Cottar’s 1920’s Safari Camp, a luxury safari camp in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve, celebrates 101 years this year. This family-owned safari company has been part of Kenya’s tourism industry since 1919. “It makes me feel proud to have this heritage,” says proprietor Calvin Cottar.
Over the years the camp has won international awards for its luxury service, safari guiding, walking safaris, ecological responsibility and community work. But in wake of the global coronavirus pandemic and the near collapse of tourism, it is facing its greatest challenge.
Cottar’s was set up by American-born Charles Cottar, Calvin’s great grandfather. Calvin’s grandfather and father continued the safaris while managing tourist camps in Maasai Mara and Tsavo National Park. In the mid-1990s, Calvin and his then wife Louise established Cottar’s Camp in a remote corner of the Mara near the Kenya-Tanzania border.
The Camp’s nine large, white canvas tents are spaced apart on a gently sloping stretch of open woodland. Antique décor, outdoor canvas bathtubs, morning wake-up calls with your choice of a hot beverage, and butler service recreate the vintage 1920s ambience. There is a touch of present-day in the double-story five-bedroom private Bush Villa with swimming pool and elevated views to the Serengeti, which is stylishly decorated in Afro-chic elegance.
But now the camp is shuttered and staff sent home. Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife, Najib Balala, in a television interview on May 11, 2020, said that “90 per cent of the (tourism) sector is shut.” Also under threat is Cottar’s wildlife conservancy created in partnership with the neighbouring Maasai communities.
Like many hard-hit tourism enterprises, Cottar’s Camp instituted measures to stay afloat including salary cuts, pared down budgets and only vital activities for wilderness management. But it may not be enough to survive the year.
Tourism in Kenya is mostly nature based and it is generally accepted that the well-being of wildlife and neighbouring communities is essential for the industry’s success. Yet Calvin acknowledges that the tourism industry’s contribution to biodiversity protection is not enough.
Calvin says that fellow tourism players are part of the quandary facing Kenya’s safari industry. “If tourism companies and lodges take money from clients and make profits yet don’t secure land for wildlife, it is bad for wildlife, rural people, the country and the company itself in the long run,” he says.
The Cottar’s biodiversity easement model to support wildlife and landowners is not unique. It is practiced by at least 15 private wildlife conservancies and 40 tourism camps in the greater Masai Mara ecosystem.
For now, Calvin is determined that Cottar’s conservation work and their neighbouring communities survive until normal travel can resume.