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By Phoebe Nadupoi

ALLAN EARNSHAW has been in the Mara for a long time. As a safari tour guide, he studied the landscape and knew the hideouts of the cats and other majestic species his clients yearned to see. He knows most families, at least by name, can recognise many faces and has been a friend of quite a few. He has seen the Mara morph from a sparsely populated area with three manyattas to what it is today. He briefly chatted with PHOEBE NADUPOI on the journey to MMWCA’s establishment.

The idea to set up a regional body

Several stakeholders had mulled over setting up a regional conservation body for the Maasai Mara for a while. Ad hoc efforts to set up the body culminated in a defining meeting at the InterContinental Ballroom in December 2012.

A few years earlier, Allan Earnshaw and others started looking at replicating an idea they implemented at the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) while serving on the institution’s Board by creating a community area planning framework. During his tenure at the KWS Board, together with Dr Helen Gichohi and Dr Julius Kipngetich and a couple of other people, they introduced the concept of management plans, called initially “Protected Area Planning Framework” so that each park would have a management plan and that they would all come from a particular blueprint. He felt compelled to transfer the best practice to the community space. “We were like, why shouldn’t we do the same in, for example, Olgulului-Ololorashi, which surrounds Amboseli?”

While exploring the idea with different community clusters, he realised that other regions were organised and had platforms that represented them. The lack of an umbrella body for the Maasai Mara became pronounced.

“I used to attend meetings at the East African Wildlife Society or what was called the Kenya Wildlife Working Group, and it was at one of those meetings I called a couple of rafikis from the Mara to say, look, everybody is organised here, Athi-Kapiti are talking, Laikipia people are talking, Northern Rangelands are talking, where is the Mara – the most important part of the country in terms of wildlife and, indeed, for tourism?” Allan was mainly concerned that, at that time, people were talking about potentially reopening trophy hunting or doing bird shooting. “I said, where is your voice in this situation?”

Other significant occurrences that accelerated the establishment of a Mara Conservancies association include an Ecological Brainstorming, better known as the EcoStorm meeting of July 2011, organised by the Basecamp Foundation. The meeting resolved to not only talk about the need for an umbrella body but also take concrete steps to actualise the idea. There was also the process of amending the wildlife law, and a review team was going around the country soliciting views, and there was no collective body that would speak for the Mara. Around the same time, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) took some people from KWS to Namibia to look at the conservancies’ movement. A key observation from that visit was how the Namibians organised their conservancies and the existence of umbrella bodies. During the formation of regional conservation bodies in Kenya, there was an attempt to fashion the names of regional bodies around the Namibian ones.

In yet another coincidence, Allan happened to be the Vice Chair of the Kenya Land Conservation Trust as the quest to establish a regional body persisted. The Chair of the Trust was Prof Patricia Kameri-Mbote, while Dr Helen Gichohi, who had served on the KWS Board with Allan, was the President of the African Wildlife Foundation, where the Kenya Land Conservation Trust had its offices. Helen played a key role in developing the first land use plan for the Mara. This incidental convening provided another opportunity to pursue a common goal. Several other people at Kenya Land Conservation Trust were invested in conservation and land law. So when Allan asked if they could use the organisation to facilitate the registration of Mara’s regional body, they were happy to help.

December 2012: InterContinental Ballroom

The Nature Conservancy had sponsored a meeting to help bring the various conservation stakeholders together for the all-important agenda.

“I happened to be the guy with the mic, and I said who is for it (the idea of setting up regional bodies) and who is against it?” Allan recalls. He further says that some rival groups were trying to set up simultaneously with the same idea but not as unifying. The meeting affirmed the need for umbrella bodies and established three organisations: Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association which would serve as the umbrella body for the regional bodies; the Maasai Mara Wildlife Cosnervancies Association (MMWCA) and the Taita Taveta Wildlife Cosnervancies Association.

I was on the phone with Dickson Kaelo to see if he could be the Mara representative, but he said he was engaged as he hadn’t finished his masters. We had a few people in the meeting, including Francis Ole Nkoitoi, and they unanimously picked Daniel Sopia for the Conservancies Council Chair position.

MMWCA’s Formative Years

The pursuit of a regional body was fruitful. The Mara stakeholders finally had an umbrella body to coordinate and speak for their conservation organisations which had acquired a new name: conservancies.

But the founders were confronted with the reality Swahili people captured in the proverb: Kuzaa si kazi, kazi ni kulea. The new outfit, MMWCA, had no money or staff to run its operations. But the founders were determined to avoid getting stuck.

