Standard (Kenya)

The Standard

August 2, 2020

For more than 50 years, Loiman Letolo, 70, has peddled her colourful

beaded necklaces and bracelets to safari-goers at the entrance gates

to Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve.

As the annual “Great Migration” of millions of wildebeest, zebras and

gazelles into the Mara’s vast savannah gets underway, Letolo would

normally be earning $50 a day from the droves of binocular-wielding

tourists in their open-top jeeps.

The COVID-19 pandemic has, however, put a stop to that.

Instead, the grandmother of eight – wrapped in a vivid red “shuka”, or

shawl, and wearing a face mask – queues with scores of women as

community elders dole out rations of maize flour, beans and sugar

bought with funds raised from well-wishers.

“I’ve been selling at the roadside since I was a teenager. In all my

life, it has never been like this. There have always been tourists,”

said Letolo, at the Nashulai Maasai Conservancy, a few kilometres from

the Maasai Mara’s Sekenani gate.

“Now there are no tourists, there is no dollar and there is no food.

If we didn’t get these weekly handouts, we would not be able to eat.”

The coronavirus has crushed Kenya’s billion-dollar tourism industry,

leaving tens of thousands of people from one of Africa’s most

recognisable tribes – the Maasai – struggling to survive.

This has raised fears amongst some conservationists that without

government support or other livelihood opportunities, desperate

communities living around protected areas may stop protecting

wildlife, resort to poaching to get by, or sell land.

Semi-nomadic cattle, sheep and goat herders, Maasai communities around

the Mara have for years relied on money from the hordes of foreigners

with zoom lens cameras, eager to capture the greatest movement of

animals on the planet.

As shareholders in private conservancies – community-run protected

wildlife areas – the tourist dollars earned from lodge and camp stays,

game drives, village tours and handicrafts during the high season from

July to October are vital.

There are 15 conservancies around the Mara, collectively providing

benefitting more than 100,000 people through land lease payments, as

well as salaried jobs such as rangers, tour guides, housekeeping staff

and drivers.

Nelson Ole Reiyia, founder of the Nashulai Maasai Conservancy – a 20

square km (5,000 acre) protected area on the Mara’s eastern boundary

about six times the size of New York’s Central Park – said the fallout

from the pandemic has ravaged the lives of the 2,000 people in the

conservancy.

“This is usually the busiest time of the year. Our lodge was fully

booked, but then COVID-19 happened and almost overnight the bookings

were cancelled,” said Reiyia, sitting amid the empty tables and chairs

in the mess tent of his camp.

“The coronavirus has decimated the local economy. No one in the

community has been spared. People were staring starvation in the face,

so we started crowdsourcing for funds to provide weekly food aid, but

even that is not sustainable.”

Reiyia said he had been forced to furlough 40 of his 100 workers –

mostly housekeeping staff – and also cut salaries for some senior

rangers who patrol the conservancy which teems with giraffes and zebra

alongside Maasai herders with their cattle.

‘EXCEPT FOR THE ANIMALS, IT’S EMPTY’

Offering everything from big game safaris to palm-fringed white sandy

Indian Ocean beaches, Kenya attracted over two million visitors from

countries such as China, Germany, the United States, France, India and

Britain last year.

The tourism sector is a vital economic pillar, providing more than two

million people with jobs and accounting for about 10% of the east

African nation’s gross domestic product.

But the pandemic has seen the industry slump to its lowest level in

decades. The government has so far estimated losses of at least 80

billion Kenyan Shillings ($752 million) – almost half of last year’s

total revenue.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Kenya’s most popular tourist

attraction: the Maasai Mara.

Covering 1,510 square km (373,129 acres) – about twice as large as

Singapore – the Mara reaches its pinnacle every July and August when

the majestic stampede of wildebeest migrate from Tanzania’s Serengeti

National Park to find greener pastures.

Tens of thousands of visitors flock here annually, hoping to witness

the hordes of wildebeest that run the gauntlet of hungry Nile

crocodiles as they cross the Mara river, or sight a pride of lions

lying under the shade of an acacia tree.

This year, however, there are few spectators.

“Except for the animals, it’s empty,” said Cosmas Saruni Ole Koshal, a

Nashulai conservancy tour guide and driver, as he drove his jeep along

a bumpy track past some eland and topi grazing in the Mara’s

grassland.

“Normally, there are so many jeeps and minibuses on the tracks of the

Mara at this time of year. We would be hearing the long-range radio

going off every minute with guides sharing lion sightings, but these

days the radiowaves are silent.”

The lack of tourists in the reserve means there are few taking breaks

between dawn and dusk game drives to visit the mud-and-thatch Maasai

manyattas, or villages, which are scattered around the Mara.

A manyatta – where visitors participate in a Maasai warrior jumping

dance, learn to make fire, visit a homestead and purchase curios

ranging from spears to wide-collared beaded necklaces – can earn

hundreds of dollars daily in the peak season.

At Ewang’an manyatta, a branch-fenced settlement comprising of 24

homesteads located a few minutes drive from the Mara, villagers worry

about the future.

“We would normally be getting 40 to 50 tourists every day paying an

entrance fee of $30 each. We use this money to support the education

and health needs of the community,” said Jack Moniko, an elder from

Ewang’an, with a population of about 159.

“But these days we are worried, there are no daily earnings. We don’t

know what will happen with this virus and when the tourists will

return. Some people say even next year they might not come.”

Residents said their traditional livelihood of selling livestock had

dried up with cattle markets and slaughterhouses closed due to

COVID-19 restrictions.

Even if they could sell their animals, it wouldn’t be worth it as the

cost of a cow had plummeted to a third of usual price to 20,000

shillings due to the pandemic, they added.

WILDLIFE UNDER THREAT?

Established to help landowners and livestock-keeping communities

sustainably manage and conserve the wildlife and their habitat through

tourist revenues, the Mara’s conservancies are now under threat.

Collectively covering over 1,400 square kms – almost equivalent in

size to the reserve – conservancy camps generate nearly $5 million in

lease payments for some 14,200 landowners annually, according to the

Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association.

But the pandemic has left most devoid of visitors, forcing the

conservancies to withhold or make half payments to shareholders and

furlough hundreds of tour guides, rangers and camp staff – most

without pay.

Joseph Kosikir, 65, warden at Nashulai Maasai Conservancy, said he is

luckier than most as he is still getting half his salary, adding many

rangers and scouts from other conservancies had been sent home.

“I am in charge of 16 rangers and our job here is to protect both the

community and the wildlife living here. We intervene to stop

human-animal conflicts, seek out poachers and also protect the

visitors who come to Nashulai,” he said.

“But if this corona situation continues, and all the rangers have to

stop working due to no pay, it could be very bad for everyone. There

will be increased conflicts with animals.”

Conservationists also fear desperate communities – which have for

decades helped control deforestation and poaching – may be exploited

by criminal gangs to poach animals to get by.

“The guys working in the lodges are jobless. The reserve and parks

will lay off rangers,” said Kaddu Sebunya, chief executive officer of

the African Wildlife Foundation.

“These guys know the parks better than anyone else and we all know who

will recruit them – the poachers.”

But Reiyia said that is unlikely in the Mara.

“The Maasai culture has always been to protect the wildlife as we have

relationship with the animals. We believe that if you kill an elephant

it will come and haunt you as the elephant has the same spirit as a

human,” he said.

“My biggest fear is that Maasai landowners – who are not getting any

revenues – may get fed up and sell off their land to for

non-conservation purposes. This could lead to the destruction of the

Mara and livelihoods of the Maasai.