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‘Working in the wild during covid-19 times’

Brian Heath
Brian Heath, Mara Conservancy CEO during an interview at the Masai Mara National Reserve. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

Brian Heath has lived in Kenya’s wild longer than he has lived in its civilisation. The director of Seiya Limited and CEO of Mara Triangle says he likes to live in large open spaces and proximity to wildlife.

Even as the coronavirus pummels the world, Heath has stayed at his office tucked away at Mara Serena Safari Lodge, working nearly as normally as ever.

“Contact is minimal out here. It’s easier to observe social distancing in the wild,” he says.

Heath isn’t much of a conversationalist, which is sometimes mistaken for aloofness. Since he was 19, the Nakuru-born son of a farmer has worked with cattle and wildlife in ranches and conservancies across Laikipia, Tana River and Marsabit counties. And now Narok, where he has been since 2001.

At Mara Triangle, he oversees daily park patrols, track maintenance and coordination of tour activities for the more than ten lodges and tented camps within and around the 510 square-kilometre conservancy. His is a uniquely demanding but thrilling job, he says.

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A Master graduate of Animal Health and Reproduction from Edinburg University, Heath is a stickler for time. “I’m usually in the office at 6.45am. At 7.30, I meet my departmental heads for daily briefings and to plan for the day.”

By 4pm, he’s out to go for a three-hour lone game drive. If nothing else, this allows him “to reflect.” He returns to the office at 7pm to work until 8.30pm. Dinner and later a beer—his only indulgence —completes his day. Such has been routine for 50 years.

His outlook in life is couched in astonishing modesty. But what is it like to do the same thing for 50 years? Isn’t this mind-numbing, I wonder.

“The wild isn’t like an office where your job is clearly defined. Out here every day is different and exciting. I’ve been fortunate to do what I like all my life.”

Half a century later, his best asset is managing human resource. “I like to give people room to make their judgement. Micromanaging people limits their ability to think.” By developing his team’s skills, Heath says he has more time for himself.

The father of a son, 40, and daughter, 38, likes to fish for recreation. Every year, he and his friend travel to Kiwayu Island in Lamu for fishing expeditions.

From interactions with harmless animals to close shaves with dangerous ones, Heath has experienced the wild in all its shades.

“After living with wildlife for many years, you understand their behaviour under different circumstances. You know when to engage and when to back off,” he notes.

If he were a different animal species, Heath would be a predator. “I’d be a lion.’’ Why so? “Lions are socially-intriguing animals. They spend a big amount of their life sleeping. They live a happy, tough but short life.” At 70, he has had five lifespans of the average lion. But he wants more. “I’d like to work for ten more years. At this age, I don’t have much time left.”

Any major adjustments in life? Heath says navigating the demands of technology has often thrown him off-balance. If he had his wish, life would be much slower.

“Thirty years ago, communication was a process. You wrote a letter, for instance, and waited for several days for feedback,” he recalls. “Today, everything is instant. Someone sends you an e-mail and an hour later, they’re reminding you about it.”

This fast life has made people more irresponsible, he argues. “Before, you’d to handle your issues before turning to others for help.”

Propositions have been made to convert Maasai Mara into a premium tour destination with fewer players to boost conservation efforts. Such a move would effectively push smaller tour operators out of business. Heath is a proponent of this controversial idea.

Isn’t this unfair, I ask. “What do we want the Mara to be? A mass destination at the expense of the environment or a premium destination that’s conscious of conservation?’’ he poses.

Heath says most investors in tourism are in the business as a side gig and that “their hearts are elsewhere.” During the wildebeest migration between June and July, occupancy at the ecosystem surges to about 110 per cent, only to slump to between 20 and 30 per cent after the wonder. Heath likens this annual raid to a “feeding frenzy.”

“The short high season is completely overrun. It leaves the park destroyed because of the high traffic. We must protect the Mara for posterity at all costs.”

To do this, he suggests spreading out visitation to ease pressure on the reserve.

“The migration is over-marketed. For sustainability, we must promote culturally and ecologically-oriented attractions.”

I note that conservation in Kenya is hardly an entirely honest endeavour. Heath appears unfazed. For someone who’s been in the space for decades, he’d know where the plot is lost. There’s a long pause from him before finally saying:

“We don’t understand the importance of conservation to tourism. On the one hand, tourism is well-resourced with funding and personnel. Conservation, on the other hand, is regarded as a donor-driven endeavour.”

The man who sat in the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) board for three years from 2015 argues that there are no incentives to conserve in Kenya. He adds that tourism in the Mara rides on the back of landowners who “bear the unreasonable burden’’ of conserving wildlife while getting little in return.

“Until we’ve incentives for conservation, wildlife will continue to decline. Communities will convert their land into more profitable ventures such as farming,” he warns.

Heath emphasises that the government must recognise conservation as a valid and legitimate investment opportunity and make it simpler.

“To farm, you only need to have your machinery, till your land and introduce crops. To conserve, however, you’ve to obtain multiple licenses.”

On gains made, Heath acknowledges there are more wildlife protected areas in the country today than before. But even so, Kenya’s wildlife has declined by more than 80 per cent in the last three decades.

To him, privatisation of land is to blame. “There are no caveats as to how one uses their land. When land is fenced off, this limits the movement and breeding of animals. The area between Kitengela and Konza is an example of how human settlement has driven wildlife away.”

I’m interested to know how, if at all, Covid-19 has exposed his vulnerability. Heath grimaces.

“The disease raided from nowhere and disrupted life,’’ he remarks. “What’s shattering is how fast it’s overwhelmed the world and claimed livelihoods.” After this devastation, Heath projects that it will take one year for tourists to return to the Mara, and five years for the ecosystem’s fortunes to be restored.

What makes him feel small? The possibility of a dying legacy, he says crestfallen.

“You’ve no control over what people will do after you’re gone. It isn’t guaranteed that they’ll carry on with your work. You must do your best when you’re around.”

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