Just how profitable is tourism?

With or without hunting, wildlife will only survive if they are of some economic value.

In Summary

• There is money to be made in allowing wealthy people with a taste for blood sports to shoot predesignated numbers of wild animals.

• A return to legal hunting hardly features in any debate within Kenya on wildlife conservation or tourism policy.

In recent weeks, some of the African countries which could be said to be Kenya’s rivals for “safari tourism” have been in the news.

First was Botswana, where the government decided to lift an existing ban on the hunting of elephants. Apparently, there has been a steady growth in elephant population and there are now about 130,000 elephants in Botswana – the largest elephant population within any national borders. And the government now wants to reduce that population to limit human-wildlife conflict in rural areas.

Second was more recent when Tanzania offered “hunting blocks” for auction via a new electronic portal. Tanzania has had such hunting – invariably referred to as ‘sport hunting’ or ‘trophy hunting’ – for many years now, as has South Africa.

The reason for all this hunting is that there is money to be made in allowing wealthy men and women who have a taste for such blood sports to shoot predesignated numbers of elephants or buffaloes or giraffes, etc.

And yet in Kenya, hunting down wildlife has been illegal since the late 1970s. From as far back as that, any shooting of a wild animal by anyone who is not an employee of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, and whether done by a local or a foreigner, is ‘ipso facto’, poaching.

Indeed, a return to legal hunting hardly features in any debate within Kenya on wildlife conservation or tourism policy. Not even when there is an overabundance of wildlife in a specific game park, as in the arguable surplus buffalo in Lake Nakuru National Park.

Why is this?

Well, here is the fundamental consideration:

In Kenya, schoolchildren are encouraged to go on visits to national parks and taught that these wild animals are our “national heritage” and must be protected at all costs for the sake of future generations. I would guess that in Tanzania the kids are taught a different (and in many ways more realistic) lesson: that to preserve these populations of wild animals, you may sometimes have to allow rich foreigners to hunt down and shoot some of them.

Rich nations can afford to indefinitely subsidise their natural attractions as recreational facilities for the taxpaying public. But in a poor country like ours, the animals actually have to directly generate the money needed to help preserve their natural habitats.

That is why wildlife conservation in Kenya is inextricably linked to tourism. And this symbiotic relationship between tourism and wildlife conservation tends to limit what you can and cannot do with your wildlife.

Both the Tanzanian and Botswanan authorities would argue that if they can raise millions of dollars by allowing rich foreigners to come to their country; shoot just a few dozen of the very largest and oldest elephants (which have the longest tusks); and if they then use the money from this to fund programmes which protect the remaining elephant population; then that is sound economics.

But the bigger picture is more complicated than this. Especially when we consider, for example, the Mara-Serengeti plains, which are a jointly owned environmental asset of Kenya and Tanzania.

It was a revelation to me about 10 years ago, when the Tanzanian Minister for Tourism at the time, called for a review of Tanzanian tourism policy, and referred to a rather surprising set of statistics to support his case.

Speaking with some anguish, he asked how it was possible that with Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve being a mere one-sixth of the Mara-Serengeti plains, while Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park occupied the rest of that iconic natural wonder, the greedy Kenyans earned 20 times more revenue off the Mara-Serengeti plain than Tanzania did.

OK, he did not actually specify “greedy Kenyans” but in the context, that was clearly what he meant.

In any event, it all goes to show that combining wildlife conservation and tourism policy is not easy at all.

In Kenya, schoolchildren are encouraged to go on visits to national parks and taught that these wild animals are our “national heritage” and must be protected at all costs for the sake of future generations.

I would guess that in Tanzania the kids are taught a different (and in many ways more realistic) lesson: that to preserve these populations of wild animals, you may sometimes have to allow rich foreigners to hunt down and shoot some of them.

And that this is unavoidable if you are to have an economic justification for sustaining so many wild animals in a poor country with immense pressure for more farmland.

For with or without hunting, these animals will only survive if their existence is of some economic value to their host nations.