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Kenya’s wildlife tourism, a casualty of COVID, gets a lifeline

© Jonathan Irish

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.”

But the animals are not usually the only ones that flood the region during this time: Typically, thousands of tourists flock to the Maasai Mara to catch a glimpse of this spectacle. 

This year, however, the tourists have disappeared — along with the life-sustaining revenue they provide to wildlife conservancies dedicated to protecting this land. 

Today, these conservancies are receiving a lifeline. 

Conservation International, in partnership with the Maasai Mara Conservancies Association, has established the Maasai Mara Rescue Fund, a loan program that will help cover lease payments owed to Indigenous landowners who typically lease their land to conservancies for tourism operations. 

“The fallout in tourism due to the pandemic means communities are struggling,” said Michael O’Brien-Onyeka, who leads Conservation International’s work in Africa. “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 4,500 square kilometers (1,737 square miles), the Maasai Mara ecosystem is home to 25 percent of Kenya’s wildlife, including such iconic species as elephants, giraffes and zebras. 

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. 

However, the loss of lease income due to a halt in tourism caused by the pandemic — and uncertainty on when tourists may return — could force the Maasai landowners to sell or convert their lands to farming, putting wildlife conservation in the region at risk, experts say.

And as recent reports indicate a surge in poaching throughout Kenya since the pandemic began, wildlife conservation in this iconic 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 will 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. 

As a condition of the financial support, the conservancies will be 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. Further, stakeholders are actively exploring opportunities to diversify revenue streams for this landscape.   

“Most immediately, the funding will provide a bridge of support for conservancies — and the communities that rely on them for income — 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 Maasai Mara Rescue Fund, although Conversation International anticipates structuring loan terms to provide 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.”


Michael O'Brien-Onyeka is the senior vice president for the Africa field division at Conservation International. Agustin Silvani is the senior vice president for conservation finance at Conservation International. Kiley Price is a staff writer at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.

Cover image: Elephants in the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya (© Jonathan Irish)

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