Many of our guests have written to us asking how the people and wildlife in our areas of operation have been affected by the sudden downturn in tourism due to the new Coronavirus pandemic. Whilst we are grateful to be able to report that our own staff are keeping safe at their homes with their families and that the wildlife immediately surrounding us remain seemingly oblivious to the sudden decline in guests; the situation is certainly not easy for many of our community neighbours as families in general are no longer able to earn their usual income through tourism and social enterprises. When disposable incomes run dry the pressure on the wildlife and environment is increased as people struggle to feed their families. Security for wildlife therefore becomes a concern and we must do everything in our power to support the vulnerable people and wildlife to mitigate problems before they arise.
Our Mara community neighbours rely heavily on tourism revenue –
photo credit Alberto Beltramello
In Rwanda, visits to the Mountain Gorillas have been temporarily suspended to protect them from the threat of Covid-19 which scientists assume they would be susceptible too, due to their close genetic relationship to ourselves.
Mountain Gorilla visits have been closed off to visitors –
photo credit Alisa Karstad
We remain positive that tourism will bounce back soon. In the meantime, we have featured both community and conservation initiatives below for our introductory blog, who have been doing important work on the ground in Kenya and Rwanda for many years, and their work is more critical than ever during this incredibly challenging time. Feel free to contact us if you would like more information on the situations they face or on how you can help make a difference.
At Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge a food drive to help feed the single mothers and families of the Turengerubuzima Sewing Centre Project which is being carried out by our team. Sincere thanks go Margot Raggett, who initiated the project last year with funding from her Remembering Wildlife campaign, which in turn was supported by Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge. Last month, Margot raised $2500 which will help provide food to the 90 women and their families for the next one month. The food is distributed every Friday, with the food and health items provided depending on immediate needs.
The food drive – photo credit Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge
The Sewing Project relied on revenue from tourists, and as it is anticipated to take a long time for tourism to return to normal levels, so we are looking to provide ongoing support to the ladies into the month of June and beyond. One of the ideas we are working on right now is engaging the women to produce government-approved face masks, as these are mandatory to use in Rwanda. We invite our guests to “purchase” face masks from the Project which will then be distributed to community members in our area. This scheme would provide income to the Turengerubuzima ladies while at the same helping the local community have access to masks so they may work and travel freely in public.
The Sewing Project – photo credit Will Fortescue
If you would like to help sponsor either the food drive or the face masks, please get in touch with us on email@example.com, or follow our Facebook page where we will post further information.
The Mara Rianda Charitable Trust, Masai Mara, Kenya.
Way back in 2003 a guest stayed with us at Little Governors’ Camp. His name was Richard Long. A keen photographer, he had come out to the Masai Mara for a four-night stay, with his camera equipment in tow in order to capture stunning images of the wildlife. On his last day in camp George (the camp manager) suggested that Richard visit the local primary school rather than head out on game drive. Richard visited the Mara Rianda Primary School, and was rather taken aback by the basic facilities. Whilst speaking with the head teacher, Richard asked him what was most needed by the school, and the answer that came back amongst other things was, “Chalk would be a miracle”.
Richard Long with Mara Rianda pupils – photo credit Will Fortescue
On returning to the UK, Richard shared those words with some of his friends and colleagues and was able to raise an initial £8000 for the school. He liaised with Governors’ Camps for supplies to be purchased in Nairobi and delivered to the school. Following on from that initial donation, Richard created the Mara Rianda Charitable Trust, a non-profit UK registered charity which has been instrumental in improving the quality of life for so many of our Masai community neighbours.
Mara Rianda Primary School – photo credit Will Fortescue
Since the inception of the Trust, they have raised vital funds and we have aided in facilitating the construction of a healthcare clinic, a maternity centre, student dormitories, a dining room and multiple classrooms in the Mara Rianda village. A new school was built at Enkereri village up on the escarpment and fresh water is supplied to two of the primary schools.
Before and after drinking water – photo credit Richard Long
Five teachers’ salaries are paid for each year and scholarships for over 150 bright students to attend secondary school have been funded to date (Primary education is free in Kenya, but secondary school is not, meaning many children sadly do not get the opportunity to finish their schooling if their families are not in a position to pay the fees). None of this could have been achieved without the enormous support of their sponsors. The charity prides itself on not undertaking any fund-raising activities; support comes voluntarily from many people around the world who are touched by the needs of the community and wish to help. All funds received are spent supporting the local community and no funds are used to meet any overheads or salaries in running the charity. Richard is one of three trustees and he continues to work tirelessly to help the Masai in the area.
