Masai Mara Reserve vs Masai Mara Conservancies; Which one to go?
For a more intimate and less crowded experience in nature, along with a wider range of enjoyable activities, I highly recommend considering a longer visit to Mara. Opting for game drives in various conservancies and staying inside or just outside these areas can provide a unique and unforgettable encounter with wildlife. Although conservancy entry fees may be lower, accommodations within these conservancies tend to be more expensive. Alternatively, if you don’t mind a more crowded setting, you can choose to stay within the significantly larger Maasai Mara National Reserve itself. This reserve is renowned for its expansive grasslands and diverse wildlife.
How’s Masai Mara Reserve Game Drive?
A game drive in Masai Mara Reserves typically lasts for 2 to 3 hours per drive during the morning and afternoon. Morning drives are usually scheduled from 6.30am to 9 am, while afternoon drives are from 3 or 3.30 pm to 6.30 pm. However, some travelers may choose a full-day game drive from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. During a full-day excursion, a packed picnic lunch is provided and enjoyed inside the Masai Mara reserve at a designated picnic spot. Lunch hours for the picnic are anytime from 12.30 pm to 2.30pm.
If you are staying outside the Reserve, you will enter the Reserve through any of the 6 gates. Our favorite and most accessible with a tarmacked road is Sekenani Gate which is just 4 hours from Nairobi.
A drive through the reserve is a fun experience. On my most recent visit, I really enjoyed the early short rains that made the rolling hills of the savanna green and lush. Not to mention the herds of zebras, wildebeest, and giraffes that were spread out everywhere. We even spotted a group of elephants bathing in one of the rivers! A true highlight was seeing a pride of lions lounging under a tree with their cubs playing nearby. It’s truly amazing how close you can get to these incredible animals while still feeling safe in your vehicle.
In the next section, I have listed the key advantages and disadvantages of going on a game drive on the Reserve over the Conservancies;
Pros and Cons of Game Drive on Mara Reserve over Conservancies:
- Larger Area: As mentioned earlier, the Masai Mara National Reserve covers a significantly larger area compared to the adjacent conservancies. This means that visitors have a larger area to explore and potentially spot wildlife.
- Chance to see the Tanzanian border with Kenya and landmarks such as Mara River: The reserve is also known for its stunning landscapes and landmarks such as the Mara River and the border with Tanzania. A game drive through the reserve gives visitors a chance to see these iconic sights.
- More budget-friendly: Game drives on the Masai Mara Reserve tend to be more affordable compared to those in the conservancies, making it a great option for budget travelers as you can arrange group travels and stay at affordable accommodations outside the Reserve.
- More Tourist Infrastructure: Being one of Kenya’s top tourist destinations, the reserve has more developed infrastructure such as lodges, campsites, restaurants, and shops.
- Higher Chances of Spotting Wildlife: Due to its larger size, the reserve is home to a higher concentration of wildlife compared to the conservancies. This means that visitors have a higher chance of seeing the iconic Big Five (lions, leopards, elephants, buffaloes, and rhinoceros) during their game drives.
- Relatively cheaper campsites: Campsites, mostly in the Mara Triangle cost as low as $30 per person which is considerably cheaper than private campsites inside conservancies that require an upfront deposit of up to $1000.
- Crowded: Unfortunately, due to its popularity, the Masai Mara National Reserve can get quite crowded with safari vehicles during peak seasons. This can take away from the feeling of being in a wild and remote environment.
- Limited Off-Roading: In order to preserve the delicate ecosystem, off-roading is limited in the reserve. This means that visitors may not always be able to get up close and personal with wildlife as they would in conservancies.
- Higher Fees: Due to its popularity and larger tourist infrastructure, the Masai Mara National Reserve also tends to have higher park fees compared to conservancies. This can be a deterrent for budget travelers.
- Limited activities: Apart from game drives, there are limited activities available in the reserve. This may not be ideal for travelers looking for a variety of experiences. You are not allowed to go on bush/nature walks, have bush meals, or even alight from the vehicle.
How are game drives in Masai Mara Conservancies?
The game drives in Masai Mara conservancies offer a more exclusive and intimate experience compared to the national reserve. Here are some of the advantages of game drives in conservancies:
- Fewer crowds: Due to limited vehicle numbers allowed in conservancies, there is less competition for wildlife sightings. This means that visitors can have a more peaceful and private game drive experience.
- Off-roading: Unlike the national reserve, off-roading is allowed in conservancies. This means that visitors can get up close and personal with wildlife and have a more adventurous game drive experience.
- Night drives: Night drives are only allowed in conservancies, making it a unique opportunity to see nocturnal animals such as leopards and hyenas in their natural habitat.
- Walking safaris: Some conservancies also offer guided walking safaris, giving visitors a chance to explore the bush on foot and learn about the smaller details of the ecosystem.
- Cultural interactions: Many conservancies are owned and run by local Maasai communities, giving visitors a chance to interact with them and learn more about their culture and way of life. This adds an extra dimension to the safari experience.
