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A Visit To The Kenya Selenkay Porini Conservancy

Communities and tourism – the challenges and rewards

Wolfgang H. Thome, eTN  Feb 07, 2010

Many tourism destinations in Africa are portrayed in the western media as raking in the dollars and euros with little of that income reaching the communities near their beach resorts and wildlife parks.

While this may be true in many cases, where little benefits other than menial jobs percolate down to community levels – a situation which must rightly be criticized and ought to be improved if tourism is to be broadly embraced by communities’ neighboring tourism attractions - there are thankfully better examples available to show, that true commitment by investors to “look after their neighbors” does exist, has taken root, and is a major factor in the conservation of endangered species and a crucial component of tourism business successes.

Conservancies are still somewhat an emerging concept in Eastern Africa, although the erstwhile Kenyan pioneers, like Lewa Downs, started in the early 80s by the late David Craig (RIP) and his family, have now risen to global fame. Others like Ol Pejeta in Laikipia district and several others adjoining the Masai Mara game reserve and, of course, Selenkay just outside Amboseli, have since joined the ranks and grown in popularity for their excellent game viewing, their ability to conduct guided walks, do night game drives, and their community relations as this article explains further down the lines.

Already in 1997, being among the second wave pioneers at the time, Porini signed a ground-breaking agreement with a Masai group ranch to convert some 15,000 acres of grazing land adjoining the Amboseli National Park into what has since become the Selenkay Conservancy. Here, the long-necked gerenuk and the lesser kudu are found besides the numerous other game also seen inside the park. These two species are not found inside the park itself, a direct bonus for visitors to the conservancy, which incidentally only admits guests staying at the Selenkay Porini Camp, ensuring privacy in the camp and not meeting other vehicles, at times by the dozens, as seen inside the park.

On arrival, guests are offered menthol-scented cold towels to cool off from the mid-day heat. Most of the Masai staff, all dressed in their traditional wear – but without the ochre-colored long hair the warriors normally show off – lined up to greet us, before the camp manager then sat us down to give an overview of the camp and the dos and don’ts - an important part even for seasoned travelers to stay clear of potential danger. There is no fence nor a ditch keeping wild animals away. One evening, when returning from a night game drive, at least 20 impala were literally next to us as we embarked from the vehicles, and hyena footprints were seen around my tent in the morning, expertly explained by the steward who delivered my early morning tea, on the dot, of course.

At Amboseli Porini, “functioning simplicity” is what visitors get, giving them the chance to get closer to and hopefully become one with nature during their stay without the usual gadgets found elsewhere or the Victorian furniture imitations or the pools and without the resulting affects on one’s individual enjoyment when larger crowds are milling about and the constant excited shouts of “awesome” or “come look at this, bring the camera, quickly” overwhelm birdsong and drown out the many other noises nature produces. During my two-night stay, another five guests stayed at the camp making the communal dining table conversations generally animated and focused on the day’s sightings or pressing conservation issues. Otherwise, everyone could indulge in the splendid silent isolation from the rest of the world the camp setting deep in the wilderness made possible for us.

The very spacious and airy tents, mine featured a queen-sized bed and a single bed, have a simple but adequate wardrobe, a writing desk, a luggage rack, bedside tables with small energy--saving lamps, and most notably a large bathroom with all the necessary equipment, the best of it a wide shower cabin. Oversized “windows,” consisting of netting and roll down flaps, provide ventilation and keep the tent cool during the day, a shortcoming often detected elsewhere, especially in the afternoon when trying to take a nap and ending up coated in sweat – not at Porini Amboseli - where the flow of air almost made me reach for the blanket while the temperature outside had easily reached the mid 30 degrees (centigrade) range. Electricity is produced by solar panels and channeled through an inverter system, giving sufficient illumination in the bathrooms and the main tent section, and those lights last all day and importantly all night. Charging camera batteries can be done at the little tented office of the manager where sockets are available to plug in the chargers. Those coming from abroad should bring their multi sockets along with them to make sure there is a proper fit into the normal three pins we have here in Eastern Africa.

The soap in the bathroom is made of organic essential oils and calendula petals and flavored with geranium and chamomile, produced in Kenya by Cinnabar Green, though hard to find in the regular shops it seems as my attempt to buy some for myself when back in Nairobi failed miserably. The available shampoo and lotion, needless to say, come from the same organic manufacturer and are dispensed from stylish glazed earthenware containers, reducing the waste caused by the little plastic bottles found elsewhere on the safari circuit, a further bonus to Porini’s green credentials, which has been rated by the Eco Tourism Society of Kenya with silver credentials, though undergoing the step up to gold soon.

