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Does privatising national parks make economic sense?

By XN Iraki | May 29th 2021
Giraffe at the Tsavo National Park [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

A suggestion by the country's Tourism Cabinet Secretary that national parks should be privatised did not raise as many eyebrows as expected.

His explanation that it is more about running the parks than selling them outright may have mitigated any negative reactions.

You can be sure if the parks were put on sale, they would be snapped up overnight and turned into something else, far removed from wildlife.

The parks are priceless, just like the painting of Mona Lisa, the scent of a rose flower or sunset over a beach. But we need a critical number of Kenyans who believe that. Covid-19 may have convinced more of them but, sadly, we know more of beer brands than animal species in national parks.

Do you know it will cost you Sh1,100 for a game drive for two? How many beers can you get from that?

Mr Balala called for greater use of technology to reduce costs in the envisaged model. Let us interrogate his proposed model further.

In my recent visit to Nairobi National Park, I paid through M-Pesa and all I needed was to show evidence of being a Kenyan. But technology can be utilised in more areas. I expect drones watching over the parks but silent enough not to disturb the animals.

One of the questions visitors keep asking inside the Nairobi park is, “where is ‘Kichwa’ the lion? It is hard to see the animal, camouflaged in the long grass. Can we use technology to get the location of animals, by putting trackers on them?

Using my phone and GPS, I should know where the animals of my interest are instead of driving around randomly. The second use of technology is in pricing. On this, we can learn from matatus; they charge you depending on demand. National parks have data on the daily number of visitors and can adjust prices depending on the numbers. By going online, we should know the best time to visit the park for a bargain. Beyond use of technology, we could ask if the envisaged privatisation makes economic sense. 

This sense goes beyond money to satisfying all the stakeholders, including the indigenous communities that depend on the parks or forests for their ceremonies. Add water sources too.

We hope that privatisation will lead to a trickledown effect with communities adjacent to parks benefiting. Do you recall there was no deforestation during the shamba system?

Ostrich at the Tsavo National Park [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

The farmers who tended trees as they planted crops knew their lives depended on forests. How could they destroy their source of livelihood?

Park managers

We start by asking how the agencies to run the parks will be selected. Is it the highest bidder or the firm that demonstrates the highest capacity to earn money for the government?

What are the key credentials of the envisaged park managers? Are there successful models elsewhere?

Parks in the US such as Yosemite seem to use the proposed model with a private firm given a concession to run the area for a period of time. Aramark will run Yosemite for 15 years.

My last visit to Yosemite convinced me of how precious and rich our parks are. Let us consider that as we think of their “privatisation”, which needs a clear definition. In selecting the firm, we can learn from telecommunication companies. Most governments auction the spectrum to the highest bidder. Can we also auction the contracts or licences to run the national parks? This approach will ensure we extract maximum value for our heritage. We assume by then a legal and regulatory framework will be in place. What can the contractor or licensee do or not do? Will culling be allowed?

How many new lodges can be allowed? Will there be price ceilings and floors, highest