- Learn about conservation: Some conservancies have conservation programs in place, allowing visitors to learn about the importance of wildlife conservation and how they can contribute to it.
- More secluded accommodations: Since conservancies are usually located in remote areas with limited access, the accommodations tend to be more secluded and offer a more authentic bush experience.
- Walking Safari: Walking or getting out of the vehicle in the Mara Reserve is not allowed but you can go on walking safaris at some of the Mara Conservancies. Experience the thrill of a walking safari at the nearby Isaaten Conservancy, just a short 10-minute drive from Kambu Camp. Choose from a selection of 6 walks, all included in your stay with us. Rest easy knowing that your safety is our top priority with an armed ranger, naturalist guide, and Masai warrior by your side. Plus, a dedicated following vehicle provides additional reassurance and security throughout your adventure. Check out walking safari offered by Bushtop, a camp within Isaaten Conservancy.
- Bush meals: Indulge in the enchanting experience of bush meals offered by many conservancies. Delight in a scrumptious breakfast or dinner amidst breathtaking views of the savannah and the wildlife that surrounds you. While dining in the reserve, it is prohibited to step out of your vehicle. However, occasionally, some drivers arrange impromptu picnics for their guests.
- Horseback Safaris: For a more adventurous safari experience, some conservancies such as Olare Orok offer horseback safaris where visitors can ride through the plains and get closer to wildlife in their natural habitat. There are no horseback safaris in the National Reserve. This package here offers horseback ride safaris.
- Limited wildlife: As conservancies are usually smaller in size compared to the reserve, there may be a limited variety of wildlife present.
- No guarantee of the Big Five sightings: While the Masai Mara National Reserve is known for its abundant population of the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhino), this cannot be guaranteed in conservancies.
- Higher costs: While conservancies offer a more exclusive experience, it also comes with a higher cost. Accommodations and activities in conservancies tend to be more expensive compared to those in the reserve.
- Extra activities come at a stiff cost: Activities such as walking safaris, night drives, and bush meals often come at an additional cost in conservancies, adding to the overall expense of the safari.
- Restricted access: Unlike the Masai Mara National Reserve which is open to all visitors, some conservancies have strict regulations on the number of vehicles allowed at a time. This can limit your chances of seeing certain wildlife or witnessing a particular event.
- Time constraints: As conservancies usually have a limited number of vehicles allowed at a time, visitors may have to adhere to strict time schedules and cannot stay in one spot for too long if there are other guests waiting for their turn. This can be restricting for photographers and wildlife enthusiasts who prefer to spend more time observing a particular animal or behavior.
My Review of Game Drive in a Mara Conservancy vs in Mara National Reserve;
In May, I had the wonderful opportunity to embark on long game drives within both the Mara Reserve and two neighboring conservancies, namely Naboisho and Nashulai. What truly caught my attention during these drives was the presence of grazing domestic animals, predominantly cows, goats, and sheep, within the conservancies. While I had anticipated a more serene and intimate encounter with wildlife as part of the “less crowded” experience, the sight of numerous Masai herds disrupted the very essence of intimacy that I had hoped for.
Not only are motorbikes, and random private vehicles allowed into conservancies, but livestock is also permitted to freely graze there. Although several camps provide natural barriers between wildlife and domestic animals, these do not cover every square mile of the expanse.
I think the key advantage I found was not being amongst several other vehicles trying to get a glimpse of the same animal. On the flip side, however, I found myself jostling for position with motorbikes and herdsmen in trucks, which was not what I had expected when opting for a conservancy experience over the reserve. This begs the question – are these practices truly promoting conservation or are they exploiting it for commercial gain?
However, I must confess that I had the pleasure of encountering a remarkable array of wildlife in the Conservancies – far exceeding my expectations. I was fortunate enough to witness a magnificent pride of 16 lions in Nashulai, as well as a captivating pack of cheetahs in Naboisho. Of course, I also observed a multitude of herbivores, including zebras and wildebeest, among others.
I found the game drives in the Mara Reserve to be long with low density of animals which apparently changes due to weather patterns. I was very excited to watch thousands of herds of herbivores such as buffalos, wildebeest, zebras, and antelopes migrate into the area. This phenomenon of the Great Migration is truly one of nature’s greatest shows and a must-see for any wildlife enthusiast.
During my time in the reserve, I had the incredible opportunity to witness firsthand the harmonious coexistence of different species within their ecosystems. I was captivated by the symbiotic relationships between animals, such as the wildebeest and zebras. With their complementary attributes, zebras possess exceptional eyesight to spot predators from a distance, while wildebeests rely on their keen sense of hearing to detect danger. This alliance ensures that both species have a vigilant ally to warn them of potential threats.
Masai Mara Reserve vs Conservancy Cost/Entry fees:
Effective January 1st, 2024, the Narok County Council has updated the entrance fees for the Masai Mara National Reserve. Starting from January 1st, 2024 until June 30th, 2024, the fee for adults will be US$100 per day, while children aged 9 to 17 will be charged US$50 per day. From July 1st, 2024 to December 31st, 2024, the adult fee will increase to US$200 per day, while the child rate will remain at US$50 per day. Furthermore, please note that guests departing the reserve after 10:00 am or participating in a morning activity on their departure day will be subject to an additional day’s entry fee, as per the 12-hour rule.
Starting next year, the revised entry fees for Mara Reserve will make the Conservancies more affordable, with rates ranging from US$80 to US$120 per person per day. Previously, the fee for a 12-hour period in Mara Reserve was $80 for non-residents, which was almost equal to the $80 to $120 daily rate charged by the Conservancies for a day pass. This adjustment ensures that visitors have more options while enjoying their wildlife experience.
Key Reason for Formation of Conservancies:
Before conservancies, areas bordering the National Reserve faced animal-wildlife conflicts, especially in the dry season when finding water or lush greenery was a struggle for all animals. Suggestions for creating ‘buffer-zone’ areas began in the 90s. A conservation model was designed, allowing Masai landowners to lease their land to conservancies while retaining grazing rights. This provided new revenue and incentivized the conservation of wild animals on their lands. During the tourist peak season from July to October, conservancies serve as natural “dispersal areas” for wildlife in search of water, benefiting the entire ecosystem.
Mara Conservancies vs Mara Reserve Vehicle Restrictions:
In Mara Conservancies, a maximum of 5 vehicles are allowed per sighting to avoid overcrowding. In Mara Reserve, there are no restrictions on the number of vehicles. Upwards of 25 vehicles can surround a single lion! This creates high-stress levels for the animals and disrupts their natural behavior. In contrast, conservancies offer a more intimate and peaceful wildlife viewing experience.
Size of Mara Reserve vs Mara Conservancies:
Masai Mara National Reserve covers 1510 sq km(583 sq miles or 373,129 acres) while all the Mara Conservancies cover an area spanning 1450 sq km (560 sq miles or 358,303 acres). The Reserve is bigger than the conservancies by a small margin of just 60 sq km. However, the conservancies are still significant in their size and play a crucial role in wildlife conservation.
It is important to note that while the combined size of the conservancies is almost close to that of the main Reserve, it may be difficult to cover all the conservancies as they are spread out and each charges its own fees.
Guest Restrictions: Reserve vs Conservancies in Mara;
To maintain low density, the Mara Conservancies aim for one tent per 700 acres. However, the Reserve does not adhere to these restrictions and often experiences a high influx of visitors, particularly during peak season. In fact, it is estimated that the number of beds can reach up to 5,000 during this time.
Activities in Mara Reserve vs Mara Conservancies;
In Masai Mara National Reserve, game drives are limited to designated roads and off-road driving is not allowed except in certain circumstances. In the conservancies, however, off-road driving is permitted as long as it is done responsibly and with respect for the environment. This allows for a more immersive and flexible safari experience.
Walking safaris and night game drives are also allowed in the conservancies, providing a closer and more unique encounter with the wildlife. These activities are not permitted within the main Reserve.
Accommodation options in Reserve vs Conservancies;
The Masai Mara National Reserve offers various accommodation options ranging from budget-friendly campsites to luxury lodges. However, due to the restrictions on guest numbers in the conservancies, accommodation options may be limited but still offer high-quality and exclusive experiences.
Some conservancies also offer unique accommodation options such as mobile camps and fly-camping, providing a more adventurous and authentic safari experience.
Accommodation rates in some of the camps within private conservancies charge upwards of $2,000 per head during peak season.
While the Masai Mara National Reserve is managed by the Narok County Government, the conservancies are community-owned and managed in partnership with private investors. This model allows for sustainable conservation efforts while also providing economic benefits to the local communities.
The conservancies also work closely with the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association to implement effective conservation strategies such as anti-poaching measures and sustainable land use practices.
In addition, some of the conservancies also collaborate with local schools and provide educational opportunities for children living in the surrounding communities, promoting conservation awareness and creating a sense of ownership and responsibility towards wildlife.
Overall, the conservancy model has proven to be successful in protecting wildlife and their habitats while also providing economic benefits for local communities.
In conclusion, both the Masai Mara National Reserve and the private conservancies offer incredible safari experiences with unique opportunities for wildlife viewing and conservation efforts. While the reserve provides a larger area for game drives and a higher concentration of animals, the conservancies offer exclusive experiences with fewer crowds and a deeper connection to nature. Ultimately, both options contribute towards preserving one of Africa’s most iconic landscapes and its diverse wildlife population. Whether you choose to stay in the reserve or one of the conservancies, you can be sure that your visit will support conservation efforts and benefit local communities. So pack your bags, and get ready for an unforgettable African safari experience! So pack your bags, and get ready for an unforgettable African safari experience! Happy travels!