Rupi Mangat, I News | November 24, 2020
The humpback whale season is at its tail end on the Kenyan coast as is the wildebeest migration in the Maasai Mara. Until recently, few Kenyans knew of the twin migrations that are unique to Kenya and few could afford to see the spectacle.
This year, however, the turnout by Kenyans to go whale-watching has been phenomenal – and this despite the Covid-19 pandemic. Luxury hotel brands, such as Hemingways – with hotels in Nairobi, on the coast in Watamu and on the Mara plains – have been offering discounts that few Kenyans could ignore.
“For the first time we saw Kenyans take advantage of the humpback whale migration and special deals encouraging local people to travel,” said Jane Spilsbury of the Watamu Marine Association, which monitors the whales. “It was uplifting to see Kenyans board the whale watching vessels and can only bode well for national conservation awareness in the future.”
Until last week, the UK Government advised against travel to the entire African continent, in spite of opening a number of long-haul “travel corridors” elsewhere. However, recognising the low infection rate in many African countries, along with robust testing and healthcare provision, it has now removed Namibia and Rwanda from the list of countries requiring quarantine on return to the UK. Kenya has recorded a total of 1,380 deaths although infection rates are increasing, with around 1,000 new cases per day. By comparison, Rwanda has recorded 46 deaths and Namibia 145.
A Drastic Fall in Tourist Numbers but Domestic Visits Increase
After more than four months of lockdown, Kenya’s international borders reopened in August, but a nationwide curfew from 10pm-4am remains in place until 3 January 2021. International tourism – which supports conservation efforts – has suffered, with arrivals falling from more than 2m in 2019 to just over 13,000 between January-August this year, when flights were allowed to resume. It is estimated that the country has lost $750m in tourism revenue this year.
However, the boom in domestic tourism has allowed Kenyans to explore new territory such as the “whale to wildebeest” safaris. Hemingways’ sister camp at Ol Seki in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy offered a 70 percent discount from its rack rate for Kenyans. It was like watching a festival of whales and wildebeest.
Last week, I visited Amboseli National Park, half-way between the whales and wildebeest, and equally renowned for its long-studied wild elephants since 1972, a research pioneered by Dr Cynthia Moss, the director of Amboseli Trust for Elephants. I was at Ol Tukai Lodge, recently opened after lockdown. There were few visitors and we were all local. The safety protocol to enter the park was rigid, with body temperatures taken, luggage sanitised at the lodge and temperatures taken again on arrival. Masks, sanitising and hand washing are the new “normal”.
I dropped in to see Dr Moss, a youthful 80-year-old who still goes out daily to follow the elephants while starting new studies into elephant behaviour amid a changing landscape. “Kenya,” she explained, “has done better than most countries in keeping its Covid-19 cases and deaths down. As a result, it was the first country to be awarded the recommended status of the Safer Tourism Seal by the Rebuilding Travel group.
Moreover, she explained that poaching has not been as grave a problem during lockdown as had been feared. More concerning is the huge tract of land – an important elephant corridor – that has been cleared in the park recently to make way for an avocado plantation.
Moss told me, “we hope to see more visitors, but we also realise that getting here may be the crucial factor. However, once a visitor is in Kenya, I believe going on safari is the one of the safest activities anyone could do.” Despite the lack of international tourism that brought in the much-needed dollars for wildlife conservation, the Kenya government – through the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife – and international donors, have been quick to respond to the on-going crisis.
Capital Gains: Nairobians Flock for Fresh Air
Nairobi National Park, Kenya’s premier park established in 1946, has never been busier. Nairobians are flooding in to witness wildlife antics such as the recent birth of a giraffe or lions on the hunt.
“People still want to come out,” says Paul Jinaro, the communications person at the Kenya Wildlife Service, the government arm in charge of wildlife. “Nothing has changed in our operations, including the anti-poaching patrols.
“And that is because of the budget support from the Kenyan government.”
“Over the years conservation has been largely supported by international visitors,” continues Susan Ongalo, CEO of the Kenya Tourism Federation. “Having said that, there are lessons learnt that emergency funds or kitty should be set aside in the event of such calamities. The government has earmarked 500 million Kenyan shillings (£3.43m) to help with recovery.
“The pandemic hit businesses, leading to loss of jobs with hotels and lodges closing. The fund is a step towards reviving the economy and helping families survive these tough times.”
“We have to look after our employees,” says Mohammed Hersi, chair of KTF. “Kenya is known for friendly people and that is one reason why visitors return. Most have been sent on leave and many have taken pay cuts until things improve.”
After Amboseli, I travelled up to Laikipia in northern Kenya. It is the home to rare species including the Grevy’s zebra and reticulated giraffes whose numbers have dwindled to fewer than 10,000 in the wild in the last 30 years. It is also home to the last northern white rhino, a female at Ol Pejeta conservancy.
Suyian Soul is one of the few lodges here that has re-opened after lockdown, its landscape defined by ancient granite outcrops and endless horizons.
During the infamous rhino and elephant poaching era between 1970 and 1990s that nearly wiped out the mega-herbivores of the north, Ian Craig – now Director of Conservation of the Northern Rangelands Trust – founded Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in 1983. The model became a catalyst for community conservancies in northern and eastern Kenya covering 44,000 square kilometres, with 33 local communities taking charge of their wildlife and some operating high-end lodges. I met Craig to talk about the challenges of operating wildlife conservancies during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“In the wider landscape there’s been a small increase in bushmeat but a significant increase in burning trees for charcoal, especially by kids out of school,” he said. “But there has been no poaching.” This is despite a 95 per cent drop in revenue from international tourists.
“We are grateful to our international donors and the government for funding,” said Craig. “There is a massive appetite to travel from our visitors waiting to return. So the next 12 months are crucial.” With vaccines now on the horizon, they will be following soon after.
The Foreign Office currently advises against all non-essential travel to Kenya.