DISRUPTION

Landowners in Mara conservancy hit hard by Covid-19

Before the pandemic, a landowner who leased out 150 acres used to be paid Sh40,000 per month.

In Summary

• The outbreak of Covid-19 reduced earnings from tourism.

• Over 700 landowners who have leased their parcels of land for conservation.

Wild animals and livestock graze on the same field at conservancies within the Mara ecosystem on May 12, 2021.
Wild animals and livestock graze on the same field at conservancies within the Mara ecosystem on May 12, 2021.
Image: / CHARLENE MALWA

Hundreds of people who leased out their land for the conservation of wildlife in Maasai Mara are facing hard economic times due to Covid-19.

Landowners adjacent to Maasai Mara have for years been receiving payments, but since the pandemic struck, tourists who bring in revenue have reduced significantly.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak, a landowner who leased out 150 acres used to be paid Sh40,000 per month.

"My land is under a 25-year lease. I used to receive monthly payments for my land," David Noosaron, 44, said.

He is among over 700 landowners who have leased their parcels of land for conservation. Noosaron owns 145 acres in Maasai Mara.

Mara North conservancy manager William Kipetu said when Covid-19 struck in March 2020, all conservancies were affected as there were no visitors.

"All 12 camps closed in late March and April. When the camps were closed, there was no revenue to pay landowners, rangers and run the conservancies," he said.

Kipetu said they received support from USAID through the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancy Association.

With the support of USAID, the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancy Association has been implementing a project titled Effective Biodiversity Conservation and Livelihood Improvement by Community Conservancies in the Maasai Mara Region.

"We have money to have conservancies running up to next year because of the support," he said.

Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies CEO Daniel Sopia said a crisis committee was constituted when the pandemic hit them hard.

"A Covid-19 response strategy for Mara with a focus on sustaining basic conservancy operations on wildlife protection and mitigation of human-wildlife conflict was put in place," he said.

Sopia said they managed to mobilise $1.2 million (Sh129,480,000) out of a target of $1.5 million (Sh161,850,000) for conservancy operations through Mara conservancies emergency relief fund.

The funds support 11 conservancies. The funds cater to their minimum operational costs and were raised through donors.

The CEO said human-wildlife conflict increased during the pandemic in areas where communities live.

"We have plenty of rain, the grass is good and wild animals are in good health. Livestock is also good and landowners now have enough milk to sell. The price of livestock has also shot up. This means that landowners have other sources of income," he said. He also said there has been no poaching.

The CEO said the pandemic has made it possible for wildlife such as wild dogs, rhinos, lions, cheetahs and pangolins to be spotted with ease.

Sopia said the outbreak of the pandemic came with lessons.

"It shows that relationships and trust built over the years are key, especially in community conservancies," he said.

Sopia said the pandemic also showed that there is a need to look beyond over-reliance on one source of income.

"There is a need to look beyond tourism. Carbon credit and commercial livestock enterprises are where we are focusing on to cushion against any eventualities," he said.

The CEO said there is a need to strengthen policies as communities play a critical role in conservation.

Sopia said conservancies should be embedded in law for the government to contribute towards community conservation.

The CEO said a reserve fund should be established where surplus will be put to deal with the challenges that are the pandemic.

In 1999, the subdivision and privatisation of communally owned land surrounding the Maasai Mara National Reserve gave conservationists sleepless nights.

They were concerned that the move would lead to land fragmentation, fuelling human-wildlife conflicts.

Tourism companies partnered with local landowners to form wildlife conservancies where landowners received a fixed, monthly payment for leasing their land for wildlife-based activities.

This was on the condition that the landowner moves off that land and does not cultivate or develop it.

Landowners who gave out their land for conservation are allowed to graze their livestock at the conservancy land.

Once the grass has been depleted in one block, a grazing committee decides when to move to another block.

The land has been divided into nine blocks on Mara Siana side.