Wildlife Conservation Suffers as Covid-19 Cuts Ecotourism Revenue in Kenya

With visitor numbers down, Kenyan wildlife advocates need to consider alternative conservation funding streams.

Find more of our Covid-19 coverage.

The Great Migration to Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve is one of the most awe-inspiring wildlife spectacles in the world. Starting in July each year, millions of wildebeest, zebras, and gazelles migrate from the Serengeti in Tanzania in search of fresh grasslands. On their journey, they plunge into the Mara River teeming with crocodiles and bypass the occasional lion laying an ambush in the riverbank thickets.

photo of Kenya wildlife tourism
Kenya’s tourism industry, which is heavily dependent on international visitors, has virtually shutdown since the pandemic began. Photo courtesy of Cottar’s Safaris.

A marvelous sight, the migration attracts thousands of tourists from around the world. But this year, the spectacle is missing one thing: an audience. Kenya reported it’s first case of Covid-19 on March 13. Travel restrictions and border closures soon followed, precipitating a near collapse of the wildlife tourism industry, since up to 70 percent of these tourists are international visitors. By May, 90 percent of the tourism sector had shut down, according to the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife.

Tourism is heavily dependent on Kenya’s nature and wildlife, and vice versa. Park fees and bed-night levies represent a major source of revenue for wildlife management. Consequently, the secondary victim of Covid-19 has been biodiversity conservation.

“The situation is quite severe because the government has not made it its responsibility to protect these places regardless of external income,” says Paula Kahumbu, a wildlife conservationist and CEO of the organization WildlifeDirect. Kahumbu explains that wild areas benefit the economy through ecosystems services like clean air, water for domestic and commercial use, energy generation, and more. “Treating tourism as the only source of income from protected areas is our biggest mistake,” she says.

With a growing population, development needs, and significant levels of rural poverty, the demand for land and natural resources in Kenya is tremendous. Kenya Wildlife Service, the state body mandated to manage wildlife and national parks, is often underfunded “especially by the government,” as noted in their 2017 Annual Report.

Park entry fees mainly go toward operational expenses, while taxes paid by lodges and restaurants fund training and capacity development. Gaps still remain in the protection and management of biodiversity. Now, the Covid-19 crisis is stimulating a rethink by conservation partners on how to develop sustainable financing for the long-term protection of natural resources.

National parks, reserves, state forests, and private conservancies constitute 18 percent of Kenya’s total land area. Yet most of Kenya’s wildlife venture outside of protected areas in search of pasture, water, and breeding habitats. Human and wildlife competition for resources often results in dangerous encounters, which further heighten the need for secure wild areas. “We should be aspiring to protect 30 percent of our land and sea areas,” says Kahumbu.

Creating new parks is highly unlikely given that the Kenya Wildlife Service struggles to manage the current portfolio of parks and reserves. That means that wildlife protection must be secured by other means, in spaces occupied by communities. Wildlife conservationists are forming initiatives with private stakeholders, and, unlike in the national parks system, they know that new wildlife zones will need to respect the rights of landowners.

Calvin Cottar is the propriety of Cottar’s Safaris, which operates a luxury safari camp in the Maasai Mara. “There needs to be a new value for natural biodiversity that is based on its ‘existence’ value, benchmarked and valued against the competing land use,” says Cottar, a fourth-generation Kenyan American who is passionate about the sustainable use of nature.

Cottar’s Camp is located on the 7,600-acre Olderikesi Conservancy, land leased from the Maasai people since 2013 through the Cottar’s Wildlife Conservation Trust (CWCT). Through conservation easements, Maasai landowners have agreed to limit livestock grazing and abstain from fencing and farming the land.

Nevertheless, the landowners remain fully involved. “They make the final decisions on where to lease, and how much to lease,” explains Cottar. Community members also benefit from the CWCT, through educational assistance, medical clinics, infrastructure improvements, and potential employment with the Conservancy and Camp.

