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Elephants in the Masai Mara

Ecotourism in Kenya - Press Release for the ITB Trade Fair, March 2002: Leading Africa's Green Revolution

When the United Nations chose Nairobi as the venue for the first African conference on ecotourism, few players in the industry were particularly surprised. For although Kenya has often attracted criticism for its poor infrastructure and slow development, the bottom line has always remained the same: the original home of the African safari is still streets ahead of its competitors.

Although ecotourism is a relatively new field in Africa, its growth in Kenya has been little short of spectacular. In the past five years, some of the world's most pioneering and promising community tourism projects have been launched here, a new breed of safari camps has grown up using state-of-the-art environmental technologies, and initiatives helping local communities to benefit from their natural resources have launched a 'green revolution' in many of the country's wildlife-rich tribal lands.

Kenya's ecotourism industry first drew international attention in 1997, when the now-famous community lodge at Il' Ngwesi was a runner-up in British Airways' prestigious Tourism for Tomorrow awards. In the four years since, two other properties - Tortilis Camp in Amboseli and Ol Donyo Wuas in the Chyulu Hills - have also been honoured in the awards. Il' Ngwesi has gone on to become a model for community tourism projects across Africa.

So when the United Nations Environment Programme last year elected Nairobi as the venue for the International Year of Ecotourism African Conference, it all made perfect eco-sense. Staged as part of the UN's 2002 Year of Ecotourism, the March 20-22 conference will bring together a broad variety of ecotourism experts and practitioners for three days of presentations, discussions and field trips that aim to improve local practices and information sharing. Together with five other regional conferences, the findings and recommendations of the Nairobi forum will be presented to the world's first Ecotourism Summit in Quebec on May 19th - allowing Kenya's best ecotourism practices and ideas to be heard around the world.

The prominent presence of Kenya on the eco-map owes much to the involvement of its conservation conscious communities. Although dozens of definitions have been put forward for the term 'ecotourism', the one thing on which they all agree is that it is not only about saving fragile areas, but about helping the communities that live in them - the original and long-term custodians of the world's wildernesses - to benefit from their preservation.

According to Fergus Maclaren, IYE Director at The International Ecotourism Society, the Nairobi conference will stand out from its counterparts for its strong community presence. "I was extremely impressed to see that the organisers are looking at 60-80 community representatives from the region, which is almost half the total number of participants," he said. "This is more substantial than any other of the regional meetings, and strongly in keeping with TIES' focus on promoting the participation of communities, practitioners and operators at meetings."

Conference organiser Anne Loehr says the strong backing for ecotourism in the country guarantees a bright green future for Kenyan tourism. "I have travelled all over the world visiting eco-lodges and working with the best people in the trade, and Kenya definitely has some of the brightest minds working together to create a sustainable future for the environment and local culture," she says. "I think there's no better place to experience ecotourism anywhere in the world."

Anne's own company, Eco-resorts, shows just how much today's holidaymakers care about the impact they have on the places they visit. Started in 1999, it has already taken more than 600 visitors on its 'cultural immersion' tours, which combine game-viewing safaris with periods living in a local village, studying local arts and crafts, horticulture or women's issues. Anne is currently working with the Ecotourism Society of Kenya (ESOK) to develop a series of 'eco-rating' criteria for ranking the records and performance of local tourism facilities and tour operators - giving tourists the opportunity to choose their destination and operator according to their social and environmental practices.

The growing environmental and social concerns of today's typical tourist are borne out by the latest survey by the global watchdog, the WorldWatch Institute, which reports the ecotourism sector growing by 20% in the year leading up to September 11th - when the tourism industry temporarily crashed around the world. Growth for the global tourism sector as a whole was 7.5%.

The Nairobi ecotourism conference, which is sponsored by Conservation International, will end with a field trip to the Shompole Group Ranch, three hours south of Nairobi, where Kenya's newest eco-lodge is providing a powerful example of what can be achieved when a far-sighted community and a responsible safari operator get together. What makes Shompole a particularly unique model is that it is built on land owned by a community of traditional Maasai pastoralists, who are famous for putting the lives of their cattle over those of wild predators.

The six-room lodge is built almost entirely from local materials, with energy provided by solar power and water heated with cow-dung briquettes, and the community has been involved in drawing up a wide range of safari activities, including camel rides, historical and fossil tours, and fly-camping on neighbouring community ranches, which will also benefit from visitors' fees. The lodge's creator, Anthony Russell, is also helping the community raise funds for a variety of income generating activities - bee-keeping, fish-farming, sun-dried fruits - and has won a significant grant from the European Union to improve roads and train game wardens for the Shompole conservation area.

Northeast of Shompole, on the vital migration routes bordering Amboseli National Park, another pioneering partnership between a local safari company and a Maasai community is bearing fruit for the Eselenkei Group Ranch, where the unobtrusive four-tent Porini Camp is bringing guests to a conservation area that the community has pledged to keep free of livestock. Last year, the people here - and their visitors - saw migrating elephants for the first time in nearly 20 years.

