Zebras by river in Masai Mara, Kenya

Masai Mara National Reserve versus Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancies


Zebras by river in Masai Mara, Kenya

© AGMarks

Amanda Marks, Tribes Travel director, undertook a research trip to the Masai Mara and its adjacent private conservancies in the last two weeks of June. She explains the differences between the Reserve and the Conservancies.

Founded in 1961, the famous Masai Mara National Reserve covers 373,000 acres (1510 km2) of the southwest of Kenya. It is government land, effectively a national park, bounded by the Oloololo (or Siria) Escarpment on the west, and the Tanzanian border (and the Serengeti) to the south. To its north and east, however, the park continues in the form of private wildlife conservancies which add an additional 350,000 acres to the greater Mara area. This whole area is home to about 25% of Kenya’s wildlife (with about 95 mammal species and 550 bird species), but it is estimated that around 70% of the wildlife spends the most time outside of the reserve. There are no fences between the reserve and any of the conservancies, so as far as the wildlife is concerned, this is simply one large area of wilderness for them to roam in.

So what is the difference between going on safari in the Masai Mara National Reserve and one of the private Mara conservancies?

Photograph by Maggy Meyer.

There are currently 14 private conservancies, though not all have accommodation for visitors. The land is all owned Maasai, and was previously almost exclusively used for cattle grazing, so was in a generally bad condition. The first conservancy, Ol Kinyei, was set up in 2005 when Jake Grieves-Cook made an agreement with a group of Maasai landowners. This has since been replicated in the same or a similar way, in the other conservancies that now exist.

In essence, private safari companies lease land from groups of Maasai owners (an estimated 13,000 people) for an annual sum per hectare. The land is then used for wildlife protection and wildlife safaris, with limited cattle grazing allowed in certain areas at agreed times. The transformation of the environment after even a short period of time is quite dramatic, and with the improved habitat and grazing, the wildlife comes. The wildlife in many of the conservancies is now as good as it is in the reserve (sometimes better), so this is good for the environment, good for the wildlife, good for the Maasai communities involved, and also good for wildlife loving visitors.

Where to go on your Masai Mara safari

Mara Conservancies – pros & cons

  • There are fewer people in the conservancies (especially July to September), as no day-visitors are allowed in, and only people staying in each conservancy’s camps/lodges can enjoy wildlife viewing here. In many of the conservancies – Ol Kinyei, Naboisho, Olare Motorogi and Mara North – there is a limit of 1 tent per 700 acres, and the first three conservancies also limit the number of rooms per camp to 12 rooms/tents.
  • Anyone staying in a conservancy can still take trips into the National Reserve on payment of the park fee (currently $80 per day). Many camps include a day trip (free) if you stay at least 3 nights.
  • Off-road game driving is allowed. This means you can still get close to the wildlife if they are away from the main tracks.
  • There is a rule of only 5 vehicles per wildlife sighting (unless it is particularly special when there is some leway). In fact, this is also the rule in the reserve but no one ever sticks to this, apart from in the Mara Triangle. Guides are fined for flouting the rule. In high season (and sometimes in mid season months) it is not uncommon to find 15-20 vehicles at a good sighting in the national reserve.
  • Lion lovers should consider Olare Motorogi Conservancy, which was recently found to be the very best place in the whole of Africa to see lions. However, it should be said that the reserve and other conservancies also have a very high level of lion sightings. The Mara in general is definitely lion country par excellence.
  • Night drives are allowed up to 10pm, with a red-coloured spotlight. These are not permitted in the National Reserve, as the reserve is officially open from 6.30am to 6.30pm.
  • Walking safaris are offered in the conservancies but not in the National Reserve. These are a great way to enjoy the wilderness if done professionally and safely.

Masai Mara National Reserve – pros & cons

  • The famous migration river crossings only happen here (and in the Serengeti). July to September are the absolute best months for seeing river crossings, though depending on the weather, this can be stretched from late June to mid-October. Often guests from the conservancies do day trips into the reserve in these months so they can try to see the crossings.
  • The reserve tends to be busier than the conservancies all year, as it not only has guests staying overnight in the roughly 60 camps and lodges, but also day visitors. However, the reserve is roughly five times bigger than even the largest reserve (Mara North) so outside of peak season, you can often see few vehicles.
  • It is still a very good place to spot all the big cats. Some conservancies are also particularly good for this (Olare Motorogi, Naboisho and Mara North), but not all, so the reserve remains a lion, leopard and cheetah hot spot.
  • The Mara, Talek and Sand rivers run through the reserve and are key features of this incredible landscape. Mara North conservancy has a stretch of the Mara River (where a few smaller crossings occur occasionally), but otherwise these iconic rivers are distinctive attributes of the national reserve. Not only are they beautiful to see, but hippos love them too.
  • Rhinos can only be seen in the reserve, with the Mara Triangle being of particular note for this rare creature. So if you want to see the ‘big five’ in this region, you have to come to the reserve. (There is a rhino sanctuary in Ol Chorro Conservancy too).
  • The Mara Triangle strictly enforces the 5 vehicles per sighting and the no off-roading rules, and the main roads here are well-kept.


Amanda Marks went to check out camps and lodges in the Masai Mara in June 2017. See her articles about other camps, and about safaris in the Mara:

Amanda Marks - Author

Amanda Marks is a founder and director of Tribes Travel. She believes travel opens hearts and minds.

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