The Colonial rationale in Kenya’s conservation sector remains as dry as ever, and the current pandemic emphasizes this and reveals its ugly secrets.

December 2019, the Chinese city of Wuhan reports its first case of the novel virus, now popularly referred to as COVID-I9. Countries across the world scramble to institute protocols like the cessation of public gatherings, compulsory wearing of masks, travel bans, and a complete lockdown in some countries. More than one year later, the Coronavirus is still running wild and wreaking havoc. According to the World health organization, at least 2 million people worldwide have succumbed to Covid-19 so far. With the tourism sector stalled globally, countries like Kenya which massively depend on tourism, have hugely been affected. According to the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA,2020), “30 years of effort and conservation investment is at significant risk of collapsing because the hailing tourism industry has left parks, reserves and conservancies stripped of the vital funding needed to manage and reward communities and private landowners for the opportunity cost of coexisting with wildlife”.

However, the current crisis has ruthlessly exposed the intellectual vacuum that exists within the conservation sector in Kenya. It is an electric vacuum that has always not been there because I guess the practices and policies we are putting in place now were applicable and workable in the 1940s and 50s and maybe in the 60. However, realities have changed, and we have still stuck in the colonial mode of Victorian and Keeper, a style of thinking. If I elaborate a little bit is basically that statutory authority, i.e. the gamekeeper, has the duty of keeping the ordinary people at horses or wildlife so that elite, the nobility, i.e., in this case, the tourist and wealthier members of the society, can use it for recreational purposes. We forget that there’s a majority of our community and a massive chunk of our background, even people who depend on using specific natural resources in our everyday lives. The pandemic has revealed that relying on foreign patronage to prop up any of our economic pillars (tourism) is disastrous. For example, if we bring this to an individual’s level, you and me, we arrange our houses and sweep them and keep them clean and comfortable not for visitors. And, if a visitor comes and enjoys the house I have or finds the birds in my compound or finds my chair comfortable in the home, that’s great because I have welcomed him/her, and he/she has enjoyed it, but that’s not why I bought the chair, that’s not why I created a comfortable space. The comfortable space was for my family and me first and foremost, so visitors are, by the way. So, in short, tourism should always be a byproduct of conservation; it should never be the purpose or reason for conservation; if there’s anything like a silver bullet for sorting the problem, it starts by understanding that simple statement. However, so far, it’s still been challenging for the policymakers and sector leaders in Kenya to understand this simple statement.

Elephants calves at the Ereteti Elephant Sanctuary in Northern Kenya. Jeff Waweru/ Eco Africa.

Unlike the 2014–2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the covid pandemic has shut down everything and has revealed the fallacy safari tourism can underpin the need to conserve. Even from a scientific point of view, we have lovely biodiversity, and there are so many animals in this country (Kenya) that scientists rarely see. Certainly, no tourist will ever see them because they are so hidden, and maybe they are not attractive or cute as tourist call them. So why should we conserve those, because no tourist will pay to see them? Does that mean we should go out and kill all of them or not care about anything that affects them? If the tourists stop coming because of the pandemic like now, does that mean we should just let all of it go?

I have witnessed over the past months how media reports that wildlife is suddenly under threat because there is no tourism. No, this is entirely not true; it’s sort of flails of a sector that cannot adjust to new realities and address them the way they are.  I say this because tourists do not look after our wildlife; they never and they never will. They only tour Kenya to admire them. The truth of the matter is; our wildlife is only looked after by our people, our wildlife rangers, those mandated by the government to do so and the local communities living around them. If all these mentioned people slack off, then we would lose our wildlife and heritage. Still, it is not if tourist stopped coming we lose all our heritage; that’s a fallacy to sort of keep the perception of crisis and keep the disproportionate emphasis on foreign tourist and the investors or operators that bring them to Kenya.

For the first in all my years, the tourism narrative is changing in Kenya; over the past few months since covid hit, I witnessed an advertisement online for Magical Kenya that featured local people enjoying Kenyan’s resources. It’s a wonderful thing; For a long time now, Magical Kenya has been obsessed with showing whatever we are doing to be good by enjoyed by foreigners or white people. But they are now showing Kenyans enjoying these resources because they know that the revival of all these things will depend first on local people partaking in them, not foreigners. It may be years before foreigners are brave to board a plane to go someplace, even if the place they are going to is probably less affected by COVID-19 than the countries where they come from. So we need to completely discard this 100-year-old narrative that we are still hanging on to now. Banking business, agriculture, the practice of law, medicine etc., have changed beyond recognition even in the last 3o years. However, conservation and tourism still hang on those colonial underpinnings, particularly in Africa. In Africa, it is probably starkest because this is a continent of majority-black people sector, the romance, the image is built around a narrative developed by Europeans.

Magical Kenya promotion video showing local tourist enjoying Kenya Heritage. Magical Kenya, 2020.

Covid-19 will be here for some time, meaning that the tourism industry will be affected even more in the coming years; we won’t see any tourist coming in. But still, conservation is something that is very inherently important to us as Africans. How can we shape the conservation narrative and create conservation systems that are sustainable for both the natives and tourists? First and foremost, we need to look at the amounts of money coming in for conservation. We need to look at those numbers and get some logic into it. There should be no funding coming in for wildlife protection other than Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). We must divorce conservation from tourism. And lastly, we must include our local people as active intellectual participants. We first need to priorities the needs of our people. In Kenya, for example, we keep our local people out of conservation areas even during drought times when they need grazing. Yet, we invite events like Koraga festivals and World Rally Championship. What is more damaging to the environment, goats or cars?

Korogo Music Festival happened last year at the Hell’s Gate National Park. Edwin/Capital FM, 2020.

We’ve always thought that the world is vulnerable to nuclear war and all these things; just a virus has shut down the world and changed it into something that will never go back to being the same. But this is a chance for us to rethink things and exploit our intellectual resources, our people etc., as part of our valuable markup of this country we call Kenya. As a country, we will go if we have these underpinnings and stir these things rather than trying to please some people who have entirely different aims from our indigenous ones.

I invite you to join this conversation by sharing your thoughts and raising awareness of this topic on all your online platforms. #decolonizingconservation.

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