Esame day, for the past 20 years, Joyce Naserian has put out her handmade curiosities near an entrance to the Masai Mara Park to sell to passing tourists. Her earnings have helped the 46-year-old feed and educate all of her four children.
In northern Kenya, around 1,200 semi-nomadic women earned more than 9 million Kenyan shillings (£ 62,000) by selling pearls to visitors to 43 local nature reserves by 2020. Just like the Naserian in Mara, selling pearls was a solid source of income for. these women. But that was before Covid.
The collapse of ecotourism during the pandemic has meant disaster for conservation initiatives and livelihoods in Kenya and beyond. Budget and staff cuts, reduced wages and halted development and education projects have plunged communities into poverty, leading to an increase in poaching and illegal wildlife trade.
Reuters reported that in the first three months of 2020, the African continent lost $ 55 billion. (£ 44bn) in travel and tourism revenue – funds that go to run conservation programs that benefit local communities.
The Kenyan government has eased a number of travel restrictions, but the return of international tourists has been slow, while concerns about carbon emissions from long-haul flights may deter people from flying to protected areas.
“It’s a real struggle for survival,” said Daniel Sopia, leader of the Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association. “Women who relied solely on pearl clothing were hard hit as not a single tourist came to Mara at the height of Covid-19 restrictions. Household income fell markedly and they had to rely on food from the benevolent. “
The 15 nature reserves that Sopia manages include individual land blocks owned by Masai people. The landowners rent the land, which covers 14,0426 hectares (347,000 acres), to safari camps and cabins, which pay fees that fund projects that provide water, health care and education, as well as the establishment of small businesses.
In return, the 14,500 landowners protect the biodiversity of the Mara ecosystem while maintaining their traditional way of life.
Four years before the pandemic, the nature reserves contributed nearly 120 million Kenyan shillings to social programs in the region. Two years ago, payments to landowners fell by 50%, forcing nature reserves to downsize operations and focus on priorities such as quotas for animal keepers. Sopia and his team had to fight to prevent the total collapse of conservation programs.
“Conservation areas remained operational throughout the pandemic despite the lack of tourism revenue,” says Sopia. “We were fortunate to mobilize some resources from development partners and private foundations. These helped cover rangers’ salaries, food rations, fuel and vehicle maintenance.
“We hope the scheme will be in place until June 2022, as we are slowly weaning the nature reserves from such assistance,” he says.
Some foreign organizations are now making a comeback after a two-year hiatus. In March 2022, the British charity Tusk gathered professionals from conservation across Africa for a symposium in the Masai Mara to help organizations diversify fundraising and build robust units.
Since 1990, Tusk has raised more than £ 80 million for conservation projects in more than 20 African countries and helped protect more than 40 endangered species. Tusk’s upcoming Wildlife Ranger Challenge seeks to raise money for rangers whose salaries were cut during the pandemic.
“The last two years have been extremely tough for everyone. The conservation sector in particular has suffered heavy losses, dramatic cuts in operating budgets and, unfortunately, layoffs,” said Charlie Mayhew, CEO of Tusk Trust.
Wanjiku Kinuthia, Maliasili’s Chief Strategy Officer, hopes that the renewed interest in expanding discussions on African conservation will boost small organizations, which are often left out of big decisions, despite being closest to the vulnerable communities that carry the bulk. of a collapsing environment.
“They often miss global dialogues,” said Kinuthia, whose group supports about 20 other organizations in seven countries, including smaller ones that lack the network to make their voices heard. “They do not understand how the media works or how to tell their stories. We can be catalysts for change for such grassroots organizations. “
Involving communities in conservation would ensure the 65% of wildlife living outside protected areas, she says. “All people need are tools to help them coexist with 21st-century animals while benefiting from conservation.”
But some naturalists say the only way to maintain conservation programs and avoid disruption is by governments increasing budgets for the sector, a challenge given the current low levels of government investment.
Dickson Kaelo, who heads the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, says African countries rely on foreign donors to fund development, and conservation is no exception.
“There is no single answer to cutting off foreign aid,” Kaelo said. “There are no government incentives to set up a conservation association to protect an elephant that walks around and destroys life and property.
“If you are in the agricultural sector, you can get a loan to buy a tractor, but there is no institution that provides loans to those who want to invest in protecting wildlife, and while someone who buys a vehicle to ferry tourists, get some tax. discounts, we get no such benefits when we buy a truck for animal keepers. “
He adds: “Through a private member’s bill, Parliament can create laws that hamper conservation, including the bill on natural resources (distribution of benefits), with a formula that will see those in conservation give 80% of their dividends to the government and a paltry 12.8% to local communities.
In addition, the government requires you to come up with a management plan, a strategic and environmental study, several registration procedures and other permits before setting up a private conservation association. If you want to rent land, you must pay a 2% stamp duty for the entire period, e.g. for 20 years, and pay it in advance. Why do we not see such laws when someone wants to cut down a tree? ”
Kaddu Sebunya, executive director of the African Wildlife Foundation, says Africans need to be exposed to the benefits of wildlife and wildlife so they can take the lead in conservation. One starting point would be to make tourism more accessible, he says, “as it is easier for someone in New York or Sydney to book a trip to Africa than for someone living in Harare or Lagos.”
“Building our domestic and regional tourism market will be a springboard to increase the African voice for conservation. While millions of Africans cross the continent to travel for business purposes, how can these numbers be translated into 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, ‘does our product marketing measure up to the four Africans?’
It is high time for a change of mindset, ”says Sebunya.
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