Responsible tourism in Kenya

While much of Africa is only just setting off on its tourism expedition, Kenya has been bumping happily along the trail for decades, becoming synonymous with game drives, bush camps and the quintessential African vacation. But it has now reached something of a crossroads.

Historically, the main tourism attraction in Kenya has always been its nature and wildlife. Tourists tend to avoid the towns and cities, and much of the continent’s human history has been all but ignored. But for a truly responsible vacation here, it’s not all about the secluded lodges and tucked-away waterholes, but also about cultural exchange. Meeting the people who live here alongside the animals, learning about their traditional lifestyles, and helping to support them too.

Where once wildlife was the star attraction – and the one commanding the greatest protection – now community-based tourism in Kenya is being recognised as pivotal in a rewarding safari experience too.

Tourism has been the driving force behind Kenya’s progress when it comes to conservation, contributing to the creation of vast national parks and game reserves, and the outlawing of hunting. But Kenya’s ability to adapt to this shift – widening the scope from wildlife to include people – may determine the success of tourism here in future. Because conservation must acknowledge the role that traditional ways of life can play in environmental protection, and the right of Kenya’s indigenous peoples to practise those ways of life ahead of profits.
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People & culture in Kenya

How do conservancies work in Kenya?

A conservancy is created when a group of landowners comes together to collectively manage their small parcels of land as a bigger area. Each landowner maintains their individual title, but decisions are made collectively. Land use agreements maintain limited grazing rights, and – crucially – the landowners can lease their land to safari companies, who can establish lodges or camps on the land with agreed visitor fees.

Traditionally, land in Kenya was set aside as a national park (such as Amboseli) or as a wildlife reserve (such as the Maasai Mara). When it came to conservation and tourism, this process was often very successful. But it also often meant that local communities were evicted from the land they had lived on for generations and could no longer use it for grazing livestock, fishing or harvesting food and firewood.

Then a third way emerged, permitting the coexistence of local people and wildlife. Conservancies began to spring up across the country, particularly in areas surrounding the Maasai Mara Game Reserve – where an abundance of wildlife is found.

The advantages of the conservancies are huge:

    Tourists gain an insight into local lifestyles – most commonly the Maasai who own many of the conservancies. The Maasai are able to stay on their land and generate a sustainable income. Encroaching development is eating into the Maasai’s grazing lands – but with tracts being brought together as large conservancies, it is much harder to chip away at them. The landowners recognise the value of protecting the wildlife as they gain income from it directly. They will therefore do what they can to stop poachers – unlike other communities living on the border of protected areas, who gain no direct benefits from the presence of wildlife. In some cases, there is more wildlife to be found in the conservancies than in the parks and reserves. In fact, the region’s largest pride of lions can be found on a conservancy – and smaller migrations of wildebeest and zebra pass through conservancies too. Activities such as bushwalks and nighttime game drives are permitted in the conservancies – but not in the other protected areas. There is a distinct lack of transparency regarding national park and game reserve fees, which are paid to Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and local councils. The fees and lease money paid to the conservancies are directly reinvested in the land and the community. Conservancies have far fewer visitors – and beds – per square kilometre, making for a much more personalised experience for tourists, and avoiding the overexploitation that is happening in other protected areas where lodges and camps are being built at an alarming rate.

All sounds pretty swell, right?

Well, not entirely.

Are Kenya conservancies land grabs in disguise?

While there’s no doubting the contribution that conservancies make to environmental protection, there have been accusations that these set-ups sometimes resemble a land grab, or even a modern form of colonialism, dispossessing communities of their ancestral lands in the name of conservation.

The argument goes that local people give up unfettered access to their grazing pastures and are directed into low-paid jobs in the conservancies such as cleaning, driving or gift shop staff, while the land is used for big-bucks wildlife tourism.

One prominent conservation agency is the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), which works closely with the well-known Lewa Conservancy and receives funding from USAID and the European Union, among other organisations. The NRT has been accused of serious human rights abuses and the control of land that is even greater than that of the Kenyan government.