Healthy meals prepared from fresh ingredients are served without much fancy ado and yet the lack of fine china and the often seen ministrations of serving food elsewhere do not at all diminish the quality of each dish, thoughtfully prepared and served with genuine warmth towards the guests, with second helpings available if required. A typical lunch setting offered four salads (changing daily), cold cuts, and a quiche, but if a guest would want a cold soup, all it takes is asking the chef before setting out for the morning walk or game drive. The gas-operated fridge in the lounge cum dining tent is open to all residents, at the very most 18 when all nine tents are occupied by couples, and contain a variety of soft drinks, local beers, ingredients for the essential G&T at sundowner time, and some very drinkable Chilean red and white wine.

Ecofriendliness is the hallmark of Porini and instead of digging up the sides of the walkways to the tents and planting stones and painting them as so often seen elsewhere, fallen tree branches are showing the path alignments, well used by insects and easily replaced when they have been chewed up by a variety of insects borrowing into the soft wood to lay eggs or feed. No generator is used at the Selenkay camp, and only the motor-driven pump goes into operation once a day to replenish the water levels in the main water tank from where the precious liquid is then gravity fed to the tents, while the traditional “bucket type” shower is filled with hot water at the time guests request it. Here they use green charcoal, i.e. brickets made in Nairobi from sources other than turning precious trees into fuel, and all wastes, meticulously separated, are returned to the capital for proper disposal, while wet waste and vegetable cuttings are composted nearby to create added humus, which can then be spread where needed. There are no artificial flower beds around camps, which takes pride to only showcase the locally-found shrubs and trees, keeping the area as untouched as it was originally found.

Activities in Selenkay Porini feature guided walks, where the Masai staff accompanies guests and the head guide into the wilderness, constantly explaining about the flora, pointing out insects, interpreting game foot prints in the soil, and carefully bringing visitors close up to birds and the ever-present game, at a safe distance, of course. Wilson Kasaine excelled in his effort to show me some of the rarer resident and also migratory birds, but the entire team of spotters and driver guides deserved a pat on the back, like Jimmy Lemara and Karasinka Maai and the many others dedicated to turning a safari in to a memory of a lifetime. A nearby authentic Masai “manyatta” is open for visits, and unlike the staged theatre-like performances seen elsewhere, this is a real live-in village where relatives of the staff maintain their traditional lifestyle, tending to their cattle and goats, which coexist with the wildlife on the conservancy and normally use pasture in areas not frequented by walks or game drives – 15,000 acres is sort of a big place, of course.

Payments to the village are made directly by the camp, so the visit is free of any hassles and demands for money when taking pictures, a welcome departure from the otherwise often very commercial way such visits take place elsewhere on the tourism circuits. A visit to a school supported by the conservancy is also possible, as are night game drives to spot nocturnal animals like the spring hare or the aardvark. Special mention needs the courtesy of Harry Maina, the chief guide of Porini, who offered me a telescopic excursion into the night sky some time after supper, when the stars had studded the sky, with expert explanations about the constellations high above us and having the chance to see as many as 4 moons of Jupiter. He clearly took pride in this added knowledge and was keen to share his extensive experience.

Since walking in the national parks is not possible, I can only encourage visitors to take advantage of the opportunity to explore the wilderness on foot when staying at a conservancy-based camp. It not only gets one really close up to nature, it allows one to see the small details never captured from inside a safari vehicle, not even the open type landrovers Porini uses, and in the process helps to walk off the side effects of three regular meals a day.

One example would be to find a bird nest on the ground, where the sunshine helps to incubate the eggs while the parents only sit on them at night. Other examples are getting to see a range of insects in bushes and trees, which otherwise just race by the car, an altogether more educative and leisurely way to see nature. My four plus hour walk was only temporarily halted when we climbed a bird watching platform, from where we managed to observe both the Eurasian and African hoopoe, several Eurasian rollers, a couple of hornbills, the white headed buffalo weaver, and a range of other birds who, undisturbed by us, went after their own business. Kilimanjaro’s peak rose majestically beyond the clouds and availed us a clear view of the summit section, sadly with a lot of less snow and ice on it than I used to observe in the old days.

I focused in my discussion with the staff, guides, and guards on many aspects beyond the usual safari topics, and as all of them spoke excellent English, it was easy to communicate.

All staff at the camp, except for the manager, the chef and the head guide, are drawn from the three Masai family clans making up the so-called group ranch they communally own. This is the 15,000 acres of land Porini uses by contract for tourism activities while the Masai continue doing their own things side by side in an apparent happy coexistence. Vacancies for jobs are filled on a rotational basis, drawing in equal parts applicants from each clan, so that the chances to bring a salary home at the end of the month are equally shared amongst the community.

Porini pays an annual ground rent for having their camp on Selenkay and in addition pays a royalty to the management committee of the Masai, which is incidentally elected by all adult members to look after the affairs of the community and represent their interests in the business relationship with the camp. This royalty accrues from every overnight a guest spends at the camp, but as mentioned before, added payments are made for visits to the “manyatta.”

