Zebra steaks to protect wildlife and benefit indigenous communities?

Lately Kenyan conservationists have been expressing views on utilization of wildlife.

Here are some personal views, based on factual experiences and expressed as objectively as one can subjectively be!

I used to be 100 percent for consumptive use of wildlife and now I am 100% against. The reality of wildlife conservation in Kenya changed my view. Here's why.

The definition of “Consumptive Use of Wildlife” broadly means generating revenue from wildlife by “consuming” it, through big game hunting, cropping for meat, hides or other products, or capturing animals alive for sale.

I am the son of a hunter and I am an Economist. I did my thesis in the early 90s on “Sustainable Development and Environment Conservation: Wildlife as a Renewable Resource in Kenya”. In my thesis I argued - and proved! - that consumptive use of wildlife was the best tool to guarantee long term protection of Africa’s wildlife. As a desk economist it made perfect sense: associate an economic value to the wildlife, and the people living with it will protect it, as it will create (sustainable) income.

If it pays off, people will look after it, right?

Economically, it appears to be a logical approach. If you have capital (wildlife in our case) and if you earn interests from its use - and if you manage it properly, not spending more than you earn - your capital will last in perpetuity. A perfect scenario, where with an economic value, not an emotional one, wildlife will become a monetary resource, make money for the people living with it, and in so doing be protected forever. The argument rests on three fundamental pillars: who owns the wildlife? Can it be used sustainably? Can the income be equitably shared?

As a student, I thought these three pillars were easy to address. In retrospect, I am not sure if I should smile at the naivety of my late 20’s, or feel embarrassed by my erudite arrogance. Allow me to explain to you why.

That thesis lead me to partner with an indigenous community in Southern Kenya, between Tsavo and Amboseli. The community-owned land spans an impressive 283,000 acres of savanna, grassland, bush and cloud forest. It is a critical dispersal area between two of the major National Parks in Kenya: Amboseli and Tsavo. Ninety percent of the plains game of Amboseli depends on this community land to survive.

Through a partnership with the Maasai owners of the Kuku Group Ranches, an area of 1,200 square kilometers, we proposed to create an eco-lodge, to be built and run with the support and help from the community, a project based on ecotourism, which represents a non-consumptive use of wildlife.

In those days (mid 90s), consumptive use of wildlife, in terms of “game cropping” was expanded from a pilot project phase and made available as an option for indigenous communities. We were obviously interested and thought it could help our conservation goals.

In our ecosystem it turned into a disaster. Some of the neighboring Group Ranches started to allow cropping. They did not have the capacity to manage such an operation directly, so it was contracted out to third parties. A decent operator started it, but then quickly the contract went to a second operator, and then transferred to a third one. The new operators over-estimated the wildlife populations and consequently over-cropped it. Wildebeest and zebra carcasses were all over our neighboring communities land. As a result populations of species that were cropped declined sharply.
We were horrified on both an ethical ground and from a conservation and economic perspective, realizing the potential impact this would have on future ecotourism in the area.
Seeing the results from these nearby areas, we worked with the Kuku communities to census the wildlife populations and discuss the costs and benefits of consumptive use versus ecotourism. As a result of this initiative we formed the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust and employed community rangers to protect the wildlife. Game cropping never occurred in Kuku Group Ranches, thanks of us. We proved wildlife was more valuable alive than dead. In the end, the evidence of mismanagement was so overwhelming that Kenya Wildlife Service re-established the ban on wildlife cropping.

Twenty years later the Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust has become a prominent conservation organization, employing 284 Kenyans, providing education, health and conservation services to Maasai communities. All through non consumptive use of wildlife (tourism and conservation) and through Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) such a REDD+ carbon project. In 2012 the Trust was celebrated at Rio+20, where it was awarded the UNDP Equator Prize and where Samson Parashina, the Chairman of the Trust, was named one of the UNEP Champions of the Earth.

