In February 2014, ST members Safaridude and the Game Warden undertook a Kenyan safari staying at three Offbeat Safari properties in Meru National Park, (Offbeat Meru), Sosian Ranch in Laikipia, (Sosian Lodge), and Masai Mara, (Offbeat Mara - Mara North Conservancy). In the following interview series we focus the Safaritalk Spotlight on Offbeat Safaris and gain an insight into each of its properties: here we speak about the Offbeat Meru camp, situated in the Mara North Conservancy.
Part 1 of the interview series, Offbeat Meru can be found here.
Part 2 of the series, Sosian Lodge can be found here.
To read the ongoing photographic trip report, click here.
James Stewart, the Game Warden and James Sengeny.
What is the history of the Offbeat Mara camp and how is it/its management team involved in the Mara North Conservancy?
The camp opened for guests in June 2005. Piers, the owner, worked for Offbeat Riding Safaris for 3 years before opening the camp. Offbeat riding safaris also camp in the same valley on mobile horse riding safaris. Offbeat Mara is one of the founder members of the MNC and Piers sits on the board. Offbeat contributes to paying Mara North in order to preserve the amazing landscape and wildlife that inhabit it.
How does the experience of staying in Mara North Conservancy differ from that of staying in the Mara Reserve proper?
MNC markets its product as low density tourism and has a strict game drive code of conduct. The management company, Seiya Ltd has a ranger force that monitors the code of conduct by patrolling around the conservancy. They also work with the guides on enhancing the guests experience and explaining the need to enforce regulations regarding the number of tourists in the conservancy. In the reserve you can find up to 25 cars per sighting. The rules in the conservancy are that there are no more than five cars per sighting. We are also able to night game drive up until 10pm in the conservancy, can drive off-road to sightings, sit on car roofs etc.
How does the green season in the Mara North differ from the main tourist season? What is a visitor more likely to experience during this time?
MNC has some of the best game around. Lions are almost always seen by guests and we have two big prides that reside in the conservancy; EPC and Offbeat. Other game such as leopards and cheetah are also seen often and year round. MNC also hosts the world famous Leopard Gorge.
During the short rains in November visitors are more likely to see the smaller plains game such as gazelles and impala. After the long rainy season the grass is tall and visitors are more likely to see a lot of elephants, buffalo and Eland. The rain has little effect on the habits of the predators.
How long has the Mara North been in operation and in that time, how has it changed? What were wildlife numbers when it started compared to now?
Mara North has been in operation since 2009. It consists of 850 local Maasai landowners who have come together to lease the land to the camps. Since the Mara North Conservancy was set up the animal numbers have increased especially the predators. It is hard to know whether herbivore numbers have changed due to the fact that they move in and out of the conservancy so frequently. We have seen, especially with elephants, that they are more relaxed in Mara North than in the peripheries.
Have you for instance noticed an increase in a specific species that you wouldn't have expected and conversely wildlife which you may have expected to return which has not?
Since Mara North started the numbers of lions in the conservancy has doubled. For cheetahs the number is still constant but they have huge home ranges so it is hard to monitor numbers. Currently we have two cheetah researchers who are trying to work out exactly how many cheetahs there are in the Mara ecosystem. We have also seen an increase in serval cats and reedbuck.
How has the ecosystem recovered from its previous land use?
The previous land use of the area that is now Mara North was local homesteads and cattle. Now that we control the grass and grazing we have seen more nutritious grass growing back. This now serves as a grass bank for the local community in times of drought, whereas previously the cattle would die of in large numbers.
Notably one species of Acacia Gerrardi is becoming less and less due to elephant destruction, (as they are restricted to smaller and smaller areas of land), and another type of acacia called Acacia Drepanolobiun is taking hold.
Under the lease conditions of the conservancy, how are the Maasai allowed to use the land?
MNC has a rotational grazing project, allowing local cattle to graze under control.
Under what specific conditions and where are they permitted to graze their cattle?
Mara North decided that cattle could be incorporated as part of the community conservation process in MNC. MNC believes that the culture and traditions of the Maasai including cattle and herding should be part of the tourist experience. We do not force it upon them but the cattle herders are encouraged to participate. The cattle are controlled in small areas and the areas are constantly rotated in order not to leave lasting environmental damage.
What is being done to educate them about and improve animal husbandry techniques and livestock security?
