Nairobi, Nov 25 – A new $5 million fund has been created to help wildlife conservancies that border Kenya’s renowned Mara National Reserve to tide over the financial crisis brought on by the collapse of tourism as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Established by nonprofit Conservation International in partnership with the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association (MMWCA), the Maasai Mara Rescue Fund is offering short- to medium-term loans to the conservancies to help them cover lease payments they owe to local communities who own the land.

The conservancies operate on land owned by the indigenous Maasai people, who lease it to them for tourism operations, which in turn fund conservation efforts that drive wildlife tourism. The loss of lease income due to the collapse of tourism could force the landowners to sell or convert their lands to other uses, putting wildlife conservation at risk.

In 2019, 14,000 Maasai landowners collected more than $7.5 million in lease payments from conservancies. This year, the income is uncertain due to the devastating COVID-19 tourism slump.

“The fallout in tourism due to the pandemic means communities are struggling to survive. These lease payments will help ensure the lands that make up the greater Maasai Mara remain wild, and the communities that count on income from tourism are supported during this global crisis,” said Michael O’Brien-Onyeka, senior vice president of the Africa Field Division at Conservation International, which is based in Nairobi.

MMWCA CEO Daniel ole Sopia said COVID-19 has put the conservancy model in the Mara at risk, threatening the gains in wildlife conservation and community development.

“Over the last two decades, local communities and tourism investors have worked to find a way that nature and people can thrive together. Our conservancies both secure critical wildlife populations and benefit local people,” said Ole Sopia. “This fund will help us withstand this shock, and better prepare for future ones – it will help us, our hard work, survive.”

The loans from the fund will be repaid out of future tourism returns and conservation fees that the conservancies collect from safari tour operators. As a condition of the loan, the conservancies will also implement governance, operational and financial improvements to enhance long-term sustainability.

“Most immediately, the funding will provide a bridge of support for conservancies – and the communities that rely on them for income – that face global challenges outside of their control, ” said Agustin Silvani, who leads the conservation finance program at Conservation International.

“As tourism returns, revenues are expected to be available to pay back the Maasai Mara Rescue Fund, although Conversation International anticipates structuring loan terms to provide enough flexibility to weather downturns and ensure the long term stability of the conservancies.”

Other partners of the fund include Maliasili, an NGO that is working with the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association to strengthen its organizational capacity, and the BAND Foundation, which, along with other private donors, is providing philanthropic funding to support conservancy rangers and other core operational functions. Conservation International Ventures (CIV)is also contributing to the fund.