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The Case For A Total Overhaul Of Kenya's Tourism And Wildlife Conservation Policies

Saturday, September 14, 2013 - 00:00 -- BY CALVIN COTTAR AND WYCLIFFE MUGA

Kenyans whose land supports wildlife are deprived of revenues. This is why the existing model for the tourism industry does not work for wildlife conservation 

Here is a classic example of ‘The Law of Unintended Consequences’:

For at least a decade now, Kenyan tour operators have looked with deep yearning at the rapidly expanding Chinese middle class as a potential source of visitors who could provide a much-needed boost to the industry.

But instead of providing Kenya with the anticipated flood of new visitors – in the kind of numbers required to raise net arrivals from the current 1 – 1.2 million to the five million dreamed of in Kenya’s development plans – the historic rise of the Chinese middle class has instead had unintended but completely opposite effect.

What was not foreseen by the dreamers, who expected Chinese visitor numbers to overtake those of the existing European core tourism markets, was that far from having a taste for gazing at the beauty of untouched wilderness areas and idyllic Garden-of-Eden panoramas, what the Chinese middle class want instead is an 'immediate gratification' type of mass tourism that is destroying our protected areas, in addition to which they have a limitless appetite for specific wildlife products such as elephant ivory and rhino horn back home.

So that the monumental success of China’s centrally-planned economy that is raising hundreds of millions out of agrarian poverty into the global middle class in just one generation, has now turned out to pose an existential threat to Kenya’s tourism product and brand, and as well as its wildlife.

Unintended consequences do not get more ironic than this.

In regards the poaching crisis triggered by the Chinese demand for ivory and rhino horn, a crisis of this magnitude is not one which can be successfully tackled by emotional appeals in the media or by ‘fund-raising’ or ‘awareness-raising’ walks.

Because while a quarter of the world’s population in Asia now has the earning power of the advanced economies, they will continue for the next couple of generations to hold much store in ancient tradition and values, which will include buying ivory and rhino horn.

In light of this certainty of ever-increasing demand for ivory and rhino horn, and ever-increasing prices for these products - which in turn guarantee ever-increasing poaching - we need to approach this problem differently. It requires a fundamental review of wildlife policy, and a return to first principles. It requires asking hard questions such as, “Can Kenya’s elephants and rhinos be saved at all, and if so, by what means can this be done? And how many elephant, rhino and indeed wildlife is appropriate in Kenya, and for whose benefit?”

So far, such empirical thinking has been largely missing from public debate on these issues.

Even what seem like tough-minded proposals such as the demand for mandatory jail sentences and longer periods of incarceration for those found to be involved in poaching, are really just pathetic substitutes for effective policy.

Robbery with violence has long been a capital offense in Kenya: but this has not spared us a long-running crime wave in the capital city.

And the potential yield of most of the crimes which take place in Nairobi, are but a tiny fraction of the potential profits of an effective poaching operation.

Yet there is no shortage of young unemployed Kenyans eager to join the ranks of urban criminal gangs whose members will kill for just a few thousand shillings, or in order to hijack a car needed for some criminal enterprise.

So, setting aside the kind of idle sentimentality which has so far been dominant in this debate, we need to go back to first principles, in our search for the possible solutions to the threatened collapse of Kenya’s tourism sector:

 We start by noting that tourism is a billion-dollar-a-year business in Kenya, but landowners who actually suffer the cost of having wildlife on their land receive less than five per cent of this revenue, usually in the form of leases, rents and entrance fees, and by far the majority of this amount (the five per cent) is earned by the National Parks and Reserves.

The balance of 95 per cent stays with international tour agents, urban-based 'ground handling' tour operators, and the lodge and hotel operators (to cover operational costs of tours) and, last but not least, government taxation.

And while this monopoly may seem callous and self-serving, this monopoly is legal and dictated by the country's tourism and wildlife policies.

While the tourism industry is a key player in the Kenyan economy with its extensive 'multiplier effect' and employment of over half-a-million people, wildlife tourism has actually had a negative effect on wildlife conservation since independence. It has not been a reason for landowners to keep wildlife on their land, and as a consequence tourism is only practiced on only 2.5 per cent of the country’s land area, and mostly within state-owned protected areas.

Think of it in these terms: if there was not one tourist visiting a national park or reserve in Kenya, the government would still be obligated to protecting wildlife in those land units because wildlife and ecosystem preservation were the reasons they were created in the first place.

Why haven’t previous governments adjusted the national wildlife and tourism policies to encourage this huge industry to more effectively work for the rural people of Kenya and wildlife conservation?

 The source of the problem

The source of the problem is that Kenya's wildlife policy does not allow private landowners to own wildlife on their land, and thereby actively excludes them from the legal right to access wildlife revenues.

To exclude the owners of the land where 70 per cent of our remaining wildlife lives is more than a serious oversight – in our opinion it is tantamount to criminal negligence - and not for crimes against wildlife, but for denying opportunities for rural Kenyans.