CWCT is not the only organization running a community-based conservation model. Fifteen wildlife conservancies around the Maasai Mara have set up similar easement programs, almost doubling conservation land since the early 2000s. Another 100 similar conservancies exist across the country with varying degrees of success. Conservancies have likely fared better than national parks during Covid-19 as payments of annual land rents for wilderness protection have continued. But tourism taxes have ceased, which is why, says Cottar, “We are looking for alternative sources of funding. When tourism comes back, this will be an added benefit for longevity.”

According to Cottar, land easement as a tool for conservation could be expanded by engaging more tourism stakeholders, such as the more than 500 companies officially registered by Kenya’s tourism associations. Cottar recommends extending the framework so that tour companies partner with forward thinking safari camps and conservancies, and commit to funding biodiversity beyond simply sending guests to parks.

“If tourism companies and lodges don’t secure land for wildlife, then they themselves are fundamental to the conservation problem,” says Cottar. “The government should be giving tax breaks to land owners and companies leasing land for natural biodiversity.”

Other opportunities exists to diversify conservation revenue streams away from the “golden egg” of tourism through other methods of sustainable land use. In central Kenya, north of the Maasai Mara, lies the 90,000-acre Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a private wildlife reserve and popular tourism destination. Its rich wildlife diversity includes the highest number of black rhinos in Kenya, the world’s last two remaining northern white rhinos, and a sanctuary for chimpanzees rescued from the illegal animal trade.

Originally established as a livestock ranch in the 1950s, Ol Pejeta still hosts 6,000 Boran cattle, a hardy breed of native cattle raised for the beef industry. The livestock graze alongside wildlife like zebras, giraffes, buffaloes, and various antelopes. Then the cattle are corralled at night for protection against lions and other predators.

photo of boran cattle and giraffe
On the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Boran cattle graze alongside giraffes, zebras, antelopes, and more. Photo courtesy of Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

The Conservancy also buys additional cattle from neighboring pastoralists. The objective is to reduce grazing pressure in wildlife occupied areas and give income to underprivileged communities by leveraging Ol Pejeta’s ready markets for beef.

Tourism generates about 55 percent of Ol Pejeta Conservancy’s revenue. Agriculture contributes another 25 percent. The rest comes from fundraising. “Conservation can be a productive and profitable form of land use that employs people and pays taxes,” says Richard Vigne, managing director of Ol Pejeta. “What we are offering is a new style of conservation that achieves this and can be copied globally.”

This approach has enabled Ol Pejeta to continue earning revenues during the Covid crisis — revenues that are sorely needed. Rhino protection and security alone costs $10,000 annually per animal. Ol Pejeta has 172 rhinos.

“We need to get innovative and stop treating conservation as if it was some sort of sacred cow,” says Kenyan-born Vigne, when asked about making protected areas more financially resilient. This was the thinking behind developing 1,000 acres of Ol Pejeta into a residential estate of eco-sensitive holiday homes that generated additional financing for conservation.

Habitat fragmentation caused by development is frequently linked to wildlife decline because it interferes with animal movement and ecology. Nevertheless, according to Vigne, development on private lands can be a tool for conservation if properly managed. Ol Pejeta’s housing estate was built along the outer boundary of the conservancy and is surrounded by a predator-proof fence. The resulting safe zone has encouraged the proliferation of endangered herbivores like Grévy’s zebra and Jackson’s hartebeest inside the estate, and wetlands created in the estate maximize biodiversity.

The initial sale of houses formed a reserve fund that Ol Pejeta is now using in the absence of tourism. By catering to the long-stay and homestay tourism market, the conservancy earns additional revenues for wildlife protection. “It’s about diversifying income streams to make the conservancy less reliant on fickle tourism and more financially secure,” says Vigne.

Kenya opened its borders and airports to international travel on August 1, but experts caution that it could take up to two years for tourism to reach pre-pandemic levels. In the meantime, the ongoing pandemic may be the impetus for some wildlife conservationists to put in place innovative interventions to protect the long-time future of Kenya’s biodiversity.

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