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Elephants in the Masai Mara

Talking Ecotourism Swara East African Wild Life Society April 2000

Ralph Johnstone reports on recent initiatives to give Kenya's struggling tourism industry a clean, green image.

A look at today's world tourism shows the same map names cropping up: Australia, Nepal, Malaysia, Costa Rica. The publicity on Africa is all southbound--Namibia, Mozambique and South Africa. Kenya, which probably has more to offer than any of these countries, continues to appear only in the travel advisories.

Where is Kenya going wrong? The experts say it's all about marketing: about promoting Kenya's natural diversity, the security of its parks, the purity of its beaches. But there's a lot more we should be doing that can't be hidden behind grand promises.

The end of last year saw several developments that signaled a new urgency to get local tourism back on its feet. With two hefty grants totaling over one billion Kenya shillings from the European Commission, the newly restructured Kenya Tourism Board (KTB) had funds to market the country and open up its attractions. Kenya's presence at the World Travel Market in November 1999 showed the firm commitment of many individual operators. The KTB itself was given a new lease of life through the chairmanship of Uhuru Kenyatta. The newly-created Professional Safari Guides Association continued to resuscitate Kenya's once-great guiding standards, while the Tourism Federation's establishment of a Safety and Communications Centre also plugged an important gap.

Alongside this, one vital area that has long been neglected is finally being addressed: the need to put a clean, green face on Kenya's attractions, to show that the country really does care about its natural heritage. Glossy brochures adorned with green logos are not enough; experience from abroad shows that travelers genuinely care about the environmental impact of the places they visit--and they will check on the validity of published claims.

The Select Committee on Eco-Rating was set up in November 1999 to develop a mechanism for ranking and monitoring the eco-responsibility of Kenya's tourism operations. With members from the Kenya Association of Tour Operators (KATO), the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the Ecotourism Society of Kenya (ESOK), the committee has been charged with developing a system for rating the environmental, social and ethical practices of all local accommodation and attractions.

Neel Inamdar, former hotelier and KWS adviser, who was instrumental in getting the committee to the table, believes Kenya could still be an ecotourism pioneer. "Despite our flaws, Kenya has all the inherent attributes of a successful ecotourism destination," he says. "We can compete with Australia and Costa Rica based on simple biodiversity and experience. The issue is one of management practices and information dissemination. And Kenya would have the added advantage of being the first destination in Africa to develop a proper eco-rating."

The committee's progress has not been as swift as many had hoped, but the will to get such a system in place remains strong. ESOK's Judy Kepher is liaising with local tour operators and park wardens to develop the criteria that will form the basis of the new system. Although there will be opposition from lodges that have long avoided their social and environmental responsibilities, the will does exist among capable and caring camps, and the communities that play an ever greater role in managing Kenya's wilderness areas.

In December, the committee adopted a comprehensive set of 'eco-criteria' developed by Neel Inamdar as a working draft for its rating system. These cover every aspect of a property's operations, from wastewater treatment to the protection of the local environment, the monitoring of artificial light and noise, the promotion of local employment, cultural and educational activities and public infrastructure. They cover the more obvious needs for water and energy saving devices to the less obvious use of recyclable food tins and biodegradable cleaning products. And they encourage awareness-raising among staff, guests and local communities of the long-term benefits of environmental activities--and the establishment of vital feedback channels.

A major ecotourism industry has developed in many parts of the world and it is clear that the 'greening' of tourism operations is not only about physical impact on the land but also the impact on local socio-cultural practices and attitudes. In her book, Ecotourism and Sustainable Development: Who Owns Paradise?, American academic Martha Honey suggests that "real ecotourism" must involve seven vital, interrelated characteristics: travel to nature destinations; the minimising of one's environmental impact; the building of environmental awareness; direct financial benefits for conservation; financial benefits and empowerment for local people; the respect of local culture; and support for human rights and democracy.

Honey documents some blatant examples of what she calls 'ecotourism lite'--the self-serving adoption of the facade of ecotourism--and, even worse, the 'greenwashing' carried out by unscrupulous hoteliers and tour operators.

"Much of what is marketed as ecotourism amounts to only ecotourism lite, which offers tidbits of nature or minor environmental reforms such as not changing sheets every day or, worse, greenwashing scams that use environmentally friendly images but follow none of the principles and practices of sound ecotourism," she says.

Honey gives an 'ecotourism scorecard' to each of seven developing countries with well-established tourism industries. Kenya scores lowest of them all. This is hardly surprising given the much-documented destruction of the Masai Mara and Amboseli ecosystems but, put in historical perspective, it begs some important questions. As Honey points out, Kenya could--and should--have been a global model for the ecotourism industry. With its ground-breaking experiments in community conservation, the pioneering of ecotourism practices in its parks, innovative deals between the government and local authorities, and huge donor funding, Kenya had all the ingredients for getting it right. Honey exposes a litany of political shenanigans and ill-informed decisions that leave Kenya as the classic example of 'getting it wrong.'

