When Pandemic Hit Maasai Mara, New Fund Stepped in to Stabilize Conservancies, Protect Wildlife

July 6, 2023

NAIROBI, Kenya (July 6, 2023) – A “lifeline” fund designed for Kenya’s Maasai Mara region successfully kept landowners and leaseholders from weakening conservation activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new Conservation International impact report. The fund provided loans to keep the areas under conservation – known as conservancies – afloat when tourism across the region came to a halt. The success of the fund led to new conservancies helping to double the amount of Maasai Mara land under the conservancy model, in partnership with the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA).

The conservancies of the Maasai Mara make up more than half of the Greater Mara Ecosystem, home of Africa’s most iconic animals – elephants, lions, leopards, buffalos and rhinos – and the wildlife phenomenon known as the Great Migration.

The conservancy lands are owned by Indigenous Maasai, who conserve and lease them to tourism companies. The business relationship between the landowners and the tourism investors was entirely dependent on tourism revenue prior to when COVID-19 hit. After, tourism revenues dropped by more than 90 percent and the tourism investors could not meet their lease obligations. As the pandemic diminished livelihoods, there was a substantial risk of communities converting land use from conservation to crop farming or selling to developers – all of which would have had drastic consequences for the Maasai Mara’s people, culture and wildlife.

Between December 2020 and December 2022, Conservation International launched and supported the African Conservancies Fund by providing more than $2 million in loans that were distributed to four conservancies (Mara North, Olare Orok, Motorogi and Olkinyei) spanning a total of 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres).

The loans allowed families in the Maasai Mara to continue receiving income from their lands to pay for healthcare, home repairs, children’s school fees and more. And because tourism revenues — not government funding — support wildlife protection, replacement grant funding ensured wildlife patrols continued normally, with rangers working full time.

The African Conservancies Fund made it possible for tourism investors to meet their lease obligations, which in turn unlocked an additional $2.8 million in funding for related operational expenditures. As a result of the Conservation International and MMWCA partnership, conservancies thrived in unprecendented difficult times, and the area under conservation increased.

“Support came on time, so we normalized operations as if there were no crisis. We are now operating a full house. Our rangelands have remained secure,” said Simon Nkoitoi, a senior warden at Ol Kinyei Conservancy, commenting on the operational support that sustained their work.

The impact report highlights significant outcomes as a result of the Fund’s support, including the following:

  • Landowners maintained conservation as a preferred land use option;
  • There was no interruption in wildlife patrols, and all rangers retained their jobs at 100 per cent of their salaries, working full-time, which kept instances of poaching on conservancy lands at zero; and
  • The additional operational support, which was possible because of the stabilization provided by the Fund, came with conditions aimed at improving long-term conservancy governance, including:
    • More diverse conservancy boards, with women constituting at least one third of members, especially in the new conservancies, and the number of female rangers tripled; and
    • Placement of critical governance tools, including  annual general meetings, grazing plans, board manuals and benefits sharing policies. 

“The African Conservancy Fund was originally designed to keep conservancies afloat until tourism returned to the region. But the results have shown us that the program can serve not only as a lifeline but also as a welcome intervention,” said Daudi Sumba, Conservation International’s Kenya Country Director. “The success we’ve seen from this program is a win for both this cohort of conservancies and for other conservation communities that could benefit from this funding model moving forward.”  

“The Fund brought a lifeline not just to the Maasai Mara’s wildlife but also our communities and people. As the world rebounds from the impact of COVID-19, conservancies are now better positioned to weather future unforeseen crises,” said Daniel Sopia, Chief Executive Office of the MMWCA. “The Mara could have experienced a very different outcome but thanks to the innovation and collaboration behind the loan program, it remains one of Africa’s most important and successful conservation regions.”

In early 2023, the Kenya Tourism Board announced that tourism numbers have nearly returned to pre-pandemic levels.


About Conservation International: Conservation International protects nature for the benefit of humanity. Through science, policy, fieldwork and finance, we spotlight and secure the most important places in nature for the climate, for biodiversity and for people. With offices in 30 countries and projects in more than 100 countries, Conservation International partners with governments, companies, civil society, Indigenous peoples and local communities to help people and nature thrive together. Go to Conservation.org for more, and follow our work on Conservation News, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Instagram and YouTube.