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This past spring, massive rainfall caused the Mara River, the lifeblood of the Maasai Mara in southern Kenya, to overflow, flooding ecotourism safari camps located along its high banks. The flooding was so severe that people reported seeing chairs and even refrigerators being swept along the river’s brown, turgid waters.

The widespread floods exacerbated the already dire economic state of the Maasai Mara caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has gutted the tourism industry, says Brian Kearney-Grieve, executive director of the Sidekick Foundation, the primary funder of the Mara Elephant Project. MEP, as it is known, protects the region’s 2,400 pachyderms by mitigating poaching and human-elephant conflict and preserving habitat. As a keystone species, elephants are invaluable to the Maasai Mara, eating brush and trees and spreading seeds via their dung, keeping the Serengeti plains fertile and open for herds of grazing animals.

The Maasai Mara, which is part of the vast Serengeti plains, draws thousands of foreigners every year to watch the spectacular Great Migration, when more than two million animals – wildebeest, zebras and gazelles – undertake their annual odyssey from Tanzania north into Kenya, making the region the country’s most valuable tourism asset.

The threat to elephants lies with the revenue-base collapse, says Kearney-Grieve. The Maasai tribes people, renowned for their extravagant beadwork and tall stature, are the legal landowners of the Maasai Mara. Together with such stakeholders as ecotourism camp owners, they manage 14 areas, called “conservancies.” These are lease agreements worth about US$10 million a year that is derived from tourism. Payments are given to individual Maasai landowners in exchange for keeping their fields open to wildlife, rather than growing crops or grazing livestock.

This past spring, because of COVID-19, the conservancies were negotiating reduced lease rates with the Maasai landowners while scrambling to find emergency funds to pay the teams of rangers and related expenses, such as vehicles, used to keep a lid on poaching.

Their fears about a possible increase in poaching proved to be justified. In late April, Rhino Conservation Botswana reported that poachers had killed six rhino after the global pandemic shut down tourism in the southern African nation.

MEP’s conservation work includes a remarkably successful anti-poaching intelligence network. And while MEP hadn’t detected a rise in poaching as of late April, Kearney-Grieve fears that poachers from neighbouring Tanzania may take advantage of the absence of tourists and the reduced ranger numbers to venture into the Maasai to shoot elephants for their ivory.

Farmers will also be more protective of their crops in the upcoming months, because of the economic hardship, and therefore less tolerant of crop-raiding elephants, says Kearney-Grieve. “Communities are so under threat in terms of their income that they might be more aggressive in terms of how they protect their crops from elephants.”

 

Roberta Staley is a Vancouver-based author, magazine editor and writer and filmmaker.

 

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