A few shining examples cast a brighter light amid the gloom--Olonana Cultural Centre, the Kimana Group Ranch, Il Ngwesi in Laikipia--although Honey lambasts the exclusivity of Laikipia's white-owned farms which she sees as using ecotourism as a raison d'Ítre to protect their ill-gained possessions. This is the one area in which Honey has perhaps not done sufficient homework. Certainly at Il Ngwesi and, more recently, at Namunyak in the Mathews Mountains, the local communities are already seeing substantial returns from the tourism operations on their land. And both of these started with strong support from white-owned Lewa Downs.

There is one other silver lining to Honey's damning indictment: the clutch of promising, apparently honourable ecotourism initiatives that have been launched since her book went to press. The recent launch of the Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust on seventy-five thousand acres of prime wilderness in the southern Mathews Mountains has shown how quickly attitudes among traditional African communities towards their environment and its wild inhabitants can change; not just through the acquisition of immediate cash, but through long-term prospects of employment and prosperity.

In the Mathews, until recently one of the ivory poachers' most savage killing fields, there are now trained scouts, radio links with neighbouring ranches, regular wildlife counts, a fledgling furniture business, a new road, two new schools, and a beautiful ten-bed camp. For the local Samburu, these are all signs of progress in an area that was completely cut off from the country's mainstream economy. Michael Lenaimado, field coordinator of the Namunyak Trust, says: "Six years ago, the only sound we heard here at night were gunshots. Now we hear people laughing and drinking around a swimming pool. "This a completely different world."

This same basic conversion--of atmosphere and attitudes--is underway in several other wilderness areas outside Kenya's traditional wildlife destinations. The Shompole Group Ranch, south of Lake Magadi in the Rift Valley, is currently at the centre of a new partnership between the 150,000-acre ranch and a tourism company, ART. The project, called Maa O'Leng (Maasai in Depth) is impressive and embodies the one factor that will make or break the battle to save Africa's remaining wilderness--the local ownership and control of tourism revenues.

Maa O'Leng is breaking away from the conventional concessions and lease agreements that form the basis of most eco-tourism ventures on community reserves in Africa. ART's founder, Anthony Russell, hopes the agreement will form a new 'template' for other group ranches in Kenya and Tanzania to use; already he has the interest of several investors and, more importantly, Shompole's neighbours who share the area's indigenous forest and migrating wildlife.

Maa O'Leng is a potential ecotourism pioneer because it focuses on the long-term. For the past two years the local elders and ART have been laying the physical, financial and philosophical groundwork for their venture--seeking investment, training rangers, undertaking game counts, beefing up security, liaising with local officials and conservation groups. Says Helen Gichohi of the African Conservation Centre, which supports the project: "With the little effort already invested, we are already seeing more animals in the area--and fewer snares. With the community's involvement, the potential for tourism at Shompole is huge."

Plans have been drawn up for a small lodge straddling a panoramic spur beneath the Nguruman Escarpment. Everything will be built from local materials, sewerage will be treated through an eco-friendly constructed wetland system, all power will be provided by solar panels, all landscaping designed with local plants, and a 'resource centre' will exhibit historical artifacts and facets of modern Maasai life. As well as employment and revenue, the development will generate funds for a trust to finance an array of local initiatives--from piped water, roads and clinics to improved livestock practices and fast-growing tree nurseries.

If this all sounds too perfect, there is one aspect of the plan that signals a genuine break from the ecotourism lite of the past. "The aim", says Russell, "is that the local Maasai will eventually buy the whole lodge out." With a few years of solid training and on-the-job business practice, there seems no reason why the notoriously astute Maasai will not be able to run such a venture. And Russell is giving them every assistance he is currently translating his business plans into Maa. As he says: "The whole point is to give back responsibility to the people as soon as possible."

The devastating impact of individual greed on well-intentioned tourism ventures is nowhere better illustrated than in the Masai Mara Game Reserve. Here the principles of ecotourism have been largely abandoned in the avaricious carve-up of land and tourist dollars. In this fragile ecosystem, many of the larger lodges still defiantly use two-hundred-litre wood-burning 'Tanganyika boilers' and light huge campfires each night for a handful of guests. Despite promised inspections by district committees, great plans for tree-planting and shared woodlots, the rape of firewood continues unabated.

