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Kenya’s Masai Mara vs Private Conservancies

May 19, 2023  By: Hilary

The Masai Mara is part of the greater Serengeti ecosystem and is one of the most famous and prolific wildlife regions in Africa. Located in southwestern Kenya bordering Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, it is comprised of the Masai Mara National Reserve and several private and community conservancies along its borders. Both the reserve and the private conservancies are popular destinations housing an impressive variety of wildlife, including the “Big Five” (lion, elephant, leopard, rhino and buffalo) as well abundant plains game along with other predators like cheetah and hyena.

leopard looking at hot air balloon

Many of our guests wonder which offers the best safari experience. While similar animals can be found in the reserve and the conservancies, private conservancies afford travelers much greater exclusivity as well as a wider range of activities. Africa Adventure Consultants Journey Specialist Hilary recently visited and joined us on the blog to outline notable differences between the two.

zebra up close

The Masai Mara Reserve is a public reserve, meaning that anyone can enter and tour the reserve, and there are many tour operators offering safari tours. The Reserve is administrated by the Kenyan government and is therefore subject to specific rules and regulations that are typical in National Park systems.

Maasai group

Private conservancies are privately owned areas of land that are set aside for wildlife conservation. Owned by the Maasai people, the development of these conservancies has helped to substantially increase protected land while providing a sustainable source of income for the locals. They are located adjacent to national reserves like the Masai Mara, and they are managed by local communities or private companies. While the conservancies are smaller than the Masai Mara Reserve, they offer a more exclusive and personalized safari experience.


Key differences between a safari in the Masai Mara Reserve and a private conservancy:


The reserve is open to the public, meaning there are dramatically more tourists. Arguably a positive of this is that the wildlife may be more accustomed to the presence of humans. Private conservancies have a set number of guests and do not allow day visitors, offering travelers an intimate and exclusive experience with wildlife. As an example, it is not uncommon to see 20-30 vehicles at a big cat sighting in the Masai Mara Reserve. In a private conservancy, you would not see more than 3 or 4 vehicles at the same sighting.

The Masai Mara allows both day and overnight visitors, guided and unguided. Guests staying in the private conservancies are able to take day trips into the Reserve as well should they wish. The reverse is not true, however. Only guests in the conservancies can enjoy safaris there.

migration herd with safari vehicle

Game Drives

The reserve has strict rules and regulations about where you can go and what you can do. Game drives are restricted to the main roads during daylight hours and your guide may not drive off-road to get closer to the animals. The reserve is the best place a guest can visit in Kenya for the chance to see one of the famous river crossings of the Great Migration. This is a seasonal happening – be sure to talk with your Journey Specialist about the best time to visit.

In private conservancies, guides can drive off-road, allowing for a more immersive and up-close experience with the wildlife. Additionally, there is a limit to the number of vehicles on a sighting, making for a better viewing experience and reducing stress on wildlife.

hyena on night game drive

Night Drives

Night drives are not allowed in the reserve, but they are permitted in some private conservancies. The opportunity to see nocturnal predators like leopards and hyenas prowling at night is an exciting highlight and one all safari-goers should experience at least once!

walking safari with elephant

Walking Safaris

Walking safaris are only allowed in private conservancies, not in the Masai Mara Reserve. Exploring the bush from a new perspective on foot allows you to learn about the smaller creatures and plants that are often overlooked on game drives.

suite overlooking Masai Mara


While the properties within the Masai Mara Reserve range from basic camps and larger lodges to some wonderful luxury properties, the wide array of properties in private conservancies tend to offer a more luxurious and personalized experience, with amenities like private plunge pools, spa treatments and gourmet meals. Additional activities such as fly camping and community visits may be available depending on the camp you choose. They are also generally smaller and more spread out with an average density of one tent for every 700 acres in the reserve.

hippo family

Overall, both the Masai Mara Reserve and private conservancies offer incredible opportunities to see African wildlife up close. However, private conservancies offer a far more exclusive and personalized experience with the wildlife and a wider range of activities while still having access to the reserve. They also help protect a greater part of the ecosystem and provide a sustainable source of income to the Maasai. A stay in one of the private conservancies is our expert pick for the best safari experience.

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Photos courtesy Craig Stevenson, Rohit Varma, AAC Livingstone Club members Erin S. and Matt L., Mara Plains, Naboisho, Saruni Mara, AAC Journey Specialist Sara Stark