By Kathleen Fitzgerald, Opinion / Standard Media
As Kenyans continue to grapple with Covid-19 and adjust to life in self isolation, the far-reaching implications of this pandemic continue to unfurl and have already started to have severe implications on our ways of life; massive strain on an already compromised health care system, millions of students sent home from school and cataclysmic layoffs due to the economic plummet.
What about Kenya’s natural assets? How will they fare? The short answer—not well—unless swift action is taken. Kenya’s unique wildlife is unparalleled. Its wildebeest migration, vast open savannahs and magnificent elephant herds are just a few of the extraordinary natural wonders that attract people to visit. These distinctive resources are protected by dedicated men and women whose salaries are primarily covered by revenue generated by the tourism industry, government allocation and philanthropic support.
However, even before Covid-19, the financial gap for protecting Africa’s wildlife and wildlands was significant. A 2018 study I co-authored assessing the cost of maintaining Africa’s parks (that support lion) found that an additional $1 billion is needed annually. Using data from this study, we surmised that already, Kenya’s annual gap in financing adequate management of its protected areas was $30 million; add Covid-19 and it’s a perfect storm.
Africa’s tourism industry is reliant on its natural assets, its wildlife and vast, scenic landscapes. It is the primary reason tourists come to Africa. Put simply, without wildlife, Kenya’s tourism industry would decline. In turn, the tourism industry generates revenue to support wildlife conservation, therefore, if the industry declines, it puts our wildlife at risk. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
What is often underestimated are the wide-ranging economic benefits of the tourism industry. Tourism drives 8.5 per cent of Africa’s economy and supports 24 million jobs. In Kenya, tourism supports 9 per cent of our GDP and 8 per cent of employment. This does not include the broader economic value driven by its distribution and supply chains, taxation and spin-off businesses. For example, in 2017 Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia County paid approximately Sh120 million in tax to the government, Sh70 million to community projects, on top of employing 780 people. This is fueled primarily by tourism.
Kenya’s community conservancies employ 4,800 rural people and benefit 707,450 community members directly. In 2016, Maasai landowners received Sh360 million in land leases alone. This revenue and employment are entirely reliant on tourism. This trend is similar across the continent. In Rwanda for example, total leisure travel revenues were $438 million in 2017, representing 14 per cent of the GDP. The tourism industry supports 13 per cent of the total employment in the country.
Rwanda also has one of the highest community benefit sharing model in Africa, with 10 per cent of park revenue distributed to local communities and an additional 5 per cent for human wildlife conflict. These funds have helped develop vital social infrastructure, finance new business and support rural Rwandan communities.
In Botswana, tourism is the country’s second largest earner of export earnings, after diamonds. Wilderness Safaris, a leading sustainable tourism company, employs 1,110 people in Botswana, with about 80 of camp employees recruited from local communities. According to estimates by the UN World Tourism Organisation, a further 500 jobs will have been created by Wilderness for suppliers of goods and services.
Responsible tourism companies recognise the value of wildlife to their business and in Kenya, they charge a conservation fee per tourist per night, to support conservation management and community development. As a result of Covid-19, the tourism industry has shut down virtually overnight. Companies are closing, laying off staff and/or implementing massive salary cuts.
The direct impacts are obvious—rural job losses and lack of resources to pay conservation rangers and community lease fees. The indirect impacts are just as staggering; suppliers to lodges no longer needed and vital tax revenue is drying up. But for how long? That’s the crux of this, without knowing how long the pandemic will last, it is difficult for business owners to plan.
The government has responded swiftly and taken clear action to contain the virus. Urgent emergency funding is needed to maintain a core team of wildlife rangers in Kenya’s community, private and national protected areas. Additional resources are needed to support conservation lease fees and conservancy fees that secure habitat and provide crucial income for rural communities. While the industry suffers, we must act collectively to ensure Kenya’s wildlife and wild lands are secure.
Once we emerge from this pandemic, and we will emerge, the tourism and conservation industry must diversify revenue sources and–like many other sectors–place much greater emphasis on financial and operational risk management and economic resilience. The government recognises the value of its wildlife. It is time to create real financial incentives for those in the industry who support conservation and the greater social good. Those that actually invest in conservation should be supported.
Kenya is resilient. We know this from 2007/08 when the industry declined by 20 per cent as a result of post-election violence. We bounced back. We will bounce back again, but let’s use this time to create a more resilient structure to accommodate future shocks to the system and make sure we can recover by securing Kenya’s natural assets—our wildlife and wildlands.