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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2009

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Community Conservation and Early Ecotourism: Experiments in Kenya

Kenya is the mzee, or elder statesman, of nature tourism and ecotourism in Africa. From the end of British colonialism (in 1963) onward, Kenya’s vibrant, wide-open capitalism helped turn the country into Africa’s most popular wildlife tourism destination. By 1987, tourism had become Kenya’s number-one foreign exchange earner, surpassing both tea and coffee. By the early 1990s, no other African country was earning as much as Kenya from wildlife tourism, and Kenya was being hailed as “the world’s foremost ecotourist attraction.” Under Director David (“Jonah”) Western, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) pioneered the concept of “parks beyond parks,” which helped propel the growth of ecotourism in Kenya with new community and private sector initiatives, even as the country’s overall tourism industry declined as a result of internal political conflicts in the late 1990s and security problems linked to terrorist attacks in 1998 and 2002. By 2007, Kenya had reemerged as a leader in ecotourism, with the continent’s first certification program, the oldest and most successful national ecotourism society, and a growing array of innovative community-run ecotourism developments.

But it was more than 40 years earlier, long before ecotourism or community-based conservation had entered the popular lexicon, that two areas—the Masai Mara Game Reserve and Amboseli Game Reserve—took the first important steps toward putting into action the principles of local community participation in wildlife conservation and tourism. These are often considered the earliest ecotourism programs in Africa, and represent Kenya’s initial experiments with revenue sharing of park fees and tourism in several of its most famous protected areas. Have these experiments, among the world’s longest running, benefited the communities in which they operate or the conservation efforts they are meant to support? Here, the record remains very mixed.

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