Relations between the group ranch committee and Porini appear friendly and cordial, according to the stories told by the staff, and the pre-Christmas delivery of 14 tons of food – in lieu of Gamewatchers and Porini Camps sending out cards and giving presents to clients and business associations, was in fact described as a lifesaver. Said one of the guides: “Our people suffered from many years of drought. Our herds had started to die, the goats and cattle were just wasting away. Without our salaries from camp and the money we got from the contract, it would have been very bad. The food they gave us came when some of our clan members were about to starve. They [Porini] dug boreholes for our people so we never lacked water, but it was not enough for all the livestock to survive. Now after the rains, everything is green, but until December, a lot of vegetation had just dried up.”

About 30 staff are employed in the camp at various levels of responsibility, and all were trained on site from scratch and deployed when they had acquired the necessary skills to be let loose on the clients, yet not one of them I came in touch with delivered in any way less than a graduate of a hospitality course at Utalii College. In addition, 22 Masai rangers are also working on the conservancy, looking after wildlife and patrolling the area to avoid intrusions or vehicles from the national park proper straying into the area.

It was also learned that Selenkay supports the nearby Iloirero primary school, just outside of the conservancy but on the group ranch land, where they are paying three primary school teachers’ salaries and where they generate through their satisfied clientele – who have a chance to visit the school as part of the activity program while staying at the camp – books and teaching material donations. In fact, one block of classrooms was built by Porini with the assistance of such added donations. No wonder the local Masai people cannot speak highly enough of this initiative and are full of praise for their relationship with the owners. This, however, is a unique situation as other reports from other conservancies are also talking of exploitation, friction, and even alleged cheating on matters of accounts, while at other similar developments, the leaders representing the local Masai are alleged to have eaten the income, i.e. not distributed a fair share to each and every family. This at least partly explains why Porini is bagging award after award during their now 13-year tenure on the land and keeps going from strength to strength.

A lion project is operating on the land of the conservancy, managed by two American researchers and supported by 10 Masai drawn from the local community. This project monitors the lions on the conservancy on a daily basis – two are collared for GPS tracking – giving the local herders updated information to avoid conflict, i.e., cattle or goats being attacked by the lions for food. The project has also supported the erection of better fences around the “manyattas,” made from locally-sourced thorn bushes, to prevent predators entering the “boma” overnight. Breeding is a major objective for the project, trying to provide an enabling environment for the lion population to grow, as in past years their numbers have shrunk due to poisoning and spearing by wandering herders, OUTSIDE the conservancy, while inside Selenkay the Masai now protect their livestock’s archenemy. It was also discovered, through interaction with the staff, namely Eric Kesoi, the Lion Project coordinator, that cases of poaching for lions or attempts to attract or drive them across a nearby border are on the increase, as in the first case the growing demand for animal products in the Far East, allegedly once again – as in the case of the blood ivory – by China and in the second case for reasons of restocking the dwindling lion population for hunting across the border, contribute to that trend. These have been troubling allegations, often heard in fact in the past, too, and this may well be fodder for future articles specifically looking into those circumstances.

Wild dogs, also called hunting dogs or painted dogs, are also periodically found on the conservancy land, and while becoming rather rare, they are equally protected and a new research and conservation project is in the making, again solicited by Porini, to give them as much attention as the lions presently enjoy.

Finally, although the list could go on and on, a nearby Catholic hospital, just outside the conservancy borders about 12 kilometers from the main “manyattas,” is receiving a regular donation towards anti-snake-bite serum, which is available to anyone from the community affected by a snake bit free of charge, as the cost for them would otherwise be prohibitive. Serum rarely lasts more than a couple of months, even in a refrigerated environment, and this truly is a life-saving initiative once again by Porini. All staff of the camp, including the rangers, receive medical treatment there, as and when needed, paid for by the camp.

These findings indicate strong ties with the community and a very high level of corporate responsibility, while the tourism part of it, which finances it all, is thankfully on the upswing again after a year and a half in the cold as a result of the political situation in early 2008 and the subsequent impact of the global economic and financial crisis.

The best indicators on client satisfaction are the guest comment books and the number of those returning time and again to this tranquil oasis in the wilderness speaks for itself. In spite of trying, I could not find even one negative impression while leafing through the older books still available in camp. A visit here truly returns visitors to the magic of the old days when private tented safari camps were put up at scenic spots and no one had heard of mass tourism yet. I cannot commend a stay highly enough as it literally transports guests back in time into that long bygone era, when only the very rich and famous could enjoy a big game safari in Kenya.

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Communities and tourism – the challenges and rewards
Photo by Wolfgang H. Thome

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