A two-week-long educational trip to Kenya provides insights into the challenges and opportunities of ecotourism.

Those involved in conservation know that it is an interdisciplinary field combining sociology, politics, economics, culture, biology and ecology. It is not an easy thing to share the complexities of conservation dynamics with students who, when they make their first forays into the field, tend to see the issues in very black and white terms. Residential field courses, however, offer unique opportunities for budding conservationists to see and experience the issues first hand—to be impressed and moved by the majesty of wildlife, but also to view the inequalities and injustices that drive people to engage in poaching, deforestation and other activities that threaten not just certain species, but entire ecosystems. Having recently returned from such a field course, I am struck by how these sorts of trips allow students to fully appreciate how difficult it is to measure natural systems, and how “truth” is often concealed by propaganda, opinion, misinformation, disinformation and the occasional total lack of information.

Our destination was Kenya, which is home not only to a famous diversity of wildlife, but also a number of other riches—geothermal energy, water, oil and food. Our trip spends 14 days in a small polygon of Kenya with vertices marked by Nairobi, Lake Naivasha, Lake Nakuru, Mount Kenya, and the western and eastern ends of the Maasai Mara. Here, it is particularly easy to see how Kenya’s prosperity waxes and wanes with changes in climate, national politics, global politics and the interests of global superpowers, multinational companies and international charities.

Kenya’s wildlife, and the tourism it attracts, is one of the keystones of the nation’s economy. But Kenya faces social and environmental problems that affect international tourism, and its government seeks economic prosperity and technological development in ways that usually conflict directly with the nation’s natural capital. Furthermore, it is not only Kenya’s wildlife that needs conserving; there is also the country’s vast melting pot of cultures to consider.

The field course begins: Land-use change around Nairobi

We began near Nairobi in the Kitengela triangles, barely-triangular tracts of land that traditionally formed dispersal corridors for the great megaherbivore migrations of the Serengeti ecosystem. The pressures of economic development in  Nairobi have caused land value to sky-rocket in this region. Without sensible regulation of land sale and subdivisions, the Kitengela plains have changed from a continuous stretch of savanna and scrub into a patchwork of small-holdings, farms, cement factories, and villages, fenced and fragmented to such an extent that wildlife migrations are blocked. Nairobi National Park, a honeypot for safari tourism due to its proximity to Nairobi, is now fully encircled by urban sprawl and poorly regulated, anthropogenic, landscape fragmentation. Is it now any more than a big zoo?

We found hope on the fringes of the park, where members of the Olerai Conservancy aim to halt the subdivision of land into fenced, half-acre plots. The native Kenyan managers of the conservancy have worked with their local communities for several years now, fostering trust that their vision of posterity can also yield prosperity through a combination of low-impact agriculture and tourism. Grants from the Kenyan government and the World Bank have helped to support the installation of water pans, which provide precious permanent drinking for livestock and wildlife.

We met pastoralist landowners on the very edge of the park, where loss of livestock to lions and hyenas, and loss of crops to large herbivores, is not just a threat but a reality. This sometimes prompts illegal retaliatory killings, which can be discouraged via compensation schemes, assisted installation of fortified livestock enclosures, and new methods for deterring predators. Unfortunately, these schemes—run by government and international charities—are usually transient, dictated by pockets of large-scale funding.

Kenya’s lakes: Floriculture, catchment scale management, and ecotourism

We found a new set of environmental problems at Lake Naivasha, a freshwater lake fed by catchments that stretch back to the Aberdare mountain range. The lake has a long and ecologically devastating history of species introductions, the most obvious of which are the vast floating mats of water hyacinth and papyrus. In some years, boats fail to reach the central lake waters through this floating thicket. Introduced crayfish and tilapia fish have radically altered the natural aquatic community, but even these fish stocks have declined in the face of sedimentation from upstream agriculture and the burgeoning floriculture industries on the lake’s shore.

Lake Naivasha is now a booming industry for international flower-growers, growing and sending roses to the supermarkets of Europe. The cynical view of this industry is that it exports Kenya’s scarcest commodity, water, to water-rich countries, in the form of flowers. This might sound like taking coals to Newcastle, but the tax breaks provided by the Kenyan government, coupled with the ideal growing conditions and cheapness of human labour in this region, make it highly profitable.

We visited two flower farms where drip irrigation is used to minimise water usage; where the use of pesticides and fertilisers is carefully regulated– sometimes using biological instead of chemical controls; where attempts are made to capture rainwater efficiently and recycle water wherever possible; and where there has been investment in riparian waste-water treatment systems to reduce the output of waste chemicals into the lake itself.

We discussed the provision of minimum wages and ethical working conditions for staff, the provision of housing and schooling for the families of workers, and the work of the Lake Naivasha Riparian Association whose members hope to reduce the impact of floriculture on wildlife and the lake ecosystem.

We also drove to Lake Nakuru National Park, a completely fenced, but still vast, wildlife sanctuary on the edge of Nakuru city.This is a hotspot for rhinoceros conservation, hosting healthy populations of both white and black rhinos alongside a host of other charismatic species. Despite enjoying the wildlife, we wonder whether we are visiting part of Kenya’s vast wildness—a bastion of conservation in the face of rising pressures from rhino poaching—or whether the fence simply creates a large safari park for tourists.

Middle Kenya: Conserving rhinos and water

After relocating to the western flank of Mount Kenya, we explored several sites in middle Kenya. The first was Solio, a cattle ranch forming a buffer around a wildlife reserve that supports very large densities of black and white rhinos. Solio’s income is derived from a mixture of cattle ranching and high-end tourism, alongside national and international trade in rhinos for restocking programmes.

