The Great Migration took place largely without an audience this year. The spectacular annual event, which sees tens of thousands of wildebeests, gazelles, and zebras trek north from Tanzania’s Serengeti to cross the crocodile-infested Mara River in Kenya, would normally be witnessed by about as many tourists.
This year, thanks to the pandemic, spectators were practically nonexistent, as were visitors to the vast Maasai Mara, a 4,500-square-kilometer ecosystem (1,737 square miles) supporting a quarter of Kenyan wildlife. Across Kenya, where tourism drives some 8 percent of the economy, $750 million in revenue had been lost by June with 82 percent of employees in the sector on unpaid leave, according to the Washington Post. Especially at risk: the country’s conservancies, wilderness areas that are leased from indigenous Maasai landowners for tourism and conservation.
Thankfully, they’ve just been thrown a $5 million lifeline by Conservation International and the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA). The two organizations have teamed up to establish the Maasai Mara Rescue Fund, a loan program offering short- to medium-term funding to help conservancies cover payments owed to landowners while tourism revenue remains low.
“It’s a bridge loan,” says Bjorn Stauch, senior director for conservation finance for Conservation International. “It provides capital to the conservancies to fund those community land lease payments [which will] ultimately get repaid as and when ecotourism revenue returns.”
The discussions date back to April and the early days of the pandemic, Stauch says. The money will be recouped from future tourism income, as well as from conservation fees charged to tourism operators. The loans aren’t just a short-term lifeline, however. As Stauch explains, the conditions of the loan are designed “to bring about some systemic improvement to the conservancy model.” That includes operational and financial strengthening and improved governance, as well as a diversification of revenue streams (ideas there include sustainable livestock and carbon capture).
The goal? To ensure that these valuable operators not only survive the current COVID disaster but also come out stronger and better prepared to deal with unforeseen events in the future.
What are conservancies and why are they so important?
While the official conservation area in the region, the Maasai Mara National Reserve, covers almost 600 square miles, some 70 percent of the ecosystem’s wildlife lives outside of its borders alongside local communities.
The land here is owned by the indigenous Maasai, who lease it to conservancies for tourism purposes. Together, conservancies cover more than a third of the Maasai Mara ecosystem and support the livelihoods of around 100,000 people, Conservation International says.
The conservancies that will receive money in the first year include Mara North, Olare Motorogi, and Ol Kinyei. These are vast operations. Mara North alone spans almost 65,000 acres with just under 700 landowners.
There are more than 80 camps and lodges in conservancies across the region that normally bring in a healthy revenue. Not so this year. That means that the Maasai landowners, who collected more than $7.5 million in lease payments in 2019, won’t make half of that in 2020.
“The communities in and around the conservancies—and the landowners—depend on ecotourism revenue,” Stauch explains. “They lease their land for conservation, which is fantastic as a revenue-generating activity, rather than agriculture or potentially unsustainable practices.”
Like everyone else, landowners need “to put bread on the table,” Stauch explains. The worry is that if tourism revenue remains low, the land could be converted back to less sustainable uses. “It’s a highly charged environment right now. If this tranche [of payments] didn’t come through, I think we’d have quite a destabilized environment,” he adds.
As Daniel Ole Sopia, chief executive officer of the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association, explains: “Over the last two decades, local communities and tourism investors have worked to find a way that nature and people can thrive together. Our conservancies both secure critical wildlife populations and benefit local people. . . . COVID-19 has put this model at risk. This innovative fund will help us withstand this shock, and better prepare for future ones—it will help us, our hard work, survive.”
Is Bjorn Stauch optimistic for the future of the area? It depends how long COVID drags on for, he says. If things improve next year, then the loan “has been a successful vehicle to navigate a challenging time.”
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