Conservancies & pastoralism

Conservancies also hinder the movements of herds. Conflicts between pastoralists (who range over wide areas with their livestock in search of grazing pastures) and farmers (who remain in one place) over land aren’t new. But they are growing increasingly common and violent across the African continent, with livestock invading farmland and plundering crops, and farms, with fenced-off fields, encroaching onto range lands.

Such flare-ups are often a result of inequitable land ownership, which is one legacy of colonialism in Kenya. With a warming climate making grazing pastures harder to come by, and now conservancies breaking up rangelands too, some pastoralists feel as though their livelihoods are under threat.

There is huge money to be made in wildlife tourism and farming. Pastoralism, on the other hand, is often viewed as economically unproductive. But moving cattle and other livestock from place to place serves a strong environmental benefit, fertilising soil and improving biodiversity.

What the issue boils down to is who has the right to control access to land, and decides how it should be used. Does the need to replenish Kenya’s struggling wildlife outweigh that of pastoral communities to maintain access to their rangelands? And where conservancies are set up, are they operating on an ethical, cooperative basis that offers genuine opportunities and income to local people, or trampling on their rights in the name of conservation?

How you can support community-based tourism in Kenya
Conservancies are potentially a valuable solution to what could be considered the main problem facing tourism in Kenya: the tricky balancing act of conserving wildlife while also helping people stay in their homes and continue their ways of life.

Visit community-owned and -managed conservancies that are more likely to employ local people in higher grade roles and ensure that profits from tourism stay in these communities. Community-owned conservancies significantly reduce the risk of exploitation by irresponsible tour companies, as the community sets the rules.

Ask your tour operator direct questions such as “How much do you pay to the Maasai village when I go there?” or “Who do you pay the money to?” and “How do you support the village and where can I see the evidence?”. These should be met with direct and clear answers – any fudging or nebulous “whenever possibles” should trigger a warning light.

Community-based tourism: the wrong way

Despite the rise of community-owned conservancies, there are still many cultural tourism experiences which do not benefit the communities directly, and even tours which are exploitative and degrading. Tour companies visit villages so that visitors can photograph local people without interaction; money goes into the pockets of the tour companies and drivers without being shared with the villagers themselves.

As well as being deeply unethical for the local communities, tourists also report being harassed and bullied into buying crafts and making donations – the natural conclusion of a community who sees wealthy visitors in their village each week, without seeing any of the benefits.

Etiquette when meeting Maasai people
If you find yourself on a tour to a Maasai village – or that of any other ethnic group – never take photos without asking permission first, and always try to engage with the local people rather than just looking and taking pictures. Ideally, your guide will be from the village itself (plenty of Maasai speak English!), but if not, they should be able to converse in the local language and know the community well.

Any gifts should be given to a local leader to distribute as they see fit – speak to your tour company first to find out what they recommend donating. It may not always be what you expect! If the tour company is unsure, this is a warning sign that they are unfamiliar with the community.

Sex tourism in Kenya

As with many countries where you have wealthy tourists visiting and impoverished local communities, sex tourism has long been an issue in Kenya, particularly along the coast in areas such as Malindi, Mombasa and Diani. Disturbingly, children under the age of 18 are known to frequently be engaged in commercial sexual exploitation. Some have been forced into this through poverty and the need to support their families; others have been trafficked.

This practice is illegal in Kenya, and some progress has been made in recent years to tackle it. Kenya’s parliament has passed a national policy on the elimination of child labour which incorporates sex work, and the Kenyan police established a Child Protection Unit to investigate child exploitation. Sadly, child labour is still prevalent.

What you can do to fight sex tourism in Kenya

    The law as it stands is unfortunately quite poorly enforced, so local businesses often step up to fight against sex tourism. Travelers too can help look out for children’s wellbeing. Some hotels, bars and restaurants will have signs or information in their menus stating their commitment to stamping out child sex tourism – try and support these places if you can. If you are concerned that a child may be in danger or being exploited, report it to Kenya’s National Child Helpline on 116 (24 hour, toll free), run by Childline Kenya.

Wildlife & environment

Is hunting allowed in Kenya?