The latter income source is currently threatened by increasing levels of poaching, but perhaps more directly by changes in government policy. Until recently, only the indigenous wildlife of Kenya was the property of the Kenyan people, and was managed by the Kenyan Wildlife Service. The recent Wildlife Act made even the non-indigenous wildlife of Kenya, including white rhinos, also the property of Kenya. This prevents ranches like Solio from earning money from trade in white rhino, and begs several questions: If the Kenyan government insists on ownership of all wildlife, how will private conservation entrepreneurs support conservation on private land? Could private ranches benefit from community engagement, so as to reduce the incidence of poaching? How can rhino horn be devalued internationally to reduce the profits in poaching—or should we consider legalising trade in rhino horn?

With this conservation conflict still ringing in our ears, we returned to the issue of water regulation and conservation. Water is more plentiful on the flanks of Mount Kenya, but the catchments extend all the way to the Indian Ocean, and with increasing levels of water extraction, mountainside rivers soon turn into seasonal streams needed by pastoralists and wildlife alike. In Ngushishi, a Water Resource Users Association (WRUA) is supported by the Department of Water to regulate the use of natural water sources by domestic users, flower farms, local farmers and larger farms growing crops for the international supermarket trade. Water users who join the WRUA are given a proportion of the water flow, but the WRUA ensures that a fixed amount of water is left to flow to the lower parts of the catchment. Here, regulation is essential because the wealth is at the top of the catchment and, left unchecked, there would be no incentives for upstream users to leave water for 30 current conservation 8.4 Students in the flower farm spotlight Dave Hodgson downstream use. Thanks to good management and an apparent lack of corruption, Ngushishi WRUA succeeds where others have failed; however, questions remain: What happens during drought years? What happens when water prices fluctuate? How does illegal water extraction get policed?

We also met an organic farmer who is supported by the WRUA and has created an exemplar of lowimpact, organic farming. On a small piece of land, he grows a diversity of crops for the local, national, and (sometimes) international market. He rears cattle in barns to supply milk for the local market. He composts his domestic and horticultural waste to return nutrients to the soil. He drip-irrigates to minimise water consumption. In fact, he uses every drop of water four times. He has built water pans to store rainwater, ensuring water availability for at least three months of drought conditions. This water is used domestically before entering a large fishpond, where the farmer rears fish for the local market. The water from the pond is used to irrigate crops and is then recycled to feed a composting system. On the fringes of the composting pits and water reservoirs, the farmer rears bees for honey and silk moths for fabric. We were suitably impressed by his organisation and productivity.

Land use and safari in the Maasai Mara

Students in the flower farm

For the final leg of our journey, we folded ourselves into our matatu vans and endured the long journey to the Mara North Conservancy at the western end of the Maasai Mara. At dusk, we entered a patch of scrub where we camped for the night. Maasai guards kept the leopards and hyenas away, and the students were awestruck by the stars unobscured by light pollution here.

A dawn walk by the river revealed hippos and buffalo, but the feeling of wilderness was dispelled when the students were shown the nearby lodge and glamping tents at Salt Springs, located only metres from our supposedly “wild” camp. The facility is run entirely by Maasai and helps bring income into the Mara North Conservancy. It is a preferable alternative to unsustainable agricultural activity, or the illegal development of permanent structures, on this critical habitat. Rising land value and a new sense of ownership have driven Maasai landowners to sell to the highest bidder, resulting in fences and international investment. The Serengeti ecosystem is vast, but development risks the natural movement of the wildlife that maintains this northern section.

Many conservation issues are raised by the following two days of safari. We drove too close to the animals, spent too long watching them, and found ourselves voyeurs of traditional Maasai lifestyles during a touristic visit to a local manyatta. It made us question our very presence in Kenya. The experiences were those of a lifetime, but how does tourism change local lifestyles, impact on the behaviour and persistence of the wildlife, and drive the market forces that exploit Kenya’s natural resources?

We debated our impacts on Kenya, concluding that a field course like ours can only be justified if it has legacy; what the staff and students learn from the experience must be translated into efforts to help Kenya develop sustainably—and to conserve, but not in the sense of preserving the wildlife and ecosystem. Rather, we would wish for conservation that means adapting to maintain biodiversity, quality of life for local residents, and natural environment (which is also natural capital) in the face of national and international politics, market forces and climatic change.

Summing up

Having been involved with Kenya field trips for ten years now, I can sense changes—although I often can’t tell whether I am gradually forming opinions, finding out more truth, or detecting real change. This year, I came home feeling more positive than ever that the instinctive optimism of Kenya’s people will bear fruit, and will provide the impetus for the conservation and sustainable development of the country’s natural environment. Despite political instability, corruption, poaching and terrorism, the people of Kenya understand that their wildlife contributes both posterity and prosperity to them and to their nation, and are motivated to conserve it. I hope that Kenya’s political systems catch up with this optimism and learns to support, regulate, and align the interests of Kenya’s human and natural systems—and that the country can serve as a model to other naturerich nations looking to balance economic and ecological goals.

Dave Hodgson is Associate Professor of Ecology at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus. He visits Kenya annually with students from the University’s Conservation Science and Policy Field Course. He wrote this piece with the help of Enoch Mobisa, Sue Rodway-Dyer, Chris Laing, Josie Bridges, and Sophie Davison.

Photographs: Dave Hodgson

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