Kenya’s wildlife tourism: A casualty of COVID gets a lifeline

Photo © Jon McCormack via Conservation International

From July to October each year, millions of wildebeests, zebras and other wildlife travel from Tanzania to Kenya’s Maasai Mara region—a phenomenon known as “The Great Migration.”

The animals are not the only species flooding the region during this time: Typically, thousands of tourists flock to the Maasai Mara to catch a glimpse of this spectacle.

But the global COVID-19 pandemic did not spare East Africa. With global travel all but halted, the tourists disappeared from the Maasai Mara—along with the life-sustaining revenue they provide to wildlife conservancies dedicated to protecting this land.

Now, these conservancies are receiving a lifeline.

Conservation International, through its impact investing fund, CI Ventures, and in partnership with the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association, has established the African Conservancies Fund, a loan program helping to cover lease payments owed to Indigenous landowners who typically lease their land to conservancies for tourism operations.

Not only is this program bolstering the region’s tourism industry—and the communities that depend on it—it will also help fund conservation efforts that drive wildlife tourism in the region, explained Michael O’Brien-Onyeka, who leads Conservation International’s work in Africa.

Photo © Jon McCormack via Conservation International

“The fallout in tourism due to the pandemic means communities are struggling,” said O’Brien-Onyeka. “These lease payments will help ensure the lands that make up the greater Maasai Mara remain wild, and that the communities that count on income from tourism are supported during this global crisis.”

Spanning 1,737 square miles, the Maasai Mara ecosystem is home to 25 percent of Kenya’s wildlife, including such iconic species as elephants, lions, giraffes, and zebras. The conservancies that help protect the wildlife in this region support the livelihoods of 100,000 people.

For the Indigenous Maasai peoples who own this land, lease payments by ecotourism operators are typically used to fund schools and health centers and to support wildlife protection efforts. In 2019, Maasai landowners earned more than $7.5 million in lease payments.

“Over the last two decades, local communities and tourism investors have worked to find a way that nature and people can thrive together,” said Daniel Ole Sopia, the chief executive officer of the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association. “Our conservancies both secure critical wildlife populations and benefit local people. This is what successful conservation looks like.”

But this conservation model, one of the most promising and innovative in Africa, faces collapse as a result of the pandemic.

According to the government of Kenya, the country’s tourism industry lost nearly U.S. $1 billion in revenue between January and October due to coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions on travel. Maasai landowners are expecting less than half of the revenue they collected on lease payments last year.

This loss of lease income—and uncertainty on when tourists may return—could force the Maasai people to sell or convert their lands to farming, putting wildlife conservation in the region at risk, experts say.

Photo © Jon McCormack via Conservation International
Photo © Jon McCormack via Conservation International

And as recent reports indicate a surge in poaching throughout Kenya since the pandemic began, wildlife conservation in this revered ecosystem is more important than ever, Onyeka explains.

“There is no insurance policy, there is no social safety set; tourism has always been their only avenue to make money,” O’Brien-Onyeka said in a recent BBC podcast. “What that means is that organized criminal gangs that lead poaching have become the only employers in the area. People [are] raiding nature to survive out of desperation.”

Through the loan program, conservancies across the Maasai Mara can secure short-to-medium-term funding to offset the revenue loss from COVID-19. The loans will be repaid out of future tourism returns and conservation fees that the conservancies collect from tourism operators.

The loan fund was set up and structured in unprecedented time to quickly support the communities impacted by a loss of revenue in real-time. The initial bridge loan disbursement was received by the Mara North Conservancy in early December, the first of many conservancies participating in the program.

As a condition of the financial support, the conservancies are required to implement governance, financial, and operational strengthening activities to help ensure their long-term sustainability and build resilience against future external shocks, such as disease outbreaks or natural disasters. Conservation International worked with these conservancies and with the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association, a membership association of conservancies in the region, to incorporate their vision and priorities into the loan program to help ensure that these efforts are effective and long-lasting.

Further, stakeholders are actively exploring opportunities to diversify revenue streams for this landscape.

“Most immediately, the funding will provide a bridge of support for the conservancies and local communities that face global challenges outside of their control,” said Agustin Silvani, who leads the conservation finance program at Conservation International. “As tourism returns, revenues are expected to be available to pay back the impact investors while providing enough flexibility to weather downturns and ensure the long-term stability of the conservancies. We want the Mara to remain a thriving place for generations to come.”

CI Ventures is the impact-investing arm of Conservation International. As a revolving fund, CI Ventures invests in companies that generate positive social, environmental, and financial returns over a specified period of time. The principal and earned interest returned to the fund are used for new investments in green enterprises.

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