Asilia Camps and Lodges, a key MMWCA partner to date, raised the initial USD100,000 for the Association. “We paid up for the film crew to come and interview Dickson Kaelo on basic stuff like what a conservancy is, what MMWCA is, and what’s going on,” Allan explains. The product was a 5-minute film screened during the Go2Africa event, a tourism expo in Cape Town. “One way or another, people put money into it, and there was MMWCA’s first cheque.” The first Chair was Dr Lars Lindkvist of Basecamp Foundation, and he hired Helen Gibbons as the first Chief Executive Officer. The initial MMWCA board members came from existing conservancies.

At MMWCA’s establishment, several conservancies were already in existence, including Olchorro-Oirowua, Siana, Olkinyei and Olderkesi. Other conservancies at the time were Olare Motorogi, Mara North and Naboisho. But the latter embodied the governance arrangement that is the hallmark of the Mara conservancies. This governance arrangement presents a 50:50 representation of landowners and tourism investors.

Over the years, the Association has helped establish and develop conservancies to work on governance to strengthen the institutions.

My great experience is growing up with most of the families and many of the people who are now running the Mara.

In His Own Words

First Visit to the Maasai Mara

I visited the Maasai Mara for the first time in 1969 after high school with friends in a borrowed VW Kombi. We explored the Mara, crossed the border into the Serengeti, went to Ngorongoro, Lake Manyara and returned to Kenya via Amboseli.


I studied Human Sciences at Oxford University in the early ‘70s.


I worked as a professional safari guide for about 35 years, starting in 1974. I served on the Board of the Kenya Wildlife Service from 2005 to 2008 and continued with full-time conservation work after that.

What he loved about safari tour-guiding

What I liked in my safari life was getting to know a lot of our clients on an individual friendly basis, and showing Kenya in all its facets and all its glory was tremendous fun because it is such a highly diverse country.

Why Mara people christened Allan Earnshaw Mzee Kijiji

My great experience is growing up with most of the families and many of the people who are now running the Mara, whether it is the Sopias, Kaelos, Kisemeis and Soits, or whether it is Paramount Chief Ntutu, Senior Chief Koriata, Chief Seng’eny, again, all the group. I have known them all since I was a young man. The number of people was small enough that you knew everybody. Many people call me Mzee Kijiji, and they say that because their fathers knew me, and they know that my history is intertwined with theirs.

Why the Maasai Mara is Important

The lease arrangement is unique to the Mara, and admittedly, the Mara has the most iconic wildlife and the largest number of camps. Still, it was unique in its investor landowners’ relationship. As investors, we needed long-term leases because if you want a quality product, you want to invest as much as possible. At the same time, we said these landowners might change their minds or renege, so we were as nervous and weary as the landowners. One of the most beautiful parts of the story is that the landowners and investors have come to trust each other. The underpinning strength of MMWCA is a solid business relationship between tourism investors and landowners.

Why Mara Conservancies Matter

From a wildlife perspective, even though the Mara National Reserve borders the Serengeti to the south, in itself, it is too small to act as a reservoir of wildlife if, for example, the areas around it, for argument’s sake, would have been fenced off, were to be ploughed up, were to be turned into towns and cities. If the Reserve was not surrounded by conservancies with the same goals of protecting wildlife and encouraging tourism, it would be a disaster for the Reserve. Similarly, if the Reserve were to disappear, we as conservancies would be in trouble from the wildlife perspective because neither of us is big enough to support a significant wildlife population. And that is why I like the Greater Mara Ecosystem Management Plan concept because it looks at the surrounding areas as a single ecosystem; you see the same in, say, the Greater Kruger Ecosystem, not just Kruger National Park.

If the Reserve was not surrounded by conservancies with the same goals of protecting wildlife and encouraging tourism, it would be a disaster for the Reserve.

The most transformative impact of MMWCA in the last decade

The building of an administrative base in base at Aitong’, Maasai Mara because, while the landowners have their deals within conservancies with the tourism partners, they need a voice and a representative who can carry out projects bigger than any conservancy and be able to negotiate and be held in high esteem by government authorities. I think MMWCA, both the executive, under Daniel Sopia and his team, and the successive boards have done an excellent job of projecting that united image at the county and national level. Again, seeing respect amongst our donors and partners grow makes me happy because it shows MMWCA is stable organisation. Not only has MMWCA established itself, but it is growing, changing and innovating.

Final Word

Conservation and living with wildlife are very dynamic, and we are adapting. I see our conservancies developing the most enduring model: human-wildlife and livestock coexistence

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