Are private wildlife conservancies the way to sustainable tourism in Africa?
Despite individual African governments having an essential role in tourism management, private wildlife reserves are proving to be the sector's driving force. But are conservancies the way to go?
Bonface Orucho, bird story agency
This week, over 190 countries attending a UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal, Canada committed to protecting 30% of Earth’s lands, oceans, coastal areas and inland waters in an attempt to conserve global biodiversity. Africa is seen as a key pillar in these efforts. And yet, a conservation revolution may already be underway on the continent.
The Great Green Wall for Restoration and Peace is a grand initiative facilitated by the African Union to restore savannas, grasslands and farmlands across Africa - some 100 million hectares worth - and create 10 million jobs. This poster child for African conservation has been touted as transformative - but dig deeper and a more localised transformation is already underway, driven by local, private and community-funded, conservation.
In 2023, 3000 delegates drawn from close to 100 countries will descend on Kigali for the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Global Summit, one of the world's most influential travel and tourism events. This is the first time the summit will be held in Africa.
Many of those who will be in attendance are African tourism and wildlife industry leaders as well as key government representatives. The event is recognition of the enormous effort that Rwanda has put into building its tourism sector, which was almost nonexistent just twenty years ago.
"Rwanda is building its reputation as a must-see destination," said Julia Simpson, President of WTTC.
Famous for its robust tourism and wildlife approach, Rwanda is the only African country with an extensive gorilla conservation programme, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme, and has made this unique species the centrepiece of its tourism offering, in much the same way that China has done with its pandas.
While the country's major successes in the tourism sector are government-led, the underlying privately-managed game parks and animal sanctuaries are a booming subsector. They have significantly complemented government efforts to upscale the industry.
This is not unique to Rwanda, as Africa's extensive wildlife diversity remains largely untapped.
Private conservancies have surged across Africa in recent years, run and managed by private entities - whether individuals or community-wide initiatives.
The World Wild Fund estimates that Africa - a continent that is home to close to 30% of the world’s wildlife population - has lost nearly 70% of its wildlife population in about 50 years. According to the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, KWCA, 65% of Kenya's wildlife now lives on community and private lands.
"In the Maasai Mara, for example, 15 conservancies protect over 450,000 acres of critical habitat for the great Serengeti-Mara wildebeest migration. This has seen the lion population double over the last decade and 3000 households earn more than $4 million annually from tourism," KWCA outlines.
African Nature Based Tourism Platform, a platform connecting funders to communities and SMEs in wildlife and tourism, in a series of country reports released in January 2022, demonstrates the value of the subsector in economic development.
In Kenya, private and community-owned conservancies contributed 8.1% of the country's GDP, supporting more than 1.5 million jobs. The survey report lists 93 privately-owned wildlife conservancies, 68 of which are community owned.
Comparative figures are listed for South Africa, where individuals privately own 71 conservancies, with 21 community owned. These contributed to 6.7% of South Africa's economy, channelling more than 22 billion US dollars besides supporting 1.5 million jobs.
Similar trends could be observed in the case of Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Uganda, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Tanzania in 2019, before the pandemic.
According to Carel Verhoef, a Tanzania-based conservation enthusiast and wildlife film technical director, private wildlife conservancies take different models across Africa.
Kenya's model is of shared land, Tanzania has converted former hunting blocks to safari areas, and Botswana employs community-based conservation areas.
"The Kenyan conservancy model is such that an agreement is struck between land owners, the Maasai, and the private sector on land management and land use, sharing," Verhoef explained.
However, these models are not perfect.
"The model is good for expanding a small protected area…But it is dependent on the tourism sector's success. That means it is vulnerable to bad business management and global pandemics," Verhoef added.
Exploitive capitalist attributes could also threaten the approach since the land under conservation is offered to the highest bidder.
Verhoef believes that for conservation and sustainable tourism to be realised in Africa, the conservation obligation should not be wholly left in the hands of the private sector, where financial success is prioritised over the actual need to conserve.
Still, human development and herding in conserved areas, among other human activities, continue to limit wildlife conservation, especially on private lands.
Richard Obanda, senior manager at Buteyo Miti Park, a privately (Kenyan)-owned conservancy in western Kenya, says community involvement is crucial.
"The park today has no funder supporting its operations, we depend on entry fees which can barely support 50% of our operational needs. The alternative is to ensure there is as much value addition as possible so that the space can serve both the community and us," he explained.
For him, the debate on the place of private conservancies in sustaining the sector cannot be understated.
"Communities are offered an opportunity to have direct control of the natural resources besides minimising human-wildlife conflicts since such issues are solved more amicably," he said.
This week's historic agreement envisages US$200 billion provided to support biodiversity by 2030, with another $500 billion possible. Low-income countries are to receive far more than is currently provided for efforts to protect nature. That funding is likely to go some way to fuelling Africa's fast-growing, localised - and locally-owned - conservation economy.
bird story agency