Conservation International to Provide Lifeline for Maasai Mara Wildlife, Landowners Battered by Pandemic

November 19, 2020

Loan program to support conservancies imperiled by drop in tourism

Nairobi, Kenya (November 19, 2020) – The wildlife conservancies of the Maasai Mara, facing massive financial losses caused by the drop in tourism due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will soon find relief thanks to a loan program led by Conservation International in partnership with the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association.

Home to 25 percent of Kenya’s wildlife and host of the greatest annual migration of animals on Earth, the Greater Mara ecosystem is one of the most important conservation areas in Africa. The land is owned by the indigenous Maasai people, who lease it to conservancies for tourism operations, which in turn fund conservation efforts that drive wildlife tourism.

But this conservation model, one of the most promising and innovative in Africa, faces collapse as a result of the pandemic. The loss of lease income due to the halt in tourism — and uncertainty as to 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.

In 2019, Maasai landowners collected more than $7.5 million in lease payments; this year they’re expecting less than half that sum. Working with the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association, Conservation International has established the Maasai Mara Rescue Fund, a loan program that will help cover lease payments owed by the conservancies to landowners. The Rescue Fund will provide a significant boost to the donations made by other landscape supporters. 

“The fallout in tourism due to the pandemic means communities are struggling to survive. 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,” said Michael O’Brien-Onyeka, senior vice president of the Africa Field Division at Conservation International.

“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. This is what successful conservation looks like," said Daniel Ole Sopia, chief executive officer of the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association. “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." 

As a home to some of Africa’s most revered animals – elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo and rhino – the Maasai Mara’s sweeping rangelands are one of the world’s last remaining places where all of these animals roam. Annually, the national parks and conservancies draw hundreds of thousands of guests who come to experience the magic of the Mara firsthand. A timely example: The Great Migration, which takes place from July to October, occurred this year with a fraction of the tourists who typically turn out to see it — resulting in significantly less income for the conservancies and ultimately less resources for conservation.

Through the loan program, conservancies across the Maasai Mara will secure short-to-medium term funding to offset the revenue loss from COVID-19 and support long-term sustainability. 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 loan, the conservancies will be required to implement governance, operational and financial strengthening activities to ensure long-term sustainability of the conservancy model. 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, global head of conservation finance at Conservation International. “This is what impact finance should be all about, putting the needs of partners first. As tourism returns, revenues are expected to be available to pay back the Maasai Mara Rescue Fund , although Conservation 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.”

Supporting facts about the Maasai Mara:

  • 25% of Kenyan wildlife, including the greatest migration of mammals on Earth, is in the greater Maasai Mara ecosystem
  • The ecosystem spans 4,500 square kilometers (1,737 square miles)
  • The Maasai community controls more than one-third of the ecosystem through community conservancies
  • The conservancies support the livelihoods of an estimated 100,000 people
  • Ecotourism, through over 80 camps and lodges, generates most of the region’s revenue

Additional key partners of the fund include Maliasili, an  NGO that is working with the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association to strengthen its organizational capacity, and the BAND Foundation, which, along with other private donors, is providing philanthropic funding to support conservancy rangers and other core operational functions. Conservation International Ventures, Conservation International’s impact investing arm, is also contributing to the fund.

To learn more about the Maasai Mara and the Kenyan Conservancies, click here.

About Conservation International

Conservation International works to protect the critical benefits that nature provides to people. Through science, partnerships and fieldwork, Conservation International is driving innovation and investments in nature-based solutions to the climate crisis, supporting protections for critical habitats, and fostering economic development that is grounded in the conservation of nature. Conservation International works in 30 countries around the world, empowering societies at all levels to create a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable planet. Follow Conservation International's work on Conservation News, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

About the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association

Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA) is as a membership organization of all the Mara conservancies, open to any existing or upcoming wildlife conservancy whose land is part of or integral to the greater Maasai Mara ecosystem. MMWCA has a mandate from landowners and tourism parties to play an overarching coordination role for Greater Mara Ecosystem stakeholders. By conserving the greater Maasai Mara ecosystem through this network of community protected areas, MMWCA ensures the prosperity of biodiversity and wildlife, the regional Maasai population, recreation, tourism, and the nation of Kenya for generations to come. The MMWCA is one of the 12 regional associations forming the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA) as envisaged in the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act 2013.