Always ahead of the game in African tourism, Kenya banned trophy hunting in 1977. Long-established national parks and newly gazetted communal conservancies across the country strive to protect the nation’s wildlife – including many threatened species such as wild dogs and black and white rhino. But shockingly, wildlife numbers have declined substantially since hunting was banned.

There are many reasons behind the decline, including drought, a wave of violence in Laikipia County involving armed herders invading properties and killing wildlife, and human populations spreading into wildlife habitats. Protecting wildlife also costs huge amounts of money and even when it’s properly funded it can be controversial.

Herders and farmers need to be compensated if a lion is killing their cattle, or they’re simply going to go out and kill it. And as a huge amount of wildlife lives outside protected areas, human-wildlife conflict results in the poisoning of predators that threaten livestock.

In several other African countries where controlled hunting is permitted (including Zimbabwe and Namibia), wildlife numbers are on the increase and high trophy hunting fees have been reinvested in wildlife conservation. Inevitably, then, there continues to be talk of introducing hunting permits in Kenya.

This would be a highly controversial move, not only amongst animal welfare groups, but with those who feel that this would be a step backwards for conservation. There are concerns about the potential for corruption and the ability of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to manage the permits, as well as the negative image this would bring to the tourism industry.

Does hunting help conservation?
Hunting in Kenya is complicated. We do see the argument that well-regulated hunting can help to manage wildlife populations as well as raise considerable funds for conservation projects. But the principle that saw Kenya ban hunting all those decades ago – that wildlife is worth more alive than dead – is just as valid today. By visiting Kenya, taking a game drive and paying your entry fees to national parks and reserves, you are demonstrating this.

Responsible communal conservancies are a fantastic example of how land use can affect the fortunes of wildlife. Rather than fees being paid to KWS, they are paid directly to the community that owns the land, so that local people can see instantly the benefits of protecting the wildlife, which is what visitors come to see.

The conservancies create important buffer zones around the parks and wildlife reserves, form extended wildlife corridors and deter poachers in a kind of Kenyan “Neighbourhood Watch”. So visiting responsible conservancies and creating income for those who have set aside their own land for the protection of wildlife sends an important message to those who may otherwise be poaching or poisoning.

If you want to support a specific programme in Kenya, take a look at Save the Rhino, which runs several field programmes protecting the endangered rhino and the areas they live in.

Chinese investment in Kenya

China, Kenya’s largest trading partner, has made many significant investments in the country’s infrastructure as part of its strategic Belt and Road Initiative. The Standard Gauge Railway linking the capital, Nairobi, with Mombasa on the Indian Ocean has proved controversial due to allegations – denied on both sides – that the valuable port of Monbasa has been offered as collateral for the loan. Accusations of ‘debt trap diplomacy’ have frequently been levelled at China in recent years, as well as the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

No one can deny Kenya’s right to develop its infrastructure and industries, and create much-needed income and employment – especially in the often drought-afflicted north. But some of the incentives behind these developments are troubling. Not only has China been regularly accused of siphoning off the natural assets of developing African nations for its own gain (which can be said of many Western nations too), but its environmental record is deplorable.

Given this record of environmental exploitation, hopes are not high that development will be carried out in a cautious way. Tiny Lamu is Kenya’s oldest continually inhabited town and a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the new Chinese-built deepwater port here, along with an oil refinery and pipeline, has enormous environmental implications for the coastline and marine life, including endangered sea turtles, that nest here. Local communities have not been consulted and indigenous groups have lost land to the project without their agreement or compensation.

Longer term, the emissions from these new projects contribute further to pollution and to the climate crisis. The droughts which periodically affect East Africa, costing many thousands of lives through crop failures and famine, have become more intense and long-lasting in recent years.

What you can do
Save Lamu is a local campaign group set up to raise awareness of the threats facing Lamu County, and to advocate on behalf of its people and businesses. The website has a wealth of information that’s well worth reading.

The ivory ban & elephant poaching in Kenya

Kenya has seen a massive decline in elephant poaching, which is down 96 percent since 2013. Meanwhile, elephant numbers have surged, up 21 percent to approximately 36,280 in about the same period. This success is a result of determined efforts to combat the poachers and international agreements to end the ivory trade.

