In January 2017, a paper published in Scientific reports titled ‘Fencing bodes a rapid collapse of the unique Greater Mara ecosystem’ send cold shivers across the world and spells doom about the future of wildlife in the world famous Mara – Serengeti tourism destination. The deafening rustle of the fencing white paper, obviously, will start a very different debate, how serious the government is in achieving Vision 2030, where tourism is one of the three key pillars for economic development. Of concern, seemingly, Vision 2030 went with the Kibaki regime since it is hardly referred to by the present Jubilee government. But for all my arguments over the Kenyan behemoth, that quieter session matters immensely at the detriment of wildlife and future tourism as well as community livelihoods. The wildlife corridors and dispersal areas are deep in trouble, and conservationists want both national and county governments to join the efforts to secure these areas for tourism development. The national strategy for securing wildlife corridors is now ready to be unveiled by the government after gathering dust on the shelves for over 10 years. The silence, however, is because the fences are silent killers of wildlife unlike poaching which is usually noticed and attracts sympathy and donor support. The paper and other previous publications, then, clearly highlights and justifies why Mara wildlife population has declined by over 68%. Notably, wildlife in fences cannot access important resources throughout the year especially pasture, water and natural salts.
Conservation organizations as well as tourism business entrepreneurs are working round the clock to ensure wildlife security. However, some organizations have no idea where the secured and increasing wildlife populations will roam especially outside the national parks and game reserves, which only supports about 30% of the county’s wildlife population. The survival of this wildlife population is depended on dispersing outside protected areas where rapid uncontrolled development is happening.
Apart from fencing, the other emerging wildlife deadliest threat, nonetheless, is livestock incursion in conservation areas especially during drought as reported in Laikipia and the Tsavo region. The national and international news coverage this week on violent conflict in Laikipia between livestock herders and ranchers portrayed a bad picture about Kenya as a tourist destination. This is not just about white ranchers who combine limited farming with game conservation but large ranches owned by black Kenyans and many smallholders have also been targeted. Increasing human and livestock populations over static land resources coupled with frequent and prolonged drought are recipe for competition and conflict over the limited resources. As a result, heavily armed herders are killing wildlife with impunity, poaching elephants and burning down tourism properties as well as the negative image shown by international news is not good for our tourism. Tourism is Kenya’s most important industry, after agriculture. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), it is responsible for 14% of GDP and 12% of total employment and generates a static Ksh 100 billion. This sector is predicted to continue to grow at 3.7% per annum for the next decade. The target to double the level of tourism in the country to 3 million tourists by 2017 is likely not to be achieved with a possibility of numbers dropping because of the emerging threats that make it hard to sell the country. It is, therefore, the government responsibility to protect people and property and the already witnessed luke warm reaction by the government shows lack of goodwill and more so where a shadow of a political hand is suspect. The government is shooting itself in the foot having allocated over Ksh 450 million to market Kenya as a tourist destination and yet even with all the necessary machinery, insecurity has been allowed to thrive.
Kenya will not achieve Vision 2030 without addressing illegal grazing insecurity and fence expansions. This is achievable but, inexplicably, a distracted Kenya government has slipped from leading to lagging in the fight especially during this election year. Why won’t the government end the seemingly perpetual “livestock incursions” and secure Laikipia and other parts for conservation and tourism? Tourism investors and conservation organization have teamed up with landowners turning private and community land into conservancies, to win space for wildlife. In the Mara ecosystem, for instance, the Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA), an umbrella organization for community conservancies is working with tourist investors and other conservation organizations including WWF, KWT, TNC, MEP, etc to secure space for wildlife through a lease program and ensure wildlife security with support from USAID, BAND Foundation, Basecamp Foundation, among others and also diversify income streams to benefit the landowners. About 1,400 km2 of land adjacent to the Masai Mara National Reserve has been secured as community conservation areas, an equivalent of Mara and benefiting over 30,000 families through employment, business, lease fees etc. Another 10,000 km2 of land is also earmarked for conservation in future.
Three campaigns to address this fencing threat include: at local-level the anti-fencing drive; internationally the crackdown on fencing since it will affect Mara -Serengeti wildebeest migration; and, the reduction in the sale and demand for land. We must dull the communities’ appetite for fencing and selling land without knowing the future implications. This should be guided by the land use policy and EMCA regulations on large scale fencing among other legal frameworks including the county spatial planning process. The government should disarm the herders, which is a huge step, but doubts, of course, must be confronted since this plan has been there since the previous regimes. Northern Kenya has remained ungovernable and a no go zone even by state security agents. With goodwill, it is possible to bring this to a stop. While the country is in the general elections campaign mood, nonetheless, this should not reverse the gains made in the tourism sector. Allowing the rule of law to prevail would raise big cheers from citizens, win their support and propel Kenya as a tourist destination to greater heights.
Dr. Noah Sitati is the Chief Executive Officer, Masai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association.