17 November 2012

Kenya: How to Secure the Future of Maasai Mara

Narok district - soon to be Narok county - is at a crossroad. Depending on what happens over the next six months or so, the people of Narok could end up as some of the luckiest people in Kenya; or they could remain among the most poor, despite having perhaps the most valuable and abundant natural resource of any county.

The Maasai landowners that own the extensive wildlife dispersal areas around the Maasai Mara National Reserve (MMNR) are in crisis as their pastoral way of life is coming to an end with the subdivision of the former group ranches and conversion to agricultural land use.

In areas of high rainfall, this can be positive for food production and livelihood, such as the Ngorengore area, but the majority of the land around the district is just not suitable for farming due to rainfall and soil constraints, disease and wildlife competition.

Unfortunately, should there be no alternative to this traditional subdivision model, it is likely that we shall see worsening humanitarian crisis and certain elimination of wildlife.

As an alternative, some landowners have resorted to selling off their plots to outsiders, and while this has short term income benefits, the practice is forcing the displaced Maasai families into unplanned centres that have no infrastructure and where there is no realistic income earning opportunities, resulting in worse health issues and increase in crime, all of which we are seeing on the ground now.

Further to this, the new owners of the land invariably fence off their newly purchased land for farming or structural developments such as (unplanned) lodges and hotels, making MMNR lose wildlife migration corridors and touristic value.

People forget that tourists come to the Mara for the wilderness and the wildlife, and not scenery reminiscent of Kitengela, which is happening on its peripheries.

It may not be commonly known but MMNR is only 10 per cent of the Mara ecosystem in Kenya (by land area), and that it would be left with only 10 per cent of its current wildlife numbers should the surrounding land be fenced off and unavailable to wildlife movements as the current subdivisions are doing.

And this is not a theoretical risk; we have already lost 90 per cent of the zebra and wildebeast in the annual Mara - Lolita plains migration, and data from ILRI and Dr Ogutu show that many species within the MMNR such as warthog, giraffe, and topi are down in numbers by 70 per cent or more over the last 30 years.

In my view, we are fast closing in on the point of no return, and our leaders must begin to educate themselves properly as to these facts, and then take the brave step to advise their people against this fencing and selling of their plots.

Furthermore, the leaders could offer a very feasible alternative to their people. And this option which is simple and replicable is what I want to put forward as the obvious solution:

That the Narok county government adopt the existing 'wildlife conservancy' model to lease the land surrounding MMNR using MMNR revenues.

Wildlife conservancies are currently being implemented on Koyaki, Siana, Ol kinyei, Olderikesi and other former group ranches, so the methodologies are there to replicate.

I am not suggesting that the MMNR itself be expanded onto private land ( which would never be accepted by the landowners) but that the new conservancies on their land be managed by professional companies identified through public tender and that revenues from the MMNR simply be phone banked by the local government to the individual title deed holder that have their land included in the conservancies.

Keep in mind that tourism infrastructure is currently concentrated in or around the MMNR. However, should these new conservancies be created, these investors would likely look to relocate to these new conservancies to have more wilderness and space for their clients. This could help relieve the pressure of too much congestion within the MMNR itself improving its wilderness and brand value.

Specifically, my proposal is that the future Narok county government utilise all available revenues generated from the MMNR after operating costs (which should be 30 per cent of income or less) to be used for financing the leasing of these additional wildlife conservancies.

This way, Sh2 billion or more would get to the many thousands of people in the poorest parts of the county, people that are currently living with the most extreme wildlife costs and competition, and where ( not so coincidentally) the poaching menace is greatest.

These folks would get reliable incomes from their land, at rates that compete fairly with agriculture. The question is whether the new county government would implement such a plan on such a grand scale.

I believe the benefits of such a plan for the country as a whole, for the tourism sector, for the local people, and for the wildlife numbers, would far outweigh any possible loss of opportunity of agriculture and alternatives, and I believe that any governor or local authority that could initiate such a plan would get immediate political advantage, and guaranteed re-election.

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