Loans help conservancies survive Covid, pay Maasai

Drop-off in tourism means conservancies can't pay Maasai landowners who might sell land

In Summary

• Conservancies have suffered massive financial losses due to the drop-off in tourism and have difficulty paying for the land leased from the Maasai for conservation.

• The loans will help cover lease payments, so landowners will not be forced to sell their conservancy land or convert it to agriculture and other uses.


Wildebeest cross Mara River to return to Maasai Mara Game Reserve from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
THE CROSSING: Wildebeest cross Mara River to return to Maasai Mara Game Reserve from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
Image: FILE

Covid-19 has hit the Maasai Mara hard and tourism has dwindled, but a loan programme will help conservancies, communities and wildlife.

The loans will be extended by Conservation International in partnership with the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association.

Conservancies have been facing massive financial losses caused by the drop in tourism due to the Covid-19 pandemic.


Working with the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association, Conservation International has established the Maasai Mara Rescue Fund.

The fund will provide a significant boost to donations by other supporters.

The loan programme will help cover lease payments owed by conservancies to landowners.

The Greater Mara ecosystem is home to 25 per cent of Kenya’s wildlife and the scene of the greatest annual migrations on earth, as wildebeest and zebra cross the Mara River.

The land is owned by the Maasai people, who lease it to conservancies for tourism, which in turn funds conservation efforts. These efforts drive wildlife tourism.

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.


This would put wildlife conservation in the region at risk.

In 2019, Maasai landowners collected more than $7.5 million (Sh821.8 million) in lease payments; this year they’re expecting less than half that sum.

The loan programme will provide short- to medium term funding to offset the revenue loss from the pandemic.

The loans will be repaid out of future tourism returns and conservation fees that the conservancies collect from tourism operators.

“The drop-off in tourism due to the pandemic means communities are struggling to survive. These lease payments will help ensure lands in the greater Maasai Mara remain wild," said Michael O'Brien-Onyeka, senior vice president of the Africa field division at Conservation International.

He said the loans will help ensure the communities that count on income from tourism are supported during the global crisis.

Over two decades, communities and tourism investors have found a way for nature and people to thrive together, said Daniel Ole Sopia, CEO of the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association.

"Our conservancies both secure critical wildlife populations and benefit local people. This is what successful conservation looks like,"  he said.

Covid-19 has put this model at risk but the innovative fund will help communities and conservancies to withstand the shock, Sopia said.

As 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.

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. Far fewer tourists meant significantly lower income for conservancies and resources for conservation.

As a condition of the loan, conservancies will be required to implement governance, operational and financial strengthening to ensure the sustainability of the conservancy model.

“The funding will provide a bridge of support for conservancies — and communities that rely on them for income — facing 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," he said.

As tourism returns, revenues are expected to be available to pay back the Maasai Mara Rescue Fund, adding that loan terms will be flexible to weather downturns.

The ecosystem covers 4,500 square kilometres (1,111,974 acres) 

The Maasai community controls more than one-third of the ecosystem through community conservancies, which support about 100,000 people.

(Edited by V. Graham)

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