Fancy an adventure? For over 25 years, Gamewatchers Safaris have been arranging ‘authentic’ safari experiences in Kenya and beyond with a focus on responsible tourism. This award-winning tour operator isn’t just working to reduce their impact on the land – their business model is actively engineering and funding its protection. We spoke with Dr Mohanjeet Brar, the company’s Managing Director, to learn more about their mission.
Over a million tourists visit Kenya every year. Of this number, the vast majority have travelled to the East African country for the same reason: safari. Kenya’s vast unspoiled spaces and huge diversity of wildlife are renowned, and as the ever-profitable tourism industry continues to conquer the globe, demand to experience the country’s beauty rises. However, this rise brings with it increasing concerns over the impact that the industry has on local communities and environments.
Kenya’s National Parks and Game Reserves only cover about 8% of the country’s landmass – a low percentage by global standards. This low percentage carries two risks: firstly, the more choked with tour-groups these parks become, the worse the experience becomes for both the wildlife and the visitors themselves. Secondly, as the human population grows, expanding amounts of unprotected land may fall to the demand for housing developments, shopping facilities and roads. Approximately 70% of Kenyan wildlife lives outside of these national parks and reserves - land that has no legal protection against potentially environmentally devastating developments.
Gamewatchers Safaris are working to change all this. Rather than enjoying the country’s views and wildlife at the expense of its ecosystem, Gamewatchers found an ingenious way for their tours to directly support it. Dr Brar explains; “A long time ago, when the population was smaller, it was less crucial to protect the land through conservancies because there were very few people living in those open spaces, but all that has changed very fast. So, over twenty years ago, our Chairman and Founder, Jake Grieves-Cook, realised that we needed to come up with a solution before it was too late – before the land was all fenced homesteads, towns and golf courses. The way we wanted to do that was through tourism.”
Rather than working to reduce tourism, Gamewatchers wanted to utilise and reform it. The company was passionate about the experiences they had been offering to visitors, and also knew the importance of the money and jobs these tours brought into the country. They wanted to protect the land, and the tours it supported, for the long-term, not only for the good of Kenya’s wildlife but for its communities as well.
Their plan was simple: to lease land and protect it as a conservation area, thus keeping developers at bay and providing real benefits to the communities that own the land. The creation of these unofficial national parks would increase the percentage of protected land for wildlife in Kenya, and carried the bonus of providing an authentic “away-from-the-crowds” tourism experience for their tours. The company wanted to provide their visitors with something authentic, closer to nature, and in partnership with the local communities, which enriches the guests’ experience.
By signing long-term leases with the communities for this protected land, Gamewatchers are fully committed to their mission. They financially support their conservation efforts with the same amount month by month, regardless of how well their business fares, meaning the support doesn’t drop in the slow seasons. The first conservancy area was leased in 1997, twenty years ago; 13,000 acres of land in the Amboseli eco-system. Following its success, a new site of 8,000 acres was established – the Ol Kinyei Conservancy in the Mara eco-system. Today, this conservancy is now 18,700 acres. The number and size of Gamewatchers’ conservancies – and the Porini camps found within – have grown many times since then, and with it, their levels of business. The company puts the land and low-impact tourism before maximising their profit – they limit tour group sizes using the model of one guest tent per 700 acres in the conservancy, with a maximum of 12 tents to any one camp. Even so, with their growing land and popularity, their annual funds have raised enough to pay over US$ 1 million a year back into the land, three years in a row. On top of caring for the land, this money also goes towards supporting local communities, such as the company’s recent push to replace potentially deadly kerosene lamps with solar-powered alternatives or paying bursaries to cover the school fees for children of the local community at Ol Kinyei.
This level of long-term financial commitment goes beyond good business sense – it shows a passion for the world that they are sharing with guests, and an honest desire to protect it. We asked Brar where he got this passion; “I’m 4th generation Kenyan. My great grandfather came over in the 1890s when Kenya was a British colony. I grew up in nature. We used to go walking and see elephants near our backyard. We were surrounded by forests, so I grew up appreciating nature and loving it, and I wanted to do something that helped preserve it.” Brar’s childhood gave him a love affair with Kenya’s natural beauty, and the now father of two wants to ensure a future where his children can share his experiences.