We are still proving that wildlife alive is much more valuable than dead.
In these 22 years that naïve young desk economist learnt many lessons and still has many questions, here are just a few:

- What makes sense as a scholar, needs to be proven viable in the field. Practicality is far more important than theory. A good theory has no practical guarantee, no matter how much it makes sense in theory!
- Consumptive use requires a sophisticated and complex management and compliance and enforcement infrastructure to be properly managed. Many operators will take a short-term approach for a quick return rather than adopting strategy for long-term sustainability.
- Who owns the Wildlife? Wildebeest migrate from Kenya to Tanzania. Who owns them? The Kenya communities or the Tanzanian communities? “Kuku Group Ranches” hartebeest live 50% of the year in the Chyulu National Park. Are they owned by the Kuku Maasai community? Zebra and Wildebeest cropped in the nearby Maasai land were as “ours” as they were “theirs”.
- Determining the “right” amount of “wildlife capital” a community can claim is “theirs” is very complicated and expensive.
- How do we tell a community member who with a failed crop and with dead livestock turns to wildlife for food (“pot poaching”), that he/she cannot do that, but a licensed “game cropper” can kill hundreds of wildlife?
- How do we make sure the benefits from wildlife cropping are equitably divided among all community members?
- And, finally, how do we promote Kenya to the World of tourism, when a zebra whose picture was taken in the day, could be brain shot with a spotlight and a rifle the following night? I guess an answer will be not having game cropping where there is photo tourism, but I am still not convinced that truly answers the question. Do we want to follow the shameful South African industry, where lions are bottle fed by tourists one day and shot by “hunters” few months later? Is this the image we want to give Kenya? Do we want to follow the example of the Selous Game Reserve in neighbouring Tanzania where over 90% of the land has been set aside for consumptive use, yet has seen the most devastating declines in wildlife numbers of up to 90% in certain species? And should we put at risk Kenya’s good name and standing in the international tourism world, and many of the jobs created and sustained by photo safaris for a controversial project that has no certainty in being successful?

To protect Kenya’s wildlife heritage for generations to come, it needs to generate significant income for the communities we expect and demand co-existing with wildlife. This is not really arguable. For communities living with wildlife there are true economic costs whether from losses of livestock to predators or through competition for grazing or the transmission of disease to livestock. Communities need to see wildlife as generating income, jobs and services. And in particular, jobs must be open at a senior and managerial levels as does happen in the photo tourism industry – but does not often happen in the consumptive safari industry where a skinner generally remains a skinner for life.
The approach we are demonstrating in Kuku is non-consumptive use of wildlife and broad PES. We believe that promoting a Kenya tourism model based on well-managed photo-safari ecotourism (in contrast to the bloody practices of canned hunting and game cropping in competing African Countries) will produce far more revenues and better conservation outcomes than reinstating consumptive use.

Botswana is facing the same pressures from the powerful hunting lobby that is trying to have hunting reintroduced back to Botswana. I have been privileged to see the early results of a pioneering study that compares the value to the Botswana government of a wildlife concession on the fringes of the Okavango Delta that was purely a hunting concession which has been converted to purely photo-safaris after the hunting ban was imposed in 2013. This is the first like-for-like study that compares the economic values at a macro level for two competing land uses on the same piece of land.

The results show that the number of work-days being generated by the concession under photo safaris is more than 50,000 work days per annum that it did under hunting. The amount of revenues generated just for the Botswana Government from taxes etc (excluding the benefits and the multiplier effect that this concession generates for people living in Maun etc) is over US$3.5m more than hunting

These results are from one of the prime tourism destinations in the Continent, for a specific hunting concession, turned into photo tourism. Obviously they are significant for that peculiar location, but nevertheless they clearly demonstrate that in this specific scenario income generated by non-consumptive use of wildlife far exceeds the consumptive use of it.

Luca Belpietro
MWCT Founder
April 2018

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