In April 2020, following the continued global spread of the new Coronavirus, the trust purchased an urgently required haematology blood analyser, oxygen equipment and suction equipment. These have been sent to the Mara Rianda Medical Centre. So far the Masai Mara has thankfully remained quite free from the virus. If you would like to learn more about the trust and the important work that they do, make a donation or sign up to their newsletter you can visit their website.
The Mara Elephant Project: “Conflict to co-existence”
The year 2011 had the highest level of elephant poaching rates ever recorded. Each year it is estimated that around 38,000 elephants are killed for their ivory. This equates to one elephant every 15 minutes. If this trend continues, elephants could become extinct within 15 years. A sobering statistic indeed. The reason elephants are poached is because of the value of their tusks on the black market and the value placed on them in the far east.
Photo credit Mara Elephant Project
Ivory prices have tripled in the past three years in China and as the demand for ivory soars, extremist groups such as Boko Haram in West Africa, or Al-Shabaab in East Africa will often use the illegal trade to fund a huge percentage of their terrorism operations.
Elephants are a vital species within an ecosystem. Often referred to as a “Keystone species”, their presence has a strong influence on other species and their removal from an ecosystem would likely result in a strong cascading negative effect on the structure of that ecosystem.
Elephants – a ‘keystone species’ – photo credit Will Fortescue
In 2011 the Mara Elephant Project (MEP) was founded with the intention of fighting elephant poaching in the Mara ecosystem. Whilst elephants remain within the protected areas of the national reserve and the conservancies they are generally safe from poachers. However, elephants have vast home ranges without borders; this takes them out into areas that are unprotected and sometimes into human settlements and farm land. Between 2012-2015, MEP was responding mainly to incidents of poaching. However, from 2016 onwards the level of poaching within MEP’s area of operation has massively reduced due to their tireless work on the ground that includes ranger patrols, infiltrating poaching networks and arranging arrests (in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service), seizing ivory and monitoring collared elephants.
Mara Elephant Project Rangers – photo credit Hilary Hurt
There is now a new, more imminent threat to elephants which has become the focus for MEP; Human/elephant conflict. A report in 2015 showed that the human population around the Mara was growing at a staggering rate of 10.5% per year. This was three times more than the national rate of 2.5%. Subdivision and fencing of what had previously been vast expanses of land began to block historically important migration corridors for elephants and other wildlife. The Mara ecosystem was coming under threat from a mixture of land-use changes; rapidly expanding settlements, crop-based agriculture, fences, poaching and deforestation. As MEP’s CEO Mark Goss was quoted as saying “This is a war of space. Everyone is trying to carve out a living in the area”. Elephants were often found raiding farmers’ crops and the desperate farmers would retaliate by doing everything in their power to scare the elephants off their plots. This resulted in many elephants being injured by arrows and spears. Often there were human fatalities and injuries too and many farmer’s livelihoods were destroyed overnight by the herd’s invasion.
In order to try and get a hold on and begin to resolve these conflict situations, MEP created a rapid response unit. The local communities have learnt that they can rely on the MEP team to provide rapid support to them when needed and it is this relationship that is key to successfully saving elephant lives, thus keeping the entire ecosystem thriving. MEP employs a team of 57 local rangers who patrol conflict hotspots. These brave men and women are at the forefront of anti-poaching operations and human-elephant conflict mitigation efforts.
Mara Elephant Project – photo credit Adam Bannister
Another key approach of MEP in the fight against both poaching and conflict is the collaring, monitoring and data collection of elephants. Since 2011, MEP has collared 48 elephants across the Mara ecosystem. These individuals (in most cases) are chosen for either gathering useful spatial data (meaning elephants outside conservancies or national reserves), a whole herd that may be at risk or individual crop-raiding (conflict) elephants.
Currently 16 collared elephants movements are being monitored in real-time via Google Earth. This location data is monitored from the MEP headquarters and potential threats are relayed to the rapid response teams and patrol teams.
Google Earth tracking – photo credit Mara Elephant Project
The collar software also includes alarms for immobility, geofence breaches and streaks (when an elephant moves quickly potentially signifying it is in danger) which MEP reacts to at a moment’s notice. The data collected from MEP’s elephant collars is the single best indicator for identifying elephant density hotspots, defining critical habitat and corridors, and illustrating elephant movements to target audiences.
‘Fred’, one of MEP’s collared elephants – photo credit Mara Elephant Project
MEP has also distributed food packages for 637 Masai families, funded by the Sidekick Foundation, which has provided emergency relief to those in need during this challenging time.
If you would like to donate or get involved in any of the above initiatives, please do get in touch with us on firstname.lastname@example.org
By Alisa Karstad, Governors’ Camp Collection