About 47 kilometres from Maralal town in Samburu County is Nkoteiya Ecolodge, a seclusion inside the wild giving a stunning view of Ewaso Nyiro River and undulating hills beyond.
The ecolodge tucked inside the Nkoteiya Community Conservancy was established in 2020 to tap into the tourism market while conserving wildlife and supporting livelihoods in Samburu community, whose mainstay activity is pastoralism.
“One unique thing about us is that we are a community-run lodge located along the Ewaso Nyiro landscape. We are on the Kirisia –Laikipia wildlife migratory corridor,” says Boniface Lodopapit, Nkoteiya Conservancy country manager.
“This is also the breeding home for wild dogs.”
At its founding, the Kirimon Group Ranch that owns the ranch and the conservancy that covers 500 acres banked on the deep scenic valleys, historic caves and rich culture of the community to attract a niche clientele market, the kind that pays a premium to immerse itself in nature without modern luxuries.
Like other conservancies in the region, it has a biodiversity that consists of wildlife animals such as elephants, giraffes, buffaloes, Grevy’s zebras, greater kudu, Nile crocodiles and vegetation.
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However, it is the caves, salt leaks and community activities including beads work, community shrine, and traditional herbal medicine that make for a unique compelling tourism package targeting the international market.
Mr Lodopapit says the business was expected to be self-sustaining with 60 of the revenue going to the community and the rest catering to the conservancy operations cost.
However, two years since the launch of Nkoteiya Ecolodge, the community is yet to get the tourism dollars. It has instead been forced to rely on county government for business and donor funding to stay open.
"The plan is to have all the registered members of Kirimon community own and benefit from the activity. However, funds from the lodge have not been enough due to insufficient revenues, low occupancy, and capacity,” points out Mr Lodopapit.
The ecolodge operates as self-catering service, providing a chef who cooks and a room steward, attracting visitors such as researchers and county governments to utilise its 200-capacity conferencing space.
“Our focus is closer to nature, wildlife, and cultural experience through activities such as guided bush walks, hiking, and nature trails,” he adds.
The ecolodge prides itself as a sustainable tourism attraction characterised by low-density ecotourism and away from mass market crowds and with a sharp focus on visitor experience.
Its tourism target is set as low impact high-value tourism product with a one bed: 350 acres policy to be maintained. The bandas range from Sh4,000 per night to Sh9,100. It plans to add four more by next year and increase the number of beds to 35 which is the set bed limit for the conservancy.
Despite the lower capacity of the lodge, it is still struggling to pull visitors due to a lack of intensive marketing as compared to its competitors in other conservancies in Maasai Mara.
With minimial revenue coming in, it has been difficult to construct viewing circuits and nature trials, access roads to and from the conservancy. Its plan for cable cars running to the hills also looks uncertain.
The operations of the conservancy are now supported by Kenya Wildlife Service, Kenya Forest Service ,County Government of Samburu, Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation .
A number of community members from Kirimon Group Ranch, which has a membership of 1,039, are employed at the conservancy.
Of the 27 staff of the conservancy, NRT meets the salary for 15 scouts, one manager, a warden, his deputy, a sergent and corporal. The county government pays salaries for seven scouts. On the other hand, Nkoteiya lodge has employed a chef and casual labourers.
There is an average of 200 manyattas within the conservancy and each has an average of 500 head of livestock.
The numbers are seen to be above the carrying capacity threatening the sustainability of the conservancy through overgrazing.
As a result, the community has divided the ranch including Nkoteiya Conservancy into wet-season areas located in upper flat areas close to human settlement and dry-season grazing areas located in gorges and valleys away from human settlement.
The community has also developed by-laws to regulate livestock grazing. This has seen the conservancy organise itself to have a finance committee, tourism committee, grazing and water committees to minimise conflict on land use that is posing as a threatening its sustainability.
The ongoing countrywide drought has resulted in human-wildlife conflict creating competition for water by livestock, people, and wild animals.
“Most of the water points which wildlife depends on have dried up. There is the scramble for water by the community, livestock, and wildlife in permanent catchment areas and boreholes which have become a meeting point for wildlife and residents,” NRT coordinator Samuel Lengala says.
The conservancy also faces threats including encroachment by human settlement, destruction of the wildlife corridors and critical wildlife dispersal areas and poaching as the management takes on also controlling invasive species, livestock influx and incursions.