Kenya wildlife reserves threatened as tourists stay away
In the majestic plains of the Maasai Mara, the coronavirus pandemic spells economic disaster for locals who earn a living from tourists coming to see Kenya’s abundant wildlife.
Even before the virus arrived in Kenya mid-March, tourism revenues had plummeted, with cancellations coming in from crucial markets such as China, Europe and the United States.
According to the tourism ministry, the sector has lost $750 million this year—roughly half of the total revenue in 2019.
“We were fully booked in June but now we have zero bookings. Nothing. It’s terrible,” said Jimmy Lemara, 40, the manager of an eco-lodge in the private Ol Kinyei conservancy.
In the Maasai Mara, one of Africa’s most highly-rated wildlife reserves located in the vast flat plains of the Great Rift Valley, the local Maasai community, traditional herders who make up 2.5 percent of the population, now depend almost exclusively upon tourism for their livelihood.
In a unique model set up to engage local communities in tourism, enabling them to see the value of wildlife and thus protect it, the Maasai now get revenue from renting their land to form private wildlife conservancies.
Some work as cooks, guides and security guards in the lodges while others give tours of their traditional homes or sell homemade crafts to tourists.
People in Talek, a dusty town situated at one of the entrances to the Maasai Mara national reserve, are gloomily buckling down, hoping for better days.
Kenya has announced international flights will resume on August 1, but the high season is already lost.
“Since December, work has been extremely low, and now we’re in survival mode hoping to make 150 to 200 shillings ($1.4 to $1.9) a day, to be able to buy a meal,” said Ibrahim Sameri, 38, whose small mechanic workshop can generate up to $30 a day in the high season.
Nalokiti Sayialel normally sells bead necklaces and bracelets to tourists passing through.
“It’s been three months that I haven’t sold anything,” the 45-year-old told AFP.
“This is terrible. Everything is stuck. Everything is shut down. (I have) never seen something like that”, said tour guide Petro Nautori who has had no work since January.
The Maasai Mara national reserve, run by the Narok county government, extends to the north with several privately-managed conservancies renting land from the Maasai who in exchange do not graze their cattle or settle there.