MNC runs the Bright Green Project, (OBEL Family Foundation), we have a pilot project based at the MNC HQ, we aim to teach improved management practices and using Boran cattle to improve local zebu cattle. The conservancy took fifty Maasai elders on an educational trip to Ol Pejeta Conservancy, one of Kenya's finest cattle and wildlife conservancies in existence. As a result we have seen local cattle owners buying in Boran bulls in order to breed with the local cattle and improve the quality of the livestock. The aim of the project is to teach the Maasai that quality is better than quantity and hopefully reduce the environmental impact that the cattle are having on the ecosystem.
How many instances of human vs predator conflicts have occurred and what is being done to prevent further such occurances. Indeed, have there been any cases of revenge killings, (or the tradition of young Morans killing lion), in the conservancy and if so, what action has been taken against the culprits?
There have been instances in the past but now when the Maasai threaten to kill a lion the rangers are on hand to guard them. MNC runs a livestock compensation project funded by the camps and landowners. A set of rules with a board governs the payments. A verification team with a motorbike verifies all claims.
Who is responsible for enforcing the law in the conservancy over such matters and how affective are such laws?
Management works very closely with the Kenya Wildlife Service. Any issues are done together with them. The punishments differ on individual cases and Kenya has just passed a new wildlife act that has seen stiffer penalties come into place
Bearing in mind the success of the conservancy model first championed I believe by Jake Grieves-Cook in the Mara region, how many more conservancies will be established in the future and how far will they radiate out from the reserve proper? How important are they for wildlife dispersal areas and how essential is it that wildlife corridors exist between them?
The Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancy’s Association has just been formed. This is now the body that will help and govern these issues on a county and national level. The conservancies are important in ensuring buffer zones around National Parks between humans and wildlife as well as allowing wildlife to move freely between big areas of land. Without conservancies Kenya is at risk of turning their National Parks into glorified zoos where animals are kept in by the encroachment upon the land by for human purposes, thus increasing human/wildlife conflict.
Being a small tented camp obviously reduces its environmental impact and footprint: from where does the camp draw its water supply and how do you encourage responsible water use?
Offbeat Mara draws it water from the Musiara Springs about twenty minutes from camp. We have introduced reusable drinking water bottles that guests are given on arrival and then can keep in order to reduce our waste of plastics.
How do you dispose of grey and black water? What about waste disposal and recycling?
There is currently a project in Aitong that is being set up for waste disposal. As a camp we will take all our rubbish there and it will be recycled. We will also participate in a clean-up day in the local town and help educate the Maasai people about recycling and waste disposal.
How does the camp generate electricity?
All tents are fully solar powered and in the office during the day the internet is run off solar using a converter from the battery. At night we switch a small generator on for a couple of hours in order to charge up guest’s electrical equipment.
How have you found that guests demands for electricity has changed over the years the camp has been operating and how do manage to meet those demands?
The camp runs on solar power during the day. In the evenings we offer the guests the chance to charge all electronical items on a small generator that also runs the kitchen and office as is on for 3/4 hours a day.
What is the story of the Offbeat Pride and how is this pride connected to your camp?
The Pride normally resides on Lion Hill about half a mile out of camp and are seen daily. As cars from other camps are not allowed in this area they are the Pride of Offbeat and have been followed fanatically by the guides and spotters from Offbeat. As a consequence our guides know their history and the relationships between different members. The have also named some of them.
How many lions does the pride consist of and how many cubs have been born this year?
The pride numbers 18 in total of which 10 are cubs, (there was previously 11 cubs but 1 was recently killed).
What is the extent of their range in the conservancy and have they ever ventured outside of its limits and come into conflict with the Maasai?
In 2006 there were only four lions in the pride: in 2007 they attacked cows in the village and one of the lionesses was killed which left three. In 2009 eight cubs were born five of which were males and those boys were kicked out in 2012. Two of the kicked out lions attacked cattle in the village at night and were killed and the other was killed by buffalo. We have only seen one since. Once every year we notice that this pride move out of the area for about a month often intruding upon the territory of the Elephant Pepper Pride. The pride moved in February this year and one cub died, we assumed killed by another lion.
What is your personal favourite spot in the Mara North Conservancy and why? What are the "secret" locations which you know but that perhaps guests don't get to see?
There are some fantastic spots that can only be reached by foot/horse up our valley stretch. Alternatively the stretch of the Olare Orok between Offbeat and Kicheche often proves to be a favourite with guests.
How in your opinion can such high visitor numbers to the Masai Mara be sustainable and how many more properties/bed spaces can it support before the negative environmental impact really degrades the ecosystem to beyond repair? What is the answer to overcrowding at the crossings?
In Mara north I think we are about at visitor capacity. I.e. we want no more camps and those that are there can only slightly expand. The reserve is too busy and needs better management in general.
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.