They say that ‘every little helps’. In the big picture world of conservation it might seem a little overwhelming for those of us whose focus is on hospitality, but who knows what impact one can have with small acts? Buried safely within the heart of the conservancy, as Mara Plains Camp is, it is often easy to forget about the local people who live on our periphery. The conservancy is leased from local Maasai communities so that they too benefit from the conservation tourism that Great Plains does. however, dotted around the outside of the conservancy are many communities who live side by side with the wildlife that so many tourists come to see. It is indeed these local people who have a very great say in the future well-being of these species. For us and for our guests we view it with fascination, a jewel to be treasured that we in the West seem to have lost, and come to Africa to rekindle our connection. For some local people who largely live a pastoralist living and all too often see no direct benefit from wildlife, it can be viewed as a threat to their prosperity. Cattle can be infected with diseases from plains game, whilst big cats and hyenas may kill cattle and elephants can break fences, infrastructure and eat crops. It is in this context that our Mara Plains guides visited two local primary schools, as well as the Maa Trust women’s beading group to take them out on educational game drives. We had one simple aim – Take the people who live together with wildlife and show them the real benefits that these animals can bring.
Over the course of several hours the children and the women were taken into the conservancy to view the wildlife that lives on their doorsteps. It seems incredible that for these people who live bordering perhaps the greatest wildlife ecosystem on the planet, barely a handful had ever been on safari before. The women who have found meaningful employment by beading the beautiful jewellery that we stock in our shop, ranged in age up to 50+ and yet not one of them had ever been on a game drive. The first sighting that they came across was a beautiful, relaxed, breeding herd of elephants eating the lush grass that enveloped a small stream from which they also quenched their thirst. The vehicles parked a respectful distance away and we watched. After a few minutes, a guide who had been sat happily in silence absorbing the scene turned to see if his occupants were also enjoying themselves. As it turned out half the women were under their Maasai blankets, that acted as a psychological shield if not a physical one, and the other half were off their seats and half lying in the bottom of the vehicle… It became suddenly apparent that the over-riding feeling was fear not pleasure. However, with time and after reassurance from the guide by talking about the elephants, their body language and their behaviour, fear slowly ebbed away into curiosity and then to enjoyment, smiles and the silence turned in to giggles…
This pattern repeated itself over the hours that followed new sightings, but with each one the initial fear felt was bit by bit reduced. The game drive finished in spectacular fashion with two hungry lioness hunting a pair of warthogs. After a promising stalk and then a long chase the warthogs, by the skin of their teeth, avoided becoming dinner! The two lioness collapsed in a heap next to the vehicles and the women sat wide-eyed in awe of these two wonderfully majestic animals. The commute home to their villages was filled with non-stop chatter about the animals they had seen and had begun to view with wonder. Who knows the impact this may have… Will they encourage their children to become guides or conservationists? Will the view the wildlife around their villages differently? Surely, the only possible impact is positive.
The primary school children who were selected to join the Mara Plains guides on game drive were done so by merit from last year’s exam results. They, we were told by their headmasters, would be asked to write a story about the animals they saw so that the experience could be shared with the school children who were not so lucky. No doubt they will all be inspired in some small way to try extra hard in this year’s exams so that the next time the Mara Plains game viewers pull up outside their school, they will be the lucky ones selected to spend the day in the company of leopards, lions and elephants! When asked what jobs they wanted when they were older many of them simply pointed to our guides who had opened their eyes to the beauty of their natural heritage. Perhaps we might have inspired the future generation of Great Plains guides.
At the very least each person will have walked away with a greater understanding of the wildlife they share the Maasai Mara with and perhaps a greater appreciation of its intrinsic value and global importance. With more trips on the horizon and perhaps the odd classroom talk given by our guides, hopefully we can play a small role in greater integrating the local communities with the animals and the habitats they rely on.