Will privatising parks save or wreck them?

Tuesday, May 25th, 2021 00:00 |
Dickson ole Kaelo, CEO Kenya Wildlife Conservation Association.

Recent government suggestion to have national parks and game reserves managed by private agencies elicited mixed reactions prodding a change of heart by the tourism minister. Tourism and conservation stakeholders propose alternative ways to revive the sector and make it thrive again.

Harriet James @harriet86jim

Although the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife Najib Balala has retracted his earlier statement on the proposal to privatise some services at national parks, critics are still probing the issue, urging the government to focus on what will benefit the community, rather that prioritising commercial interests. 

The CS while addressing the European Union Green Diplomacy, had stated that the sector was eyeing new investments and seeking to explore innovative business models that will not only ease entry into new markets, but also minimise on operating costs as part of the transformative agenda to revitalise the business.

“The pandemic has taught us lessons. We have woken up to a new reality that we must change.

Nobody is left out and anybody going to open up after the pandemic must be refreshed,” he said.

However, uproar by conservationists and tourism players about the plan prompted him to reverse his statement during a morning show on a local TV station last week, saying leasing out the spaces within the parks is the ideal solution.

“There are no plans to privatise or sell any parks. What we want is to partner.

For instance, the anti-snaring campaign that we are doing with the Sheldricks (Trust).

Is Sheldricks doing it because it is them? No, we are partnering with them,” Bala responded.

Despite the fact that the country has 58 national parks and reserves, only a few have managed to generate a reasonable income to the Kenya Wildlife  (KWS) and according to Balala, privatisation will assist in managing them.

He added that other infrastructure, such as roads and facilities,such as restaurants are already being managed by the private sector.

Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association CEO, Dickson ole Kaelo notes that it would have been impossible to privatise the parks since they are gazetted legal entities whose change can only be effected through a parliamentary process.

“Privatisation is the wrong word, what should be discussed is co-management of a park or a reserve, where a government agency can partner with a corporate body to run a park or reserve.

Its management can be shared with a private corporate body to improve effectiveness.

If this is the question then the answer is yes, and its already being done,” he says.

Dickson notes KWS is already partnering with private investments to run its tourism activities.

For instance, the hotel at KWS is being run by a private body through a contract, the Mara triangle, which is a section of Masai Mara National Reserve is being run by Mara Conservancy on behalf of the Narok county.

“It’s a global common practice to contract third parties in an effort of cutting costs or improving efficiency.

Why would this not apply to a park? We all celebrate Karura forest, which in principle is a state forest managed in partnership with a citizen membership body,” he says. 

Chairman of Gelian Hotel, Alfonse Kioko feels that the privatisation of the convention bureau is not a good idea.

“Currently Rwanda has overtaken Kenya in Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) while as our country has many beautiful facilities and not just one facility.

Privatising convention bureau’s would mean that the focus would be on particular facility.

The first thing to do would be to market the county as a suitable destination for such events, which would only be possible if such an organisation is publicly owned,” he notes. 

When it comes to the privatisation of parks, Kioko feels that the entry of private entities will result in exorbitant prices being charged on natural resources, which will consequently make the destination expensive.

“The solution in my opinion is to appoint qualified staff and board. Give them targets and leave them to do their work.

They then will be held accountable for the results. However, this would be impossible if they are interfered with or micromanaged,” he says.

James Wakibia, an environmental activist is against the idea of privatisation as it will open doors to exploitation of resources, poaching and game hunting. 

Incompetence and corruption 

“We cannot allow the auctioning of our national heritage to the highest bidders with an excuse that these parks cannot sustain themselves and that privatisation will bring in more money.

What the government should do is fight incompetency and corruption. That’s the biggest problem we have.

Privatisation means that the common mwananchi will never again afford to enjoy the God given natural beauty, if locally and mostly white owned private conservancies are anything to go by,” he says.

“The end game is what matters to me and I am looking for preserving the future of our country for generations to come and this is the mandate of the government, not  private individuals,” Paul Jones Wegoye, Aerocruise founder also weighed in.

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