The USA banned sales of ivory almost entirely and China, which has a 3,000-year-old history of carving ivory, swiftly followed suit, with dozens of workshops and retail outlets closing down. The UK, which has a long history in ivory trading, then introduced a very comprehensive ban – although the Born Free Foundation has pointed out that there are still potential loopholes which could allow ivory products to be sold.

There are reasons to feel positive, then, although there remains substantial demand for ivory products. A survey by the World Wildlife Fund of Chinese travelers found that though domestic demand has dropped considerably, vacationmakers would still seek out ivory artworks if they could. Many countries have yet to ban ivory.

What you can do to combat elephant poaching in Kenya
Never buy ivory products, new or second hand, and if you see ivory being sold in Kenya then report it to the local police.

Responsible elephant tourism proves to those in power that there is an economic case to protect these precious animals as well as a moral one. The more people pay to see them in the wild, the more likely they are to remain protected.

Tips for responsible tourism in Kenya

The Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was set up in memory of the game warden and conservationist. Its main role is as an elephant orphanage, taking in rescued captive elephants that cannot be reintroduced into the wild, as well as babies who may have been orphaned due to poaching. The Trust’s story is heartwarming; we highly recommend a visit while in Kenya. If you can’t make it, consider fostering a baby elephant. Your money will make a difference. Avoid the slum tours offered in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, where hundreds of thousands of people live in squalid conditions, surrounded by hazards such as open sewers. While the benefits of these tours are questionable, tourists are putting themselves in a dangerous position, as well as exploiting residents who understandably resent being stared at or photographed while going about their daily lives. There are a number of boat trips along the Kenyan coast offering the chance to see and swim with dolphins. While Kenya Wildlife Service has run sessions for boat drivers on codes of conduct for these tours, be aware that there are no regulations regarding dolphin tourism in Kenya, and only a voluntary code of conduct. Tours are generally run by local boat drivers rather than experienced guides or marine biologists. If you do decide to book a swimming with dolphins tour, ask plenty of questions to find out how responsible it is. To find out more about responsible dolphin tourism, read our dolphin watching guide. Kenya may be relatively expensive to travel around, but it is still one of the world’s poorest nations. Do your bit and tip your guides, drivers, cooks and hotel staff generously. Discuss appropriate amounts with your tour operator before you depart, and come prepared with cash. Many Kenya trips include a visit to a local school. However, we do not promote these as regular groups of tourists entering classrooms to meet and take photos with kids is disruptive to their education. It is certainly not a practice that would be encouraged in Western schools, so why should it be acceptable in Kenya? Additionally, any gifts should be given to the head teachers rather than the children. Always check beforehand what gifts, such as educational supplies, would be useful and well-received. Due to high levels of poverty in Kenya, there are many volunteer opportunities available. With a few exceptions, we do not advise unqualified volunteers to find placements working with vulnerable children, particularly in orphanages and care homes. Find out more in our guide to volunteering with children. Never purchase items made from endangered species, including coral, turtle shells or eggs, ivory, fur or bone. If in doubt, ask your guide, your tour operator or a member of staff at the lodge where you’re staying. Kenya is a conservative country, especially in rural areas and along the predominantly Muslim coast and islands. Skimpy clothing is inappropriate outside of the beach resorts, and women especially are encouraged to cover their legs and upper arms. One good tip is to buy a kanga – a kind of local sarong, which can be used as a quick cover-up (even wrapped over trousers for extra modesty) as well as a towel, blanket or scarf at other times. Kangas often have Swahili sayings written on them – find one that’s appropriate for you and it can also make a lovely souvenir. Swahili is the dominant language along the Kenyan coast, and it’s surprisingly easy to learn and pronounce. Do make an effort to learn a few words, and remember that, “Jambo!” is in fact the tourist greeting. “Hujambo!” or “Habari!” are better ways to say, “Hello, how are you?”
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: MAKE IT KENYA PHOTO / STUART PRICE] [Are Kenya conservancies land grabs in disguise?: jjmusgrove] [Is hunting allowed in Kenya?: Sam Power] [The ivory ban & elephant poaching in Kenya: Craig Stevenson]