The real tragedy is that it is very easy to cut one's firewood consumption drastically. According to Nick Wood, director of Sekenani Camp, the camp has cut firewood use by 75 percent by switching to gas heating and using ploughshares to control the size of cosmetic fires. Wood has also developed a cost-effective press for making fuel brickettes by soaking in water anything carbon-based--dead grass, leaves, used paper. He is now marketing these brickettes in several rural areas.

Another new technology finally catching on in Kenya is a groundbreaking invention by a local ecologist touted as the country's first 'green charcoal.' Driven by the devastation of areas like the Mara, Elson Karstad has developed a unique brickette using the dust from charcoal vendors' sites bound together with local clay. According to Karstad, between 10 and 15 percent of all charcoal delivered to Nairobi is usually discarded as dust. By buying this dust directly from the vendors, he is currently producing three-and-a-half tonnes of vendors' waste brickettes each day for sale to local restaurants, chicken farmers and a handful of lodges. The brickettes are ideal for cooking and keeping clients warm. Although they generate only 75 percent of the heat of regular charcoal, they last twice as long, produce virtually no smoke, and work out 40 percent cheaper than regular charcoal.

If firewood is the greatest crisis facing the Mara, energy is an equally burning issue. Of all the technologies now available to tourism operators, none makes more sense than solar power. But solar has an image problem; not only is it still relatively expensive, it is also viewed as a wholly foreign technology. Mark Hankins, managing director of Energy Alternatives Africa, says that with efficient solar appliances used in conjunction with other energy sources--gas for cooking and wood from sustainable woodlots--solar power can manage most of the lighting and heating of any size tourist property.

"With the rapid advances of solar technology in the past few years, there is no way that anyone should still be running a one-hundred-kilowatt generator twenty-four hours a day," he says. "Big camps can have a battery bank and turn their generators off at night, while small camps should be able to power everything with solar."

Energy Alternatives Africa now runs courses to train people in the design and maintenance of solar systems and recently completed a training programme at one forward-thinking camp in Amboseli. "Solar power should be a vital energy component for all tourism operations," says Hankins. "Unfortunately, it's still very easy to put in a huge generator and forget all about it."

A natural solution for sewage disposal is now gaining a long-overdue foothold in Kenya. The installation of a wetlands ecosystem comprising a series of aquatic ponds is nature's own answer to sewage disposal. Not only does it decompose sewage, produce fresh water and effectively feed itself, it also produces a pleasant spectacle, generates no smell, requires little maintenance and provides an entire aquatic habitat and complete educational experience for one's visitors. It is probably the greatest 'win-win situation' available to the modern hotelier.

One area of environmental responsibility often overlooked is the landscaping around lodges and camps; this is usually the first to suffer under budget cuts. In the Mara, lack of foresight and misguided aesthetics have resulted in the importation of several exotic plants that are having a disastrous impact on the local environment. The most obvious is the notoriously aggressive lantana camara, whose tiny pink-orange flowers have taken over huge swathes of local vegetation. Several local authorities have now woken up to the lantana threat; Australia recently banned planting of the species outright.

Many exotic plants used in lodge gardens come from South Africa's cape where rainfall is considerably higher than in the Mara. As a result the plants need constant watering with obvious implications for the area's wildlife. These exotics also require more nurturing, more fertilisers and pesticides, with further obvious implications. In addition, low-level vegetation is often cleared away to make way for lawns and leaf litter is regularly swept away; denying vital mulch to both seeds and soil.

Dr. Rene Hailer, whose work at Bamburi Nature Trail and such lodges as Shaba Sarova and Shimba Hills Lodge have made him something of a guru in the local landscaping trade, says: "A lot of lodges prepare very impressive environmental plans, get a contract from the government on the grounds of their promises and then cut their budgets and cannot do many of the things promised."

All this illuminates the glaring lack of planning in the management of the Mara ecosystem--and of environmental legislation that could be used to bring offenders to book. Says Hailer: "There should be a master plan as soon as possible, not just involving 'greenies' from outside but involving all the commercial interests, every hotel owner in the area."

Many proprietors in the Mara are clearly concerned about clearing up their much-publicised messes. Late last year, hoteliers in the Mara formed the Masai Mara Managers Association to police firewood collection and promote local conservation initiatives. But, like most Other good intentions in the Mara, the recent lack of occupancy at their lodges has meant a lack of both personnel and funds for moving forward. For now, the number of individuals who are giving up on official pledges and going it alone points to a greater need for industry-wide collaboration than ever before. If the more honourable projects, like Neel Inamdar's and Anthony Russell's, are given the support they deserve, and the flesh blood of Rotich at KWS and Kenyatta at KTB brings the nationwide cooperation and planning strategies so desperately needed, Kenya may yet claim the ecotourism crown.

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