Calvin Cottar’s grandparents came to Kenya over 100 years ago in search of adventure from the US.
The founders of one of Kenya’s most luxurious lodge, Cottar’s 1920s Camp in Maasai Mara were chasing the wild untamed Africa well before other foreign investors flocked Africa to build tented camps.
When they arrived, they found a new home as their business of giving fellow adventurers the raw savannah of Kenya thrived.
Hunting was a key selling point of these safaris until the Kenyan government banned it in 1977. The ban did not deter them from offering adventure safaris in the vast, untouched savannah of East Africa. Over the years, Cottars had camps in the Kenyan wilderness, constantly moving when a location was crowded to maintain the authenticity of the experience.
They set up the first tented camp in the edge of Tsavo East in 1964. Calvin’s father was a visionary and had a Kenyan as the director for Cottar Safaris, even as competitors shied away from having locals at the helm.
Over the years, more camps would spring up across Kenya as tourism picked up. The family business continued to grow through the different generations of Cottars.
“Safari evolved from hunting to photographic tourism,” says Calvin, who is now the owner of Cottars Safari Service and Nineteen Twenties Safari Camps.
Young and adventurous like his grandparents and his parents, Calvin at 19 years old decided to explore the world outside the confines of the only home he had known, Kenya. He packed his bags and set off for a nine-month stay in the US. Two months into his stay in the US, he realised that it was not his home.
“That is when it kicked in that where he was is where he wanted to be. I wanted to come back and do the right thing. Tourism. It’s what I know,” he says.
Together with his father, they formulated a new way of doing tourism that would see them still offer the wilderness but also bring in the surrounding communities as part of the growth.
A conservancy was a natural fit for the Cottars, only they opted to lease the land and have the community involved rather than purchase the land and have a private conservancy.
In 1996, shortly after his father died, Calvin began the groundwork to give their dream a chance.
“We had agreed before he died we would do this camp. We would secure all the sites and the land around it so that we cannot lose the wilderness. The wilderness is what tourists want with wild animals in it. Not a zoo,” he says.
The 7,000 acre Olderkesi Conservancy, one of the 19 conservancies in the Mara, took nearly two decades to operationalise with constant back and forth meetings between Cottar’s team and the Maasai community from whom he leased the land.
“We leased seven sites,” he says. These sites were to remain undeveloped to hold the romantic notion of Africa as is in the film “Out of Africa”.
Part of the cost required over 30 surveyors on the ground and meetings.
These engagements was how Calvin met a young Timothy Mako, now a Member of County Assembly (MCA). By then, he was a college graduate and he had an agenda to prevent historical injustices that he thought would arise from the plan for a conservancy.
Mako threatened to raze down Cottar’s camp in the Mara, words not taken kindly by Calvin who in turn barred the young man from accessing his property.
The showdown between the two took an intervention by the community elders to smooth out.
Mako was forced to sit down with Cottar and read the proposals to have a school and grazing land.
“We got a lawyer, sat with him to go through all the fine print of the lease and the plans for the land,” says Mako.
These were some of the hurdles faced by Calvin as he worked towards achieving his dream of a community conservancy through the Cottar Wildlife Conservancy Trust.
Private and community conservancies have become an avenue for individuals, philanthropists and groups to conserve the environment.
According to the Knight Frank wealth report, when it comes to philanthropy, environmental causes are becoming increasingly popular. However, an exclusive community of high-net-worth individuals is adopting a hands-on approach that takes conservation to another level.
“Not content with preserving existing landscapes and wildlife, they are purchasing vast tracts of degraded land and recreating former habits and reintroducing long-disappeared species,” says the report.
Jochen Zeitz, CEO of Puma, has been “rehabilitating and rewilding Segera, a former cattle farm which at the time of his purchase was overgrazed, heavily poached and not working in harmony with the local community.
The process is simple enough when only one owner is involved, but with 6,000 community members, each bearing a stake in the process, it can be sticky
Calvin says that 25 percent of the earnings from running a safari “outfit” go to taxes, leaving 40 percent to be split between operating costs and the land owners.
This makes it less appealing when one has to split the surpluses with the community through easements or leases.
He states that conservancies are creating the bridge between wildlife and human existence. Wildlife has an abstract value which is difficult sometimes to get the layman to understand.
“We lease the land so that it is not converted into farmland. There has to be land for wildlife,” he says. According to him, the only way that the communities that live in the areas that are filled with wildlife can see value in keeping them safe and minimising interference with their natural habitat is through showing derived value.
Maasai Mara has 19 of the nearly 200 conservancies in Kenya. Most are community conservancies. In Laikipia, a large portion of the conservancies are private, set up on private land.