The winds of eco-conscious change are also carrying to several communities on the edge of the world-famous Maasai Mara National Reserve. Earlier this year, the Siana Group Ranch became the fifth community to separate its accounts from the local county council, ensuring that conservation fees will go directly to conservation efforts on the ranch itself. Siana is working with local hoteliers Heritage Hotels to establish a wildlife sanctuary in which its guests will be able to camp, walk and ride horses, as well as experiencing a close-up view of their ancient culture.

Some of the most innovative developments in African ecotourism are taking place in the semi-arid wilderness of the Laikipia Plateau in central Kenya, where a growing number of far-sighted communities are helping to set aside areas for wildlife and allow the land to regenerate after decades of over-grazing. The new eco-consciousness owes much to the 6,000-strong community of Il' Ngwesi, whose pioneering lodge is built entirely of earth and dead wood, fuelled completely by solar, and last year counted Prince William among its 250 guests. The lodge's success has led to the opening of a second eco-lodge on the neighbouring property of Lekurruki, as well as the creation of a formidable local scout force in the area. Elephant numbers are reported to be increasing here by up to 50% each month, and Il' Ngwesi will soon be welcoming an orphaned black rhino from neighbouring Lewa Downs - its first in more than a decade.

Kenya's unique wildlife has of course been key to the initial success of its ecotourism business, whose practitioners have conjured up dozens of different ways to view and experience the country's spectacular natural heritage In Samburu the famous elephant expert Iain Douglas Hamilton is offering intrepid visitors a chance to join researchers monitoring hundreds of wild elephants from his Elephant Watch Camp. Similarly scientific safaris are available in the Taita Hills, where the Taita Discovery Centre offers 'paying volunteers' a unique opportunity to take part in research into medical plants and migrating wildlife, including the Tsavo Elephant Research Project and a lion monitoring project due to be launched by the Earthwatch Institute in May.

Several conservation organisations are also helping communities around the country to find more reasons to preserve their natural environments. Facilitated by organisations like the Nairobi-based African Conservation Centre and the African Wildlife Foundation, greater donor support is now being programmed for natural resource management and conservation projects far off the traditional tourist track. Once such initiative is the USAID-funded Conservation of Resources through Enterprise (CORE) project, which is promoting small-scale enterprises to generate returns for people living with wildlife in Laikipia, Samburu, Kajiado, Taita Taveta, the South Coast and the Mara.

A worthy example is the Kasigau Banda Project, under which CORE has built self-catering cottages in five villages around Mount Kasigau, a beautiful mountain 70 kilometres southeast of Voi. Each village has sold shares in its cottage, which is used to house gap-year students from Europe who help to run small conservation projects such as reforestation plantations and beekeeping projects. Through the projects, the villagers expect to raise about Ksh2 million this year, giving them a 100% return on their shares - and a profitable alternative to the charcoal and bushmeat trades that are destroying so much of rural Africa.

Kenya's fragile forests have also become an arena for local tourism operators to demonstrate their environmental conscience. Late last year, the trade was among the first sectors to react to a government directive to hive off 167,000 hectares of indigenous forest for private development. Several of the country's hoteliers, led by Serena Hotels and Heritage Hotels, reacted by taking the battle into their guests' bedrooms - encouraging them to make direct protests to the Minister of Tourism. By early March, the national campaign against the excisions had attracted more than 200,000 signatures.

Growing concern among Kenya's visitors has helped to keep the new eco-impetus going, and given rise to a growing number of local green products and service providers. A good example is Energy Alternatives for Africa, a specialist solar solution designer, which last month launched an initiative to subsidise energy audits and management plans for local tourism facilities. Funded by a British trust, the first phase of the scheme will kick off in April with the auditing of two properties, which will commit themselves to investing in measures suggested by the auditing team. The resulting energy systems will be monitored and promoted by ESOK and the local environmental magazine, Ecoforum, as part of a long-term plan to promote more efficient energy use by the tourism trade - and overcome its long dependence on gas-guzzling generators and wood-burning stoves.

Another notable pioneer is the Nairobi company Chardust, which has developed a unique alternative charcoal made from waste charcoal dust 'glued' together with clay, and is experimenting with briquettes made from sawdust, rice husks and coffee husks. The original 'Vendors' Waste Briquettes' have been snapped up by lodges and hotels around the country, which are finding they provide a slower, cheaper and - with fewer sparks - safer burn than regular charcoal. The company's next project is a world-first 'CaneCoal' briquette, which will be developed from sugarcane waste with a grant from Britain's Department for International Development.

Despite the uphill struggles faced by Kenya's environmentalists, the tourism industry is definitely doing its bit to save the country's fragile wilderness - with a little help from its friends in the donor, NGO and environmental fields. The best indicators of success will ultimately be the numbers of flora and fauna that are saved from Africa's hungry mouths and greedy axes. But if the early signs of environmental awareness and innovation are anything to go by, Kenya will long continue to provide new attractions for its more responsible tourists - and to ensure that the people who manage its wild lands receive just rewards for their stewardship.

African Conservation Centre, Conservation International, Eco-resorts, Ecotourism Society of Kenya, European Union Biodiversity Conservation Programme, Rainforest Alliance, The International Ecotourism Society and UNEP sponsored the EA IYE Conference held in Nairobi on March 20-22, 2002.

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