Especially considering that wildlife's very presence reduces productivity of other land uses such as agriculture by up to 60 per cent per annum through direct competition for grazing, disease and damage to infrastructure – let alone the increasing incidence of human-wildlife conflict.

By legally denying landowners the right to make wildlife their primary resource base, they have no choice but to remove it and replace it with alternative land uses such as agriculture, and it should come as no surprise therefore that the average annual decline of wildlife throughout the republic is at least 3.2 per cent per annum.

With the country’s wildlife population in 2009 at less than 850,000 head in total, this rate of loss will see wildlife extinct on private and communal land within the next two decades, with residual amounts on state protected land and private conservancies.

One ray of light in this disaster story is the recent private sector initiative of leasing land for 'wildlife easements' or conservancies, mostly initiated by lodge and safari camp operators because they foresee no future for quality wilderness product inside the protected areas because of overcrowding by 'mass tourism' tour operators.

Also, these mass tourism operators in turn see no future for tourism outside the national parks and reserves because of the clear reduction of wildlife outside the protected areas, land fragmentation, agriculture and unplanned development.

They therefore use all means – fair and foul – to build new facilities inside these small protected areas at the cost of their 'wilderness value', the brand value of the protected areas, and indeed of the country itself. Kenya’s tourism brand hangs in the balance.

But while the conservancy model is a ray of light 'at the end of the tunnel' that can be fine-tuned and possibly emulated elsewhere, it is still very vulnerable to landowners revoking the leases because the values currently being paid are for 'land' only.

The values do not actually include the 'lost opportunity' of full ownership of wildlife, liberalised use of which can be up to 12 times more productive than for livestock as a land use. The values also don't take into account the focus by government emphasis on agriculture and food production.

An example of this dichotomy is: why should land with big five wildlife and healthy ecosystems be exactly the same value as land with no wildlife whatsoever? Surely it should be valued higher. These are the questions that need to be asked as we restructure our wildlife and tourism policies.

Just to reiterate, while conservancy lease values remain at their current values, the model is unlikely to compete effectively in the near future with earnings possible from other land uses as food prices and government subsidies increase in the agricultural sector.

Another failure of the tourism industry has been 'reduced yield' per client as compared to other countries. Consider that in Kenya, statistics from a ministry of tourism analysis (2009) shows that average guest spend was US$319 in 2009, while South Africa generated US$684 per client, and Tanzania US$889.

This of course is another symptom of bad policy and monopoly of the industry – large centralized businesses holding more bed capacity than they can sell, forcing them to cover costs through 'price competition' rather than by selling 'quality': The very same syndrome that caused the collapse of the Spanish coastal tourism industry.

In addition, studies show that Kenya is not capturing an estimated $450 million in revenues per year for the simple reason that state park and reserve entrance fees are undervalued; the organisations that manage these areas are just not in touch with the true market value of the tourism on their real estate.

A raft of solutions

To resolve issues in the tourism sector, we would propose that the following be considered, along with other ideas that may come from tourism stakeholder associations:

First and most important is that we must change the wildlife policy to localise ownership of wildlife (from the state to the landowners) so that conservancy leases get fair value for the land owners.

Then we must allow landowners to decide how they want to use wildlife on their land.

Finally, the government should consider incentivising camps and hotels already inside the park, to relocate onto private and communal lands (i.e. follow the example of the Indian model of protected area management). Any facilities that remain inside these protected areas should be put up for public tender to the highest/best bidder (internationally) and for a 10-year period.

Any tourism developments (new or those that have been moved from within protected areas) should be situated in leased conservancies on private and communal land under strict Nema condition of a minimum 300 acres per bed, and a minimum of five kilometres distance between such facilities.

Other measures could include substantially increasing entrance fees to national parks and reserves and limit vehicle and tourist numbers by price or enforcement of very strong management plans. Quality of experience, price and rarity will generate far more revenues for the protected areas with far less environmental damage.

We should also legislate for compulsory membership of all tourism operators, lodge and hotel operators and guides to their representative industry associations that can channel their requirements in policy, and through which government can control quality of the sector.

And landowners should also form a national association of wildlife owners/ producers to channel their requirements into the national wildlife policy.

The country has a long and impressive history of effective self-regulation by stakeholder/professional associations in Kenya, when supported by legislation, and clearly laid out procedures for the proper operation of the sector - from the Law Society of Kenya to the Media Council of Kenya.

Tourism would benefit from such legislative support too. The ultimate goal in all these recommendations - and perhaps the only way in which we can reverse the decline of our wildlife populations - is to give rural communities a vested interest in protecting wildlife.

To this end, 50 per cent - 70 per cent of revenues earned from national parks and reserves should be invested back into leasing local communal and private land adjacent for wildlife conservancies.

This would be the best way to resolve human-wildlife conflict and to get the wildlife money to the people most affected by wildlife.

Calvin Cottar operates a tented camp in the Olderkesi Conservancy adjacent to the Maasai Mara. 

Wycliffe Muga is the Weekend Editor of The Star