ANDOn the same day for the past 20 years, Joyce Naserian has placed her handcrafted curiosities near an entrance to the Masai Mara park to sell to passing tourists. Her earnings helped feed and educate her four 46-year-old children.
In northern Kenya, around 1,200 semi-nomadic women earned over 9 million Kenyan shillings (£62,000) selling beads for visitors to 43 community wildlife conservation units in 2020. As was Naserian in the Mara, selling embroidery was a solid source of income for these women. But that was before Covid.
The collapse of ecotourism during the pandemic spelled disaster for conservation and livelihoods initiatives in Kenya and beyond. Budget and staff cuts, reduced wages, and stalled development and education projects have plunged communities into poverty, leading to an increase in poaching and the illegal wildlife trade.
Reuters reported that in the first three months of 2020, the African continent lost $55 billion (£44 billion) in travel and tourism revenue – funds that are earmarked for running conservation programs that benefit local communities.
Kenya’s government relaxed a number of travel restrictionsbut the return of international tourists has been slow, while concerns about carbon emissions from long-haul air travel may be driving people away from flying to conservation areas.
“It’s a real struggle for survival,” says Daniel Sopia, head of the Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancy Association. “Women who relied only on beads were severely affected as there was not a single tourist arriving in Mara at the height of Covid-19 restrictions. Family income dropped significantly and they had to depend on food from people who wanted it.”
The 15 wildlife conservation areas that Sopia heads comprise individual blocks of land belonging to the Maasai people. Owners lease the land, covering 14,0426 hectares (347,000 acres), to safari camps and lodges, which pay fees that fund water supply, health and education projects, as well as establish small businesses.
In return, the 14,500 landowners protect biodiversity within the Mara ecosystem while preserving their traditional way of life.
Four years before the pandemic, the conservatories contributed nearly 120 million Kenyan shillings for social programs in the region. Two years ago, payments to homeowners dropped by 50%, forcing conservation units to scale back operations and focus on priorities such as permits for park rangers. Sopia and his team had to fight to prevent the total collapse of conservation programs.
“Conservation units remained operational during the pandemic, despite the lack of tourism revenue,” says Sopia. “We were lucky enough to mobilize some resources from development partners and private foundations. These helped cover rangers’ salaries, food rations, fuel and vehicle maintenance.
“We expect the agreement to be in place by June 2022 as we slowly reduce the conservations of such aid,” he says.
Some foreign organizations are now returning after a two-year hiatus. In March 2022, the UK charity prey brought together conservation professionals from across Africa for a symposium in the Masai Mara to help organizations diversify fundraising and build resilient units.
Since 1990, Tusk raised over £80 million for conservation projects in more than 20 African countries and helped protect more than 40 endangered species. the next tusk ranger challenge seeks to raise money for rangers whose salary has been reduced in the pandemic.
“The last two years have been extremely difficult for everyone. The conservation sector in particular has had to endure huge losses, dramatic cuts to operating budgets and, unfortunately, redundancies,” says Charlie Mayhew, chief executive of the Tusk Trust.
Wanjiku Kinuthia, Head of Strategy at Natural resourcehopes the renewed interest in broadening discussions on African conservation will boost small organizations that are often left out of big decisions despite being closer to vulnerable communities bearing the brunt of a collapsing environment.
“They often miss out on global conversations,” says Kinuthia, whose group supports about 20 other organizations in seven countries, including smaller ones that don’t have the networks to make their voices heard. “They don’t understand how the media works or how to tell their stories. We can be catalysts for change for these grassroots organizations.”
Involving communities in conservation would protect the 65% of wildlife that lives outside protected areas, she says. “All people need tools to help them coexist with animals in the 21st century while benefiting from conservation.”
However, some conservationists say the only way to sustain conservation programs and avoid disruption is to increase government budgets for the sector, a challenge given current low levels of state investment.
Dickson Kaelo, who heads the Kenya Wildlife Conservancy Association, says African countries rely on foreign donors to fund development, and conservation is no exception.
“There is no one-size-fits-all answer to cutting off foreign aid,” says Kaelo. “There are no government incentives to create a conservation unit to protect an elephant that roams everywhere destroying lives and property.
“If you are in the agricultural sector, you can get a loan to buy a tractor, but there is no institution that grants loans to anyone who wants to invest in wildlife protection, and as long as a person buys a vehicle to transport tourists, he receives some tax rebates. , we don’t get such benefits when buying a truck for rangers.”
He adds: “The government is creating laws that make conservation difficult, including the Natural Resources Account (Benefit Sharing)with a formula that will make conservationists donate 80% of their income to the government and a paltry 12.8% to local communities.
In addition, the government requires you to prepare a management plan, a strategic and environmental study, multiple registration procedures and other permits before establishing a private conservation unit. If you want to lease land, you will have to pay 2% stamp duty for the entire period, say, for 20 years, and pay in advance. Why don’t we see these laws when someone wants to cut down a tree?”
Kaddu Sebunya, chief executive of African Wildlife Foundation says Africans must be exposed to the benefits of wildlife and wild lands so they can lead conservation. A starting point would be to make tourism more accessible, he says, “because it’s easier for someone in New York or Sydney to book a tour to Africa than someone who lives in Harare or Lagos.”
“Building our domestic and regional tourism market will be a springboard to raising the African voice for conservation. As millions of Africans cross the continent to travel on business, how can these numbers translate to nature tourists?
“Data from Unctad [UN Conference on Trade and Development] indicates that four out of 10 international tourists in Africa come from the continent, and this raises the question, ‘is our product marketing serving the four Africans?’
It’s time for a change of mindset,” says Sebunya.
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