However, for Gamewatchers, preservation isn’t just about the land – it is also about preserving the local culture and working respectfully with the local Maasai people. Every conservancy area that the company has taken on was chosen by the Maasai landowners; the locals elected to move from these areas voluntarily, in order for the land to be protected and, in turn, for them to profit from the jobs this created.
“Our whole concept is very much a partnership with them. It’s not us coming in and say, ‘Hey, this is the way it’s going to happen.’ Rather, it is us coming as investors, sitting around under the tree and sharing the proposal and its benefits with them.” Gamewatchers currently employ about 280 staff. 95% of those employed in the conservancy and camps are hired from the local communities, with community staff having the opportunity and training to rise to camp managers and beyond within the company. ”As a company with a strong focus on bringing benefits to local communities, we believe that one of the best ways to do this is through employment, which gives a cash income directly to the individual families. So, we employ community landowners and many that have not even completed high school, and train them on how to be waiters, store keepers, room stewards, safari guides, rangers etc. We’re very proud that we now have many community members who are at the management level as head guides, managers and senior wardens.
“The community are very much on board. They’ve seen the benefits. At first, they were sceptical, but we’ve been building that relationship, and I think like any relationship, as it builds, it builds that trust, and it is much easier moving forwards.”
The company may be a key asset to the Maasai people it employs, but this relationship is far from one sided: guests of Gamewatchers staying at their Porini Camps receive the double benefit of a crowd-free safari experience, and also the chance to immerse themselves in Maasai culture. The company’s friendly staff pass on Maasai stories, teach their names for constellations, give lessons in archery and are genuinely passionate that guests leave having a great time and making new friends. When people leave, they rave about their guides as much as the nature itself:
“If you go on Trip Advisor, a lot of the comments we get are actually about the staff in the camps. A lot of them have more Facebook friends than I do –they’ve made friends from all over the world and keep in touch.
“The difficult thing with development is its negative impact on a culture’s way of life. However, in ecotourism, unlike other kinds of development, culture is actually a benefit. If you work in a factory, your culture has no value, whereas with ecotourism, culture has a huge value. Our guides are able to share that culture with guests and are able to be proud of it.”
Tours vary to meet the needs of different holidaymakers, from gentle-paced drives for photographers and bird-watchers to more adventurous expeditions for eager travellers. Gamewatchers also cater to a range of ages, though they do not allow children under eight due to the unfenced nature of their campsites, where wildlife is likely to wander through at any time. Their biggest markets are the US and UK, with India quickly rising to third place; to cater to their global audience, the company has guides and sales team members who can speak Spanish and French, as well as sales offices around the globe to provide local contact and support.
Political turmoil has at times been a deterrent to travellers considering whether or not to visit Kenya in past years. However, as terrorism becomes a tragically common worldwide phenomenon, Brar feels that people’s perception of his country is changing; “Terrorism is no longer a Kenyan problem – it is happening to everyone in their own backyard.” As well as this perception shift, Brar has noticed a rise in traveller conscientiousness, especially in the millennial market, which now accounts for a large portion of his customers. Holiday-makers are growing more concerned about the effect they have on the countries they visit, and are no longer content to turn a blind eye to awkward truths – Brar hopes this trend bodes well for the growth of his company. Currently, around 30-40% of travellers chose Gamewatchers because of their ethical approach. From the way trends are changing, this statistic should only rise. “Authenticity is extremely important for them, and giving back is just as important. So, I think this is something we’re going to be able to continue growing.”
Challenges for the company continue – in particular, land prices are going up as land use options for landowners increase. However, since Gamewatchers began investing in conservancy, the idea has caught on, with multiple companies and even celebrity figures such as Richard Branson eagerly getting involved. It seems that their passion over the last twenty years has created something self-sustaining, and in turn, given the gift of safety and sustainability to the lives and land it protects.