The communities around the Masai Mara Game Reserve have always relied on cattle ranching and land leasing to earn a living.
Long before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic Tourists used to crowd in the park and nearby nature reserves for vacation, which is what earns the locals who lease land for conservation income.
But with the pandemic, overseas banned international flights and left the park almost deserted for almost a year. The villagers had to think of alternative sources of income.
In order to generate additional income, the community, consisting of shepherds, has now ventured into alternative industries such as beekeeping, bull fattening and dairy farming.
The Olderkesi Wildlife Conservancy on the banks of the Mara River is now lined with over 100 modern beehives and heralds a new economic activity.
David ole Ntaiya, an official of the Olderkesi Beekeeping Association, is optimistic about the new company. The association has 50 members.
“We used to rely solely on livestock and land lease income for tourism activities, but we learned a hard lesson last year. We didn’t have tourists, and even though we had livestock, there weren’t any buyers,” Ntaiya said.
However, he says the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature-Kenya, a conservation organization, introduced them to the beekeeping project.
The sight of the newly erected modern Langstroth beehives donated by the organization radiates a bright future.
“We chose beekeeping because, unlike farm animals that are affected by drought, bees are resilient and the demand for honey is consistently high,” he said.
He noted that as a group they are targeting at least Sh2 million annually from the sale of honey and its products.
“Animal husbandry has many disadvantages. We suffer great losses when droughts occur and wildlife attack our animals, ”he says.
In Orpopong’i, in the same nature reserve, Margaret Lekeni ventures into dual-use Sahiwal cattle breeding.
“In Maasai culture, cows belong to men, but milk traditionally belonged to women. We used to drink the milk and share it with the neighbors, but now I sell the extra to hotels in the Olposimoru commercial center on the border between Kenya and Tanzania, ”says Lekeni.
According to Lekeni, she sells 10 liters of milk a day at Sh50 per liter. She says the money supported her family.
Lekeni, the chair of the Enyorata women’s group, says the 20 members have a chama where they each contribute Sh1,000 to buy dairy cows.
“It used to be an abomination for women to have cows, but we are determined to make sure we each have at least one dairy cow,” she adds.
With the construction of the 3,000 liter milk cooling system by the WWF, the women are now concentrating on improving milk yield.
Lekeni has called on the local leadership to support the shepherds in order to obtain improved breeds for high yields.
“We don’t want this project to die. We want to get quality breeds that will allow us to fill the refrigeration facility,” she said.
With the shrinking land area due to the growing population, some community members have ventured into the fattening of oxen for a better income.
Kaisakat ole Sukut, one of the farmers, says he buy young bulls, fatten them for two years and then sell them for a profit. “I buy at least ten bulls of the Sahiwal breed. This breed thrives in this semi-arid environment.”
He says the company is supplementing its income from leasing its 100-acre property for tourism.
Mr Sukut says he buys the oxen at Sh30,000 and later sells them at Sh100,000 for Sh150,000.
“It’s a good undertaking. I don’t have to buy food. All I do is turn the cops on the paddocks, ”he says.
Alternative sources of income initiatives are being taken across all 16 wildlife sanctuaries in the community to help cushion locals against unforeseen circumstances such as the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change.
According to Daniel Sopia, the chief executive of the Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA), the association supports nature reserves in other economic activities.
“With the Covid-19 pandemic affecting the tourism sector, the landowners had no money. We encouraged them to venture into other initiatives such as beekeeping, pearl making and bull fattening that they have since embraced, ”he said.
The German government recently gave grants of Sh 600 million to nature reserves in the Masai Mara to support community nature reserves.
About the Masai Mara Game Reserve
The Masai Mara Game Reserve is about 11,000 square kilometers and is located in the extreme southwest of Kenya.
It’s a vast grassland savannah and home to the Big Five and other animals, including the wildebeest, whose annual migration to Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park is considered the eighth wonder of the world.
The reserve is named after the native Maasai, with the word mara meaning dotted in the local dialect.
The Masai Mara was established as a nature reserve in 1961 and today covers an area of more than 370,000 hectares, with no fences between the park.
The national reserve is only a small part of the Greater Mara Ecosystem, which also includes group ranch, common land, and private nature reserves.
The wildlife in the reserve is the Big Five (although there aren’t many rhinos) and huge herds of steppe game, hippos and crocodiles in the rivers and more than 500 species of birds.
July to October is the high season for tourism in the Mara. Millions of wildebeest cross the Mara River into Tanzania, attracting local and international tourists.
Two major rivers, the Talek and the Mara, cut through the Masai Mara National Reserve and divide it into three; the Sekenani, Talek and Musiara.
There are 16 community-owned wildlife sanctuaries around the park.
The park is managed by the Narok County government and it is the county’s premier income earner, generating over Sh2 billion annually.
As one of the most popular safari destinations in Africa, the Masai Mara is very busy, especially from June to September and during the Christmas holidays.
The busiest region of the park is in the southeast, near the Talek, Sekenani and Olumuna gates, where large hotels are located. The central part of the reserve is particularly crowded even during the Great Migration.