine and aardvark.

An additional plus is the opportunity for genuine cultural experiences. Guests on the Mara Siana Conservancy enjoy uncontrived encounters with the Maasai who work at the camps and live in the nearby village. They may visit the elementary school, shop at the local market, or get a lesson in beadwork, traditional medicine or wielding a Maasai spear.

Maasai at Mara Siana Conservancy, Kenya

Maasai guides share local knowledge with visitors to the Mara Siana Conservancy (copyright P. Endres)

Like the conservancy model, the safari experience on Siana is an integrated one. It’s about the land, its wildlife and the local people, all together, living in harmony. It is Africa’s traditional past, and it may well ensure Africa’s future.

By Wendy Redal
As Editorial Director, Wendy Redal is Nat Hab’s chief writer and editor. She holds a Ph.D. in mass communication and has focused her writing career on travel, conservation and the environment.