Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust (MWCT) was established in 2000 by the Maasai of Kuku Group Ranch as a grassroots conservation trust. The trust focuses on the Maasai landscape and the communities of Kenya’s Chyulu Hills, which are set within the Amboseli-Tsavo region of southern Kenya. The trust operates as a non-profit entity and aims to conserve the wildlife and cultural heritage of the region by focusing on initiatives that create sustainable economic benefits for the Maasai community, providing them with an alternative income source to intensive agriculture.
The partnership between the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust and the Maasai of Kuku Group Ranch is based around an ecolodge on Kuku Group Ranch land. The intention of the ecolodge is to create a tourism revenue stream that benefits the local community. The ecolodge, Campi ya Kanzi, was completed in 1998 and opened for business the same year.
MWCT has developed a conservation programme the cornerstone of which is the trust's negotiation of lease payments for conservancy zones. To date, the group has negotiated and secured two such management deals to protect a grassland habitat reserve and a critical wetland, totalling 12,000 acres, both of which lie within the migration corridor between the two national parks (Amboseli and Tsavo West National Parks). These deals allow the community to be compensated for their stewardship of the local ecosystem, funding the creation of alternative livelihood options, which has been important in a cattle-dependent local economy that increasingly suffers from the impacts of prolonged droughts.
MCWT's conservation programme also supports predator monitoring and the use of community wildlife rangers. Over 100 Maasai community members are employed by the trust as game guards and predator monitors. The comprehensive program – carried out in partnership with KWS – aims to prevent illegal activities (in particular poaching), to minimize human-wildlife conflict, and to monitor biodiversity in the region.
Another important dimension of MCWT's efforts is the initiative, Wildlife Pays, which financially compensates herders who lose livestock to wildlife predation in exchange for their full participation in wildlife protection activities. The program was started as a way of reducing retribution killing of wildlife and of bringing herders more fully into the fold of conservation efforts. In addition to financing other actions that help to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts – such as the construction of lion-proof livestock enclosures – the Wildlife Pays program is working to generate a more positive attitude among the Maasai towards wildlife conservation. The program is self-sufficient and does not rely on philanthropic funding. Surcharges levied on tourists visiting the area to see wildlife more than cover the annual costs of compensation, establishing a pioneering and sustainable new payment for ecosystem services model around the protection of wildlife.