Kenyan wildlife reserves in danger as Covid-19 routs industry

Kenyan wildlife reserves in danger as Covid-19 routs industry
Safari in The Maasai Mara/Ray in Manila
  • The Tourism sector has lost $750m in 2020 — almost half of the total revenue in 2019

Talek — In the magnificient plains of the Maasai Mara, the coronavirus epidemic spells economic disaster for Kenyan wildlife reserves as well as locals who make a living from tourists arriving at see Kenya’s abundant wildlife.

Even prior to the virus found its way to Kenya mid-March, tourism revenues had dropped, with cancellations coming in from crucial markets such as for instance China, Europe and the US.

According to the tourism ministry, the sector has lost $750m in 2020 — roughly 50 % of the total revenue in 2019.

“We were fully booked in June however now we have zero bookings. Nothing. It is terrible,” said Jimmy Lemara, the manager of an eco-lodge in the private Ol Kinyei conservancy.

When you look at the Maasai Mara, one of Africa’s most highly-rated wildlife reserves situated in the vast flat plains of the Great Rift Valley, the local Maasai community, traditional herders who make up 2.5% of the population, now depend almost exclusively upon tourism for their living.

In a distinctive model set up to engage local communities in tourism, enabling them to begin to see the worth of wildlife and thus guard it, the Maasai now get revenue from renting their land to create private wildlife conservancies.

Topi, Maasai Mara
Topi, Maasai Mara/Ray in Manila

Some work as cooks, guides and security guards in the lodges while others give tours of the traditional homes or sell homemade crafts to tourists.

‘Survival mode’

People in Talek, a dusty town situated at one of the entrances into the Maasai Mara national reserve, are gloomily buckling down, looking forward to better days.

Kenya has announced international flights will resume on August 1, however the high season has already been lost.

“Since December, work has been extremely low, and now we are in survival mode looking to make 150-200 shillings ($1.4-$1.9) per day, in order to purchase a meal,” said Ibrahim Sameri, whose small mechanic workshop can generate as much as $30 per day in the high season.

Nalokiti Sayialel normally sells bead necklaces and bracelets to tourists passing through.

“It’s been 3 months that I have not sold anything,” the 45-year-old said.

“This is terrible. Everything is stuck. Everything is shut down. [I have] never seen something similar to that,” said tour guide Petro Nautori who has had no work since January.

The Maasai Mara national reserve, run by the Narok county government, extends to the north with many privately-managed conservancies renting land from the Maasai who in return do not graze their cattle or settle there.

This model has since 2005 allowed the doubling of the habitat for wildlife in this region.

On an average, each land owner makes $220 each month, a lot more as compared to the minimum wage in the region.

Kenyan wildlife reserves
Kenyan wildlife reserves

Nevertheless, like many conservancies, Oil Kinyei is struggling and it has consented to pay only half the usual rent to the Maasai, after having to pay back deposits to tourists who cancelled their holidays.

The salaries of lodge employees have also been cut by half.

Forced to sell livestock

Some Maasai families are having to turn to selling their precious livestock to make money.

“Because we are getting little and it is not sufficient to sustain your family for a living, I had to sell 2 goats worth about 12,000 shillings to put on top of what I’m getting to help keep me going,” said Julius Sanare, head chef at the eco-lodge in Ol Kinyei.

However, livestock markets have been shut because of coronavirus prevention measures.

Residents said the Maasai are rather selling their animals in the black market for a pittance to unscrupulous buyers benefiting from their desperation.

Mohanjeet Brar, MD of Porini safari camps which run 2 conservancies and lots of lodges in the Mara, said the “catastrophic” situation could threaten the existence of the reserves.

“If the landowners are not getting any revenue, they can not feed themselves, they can not send their kids to schools, they might have no option but to consider other forms of land utilisation,” he said.

“Fencing it off, selling it to people, building businesses … dozens of alternate land uses do not go along with wildlife and elephants and big cats and so this would be completely lost,” he said.

“And once it is lost, if you look at Kenya as well as its extremely fast population growth rate and good economic growth during the last couple of years, it would be lost forever. It would be a real shame.”

This is a touch time for Kenyan wildlife reserves.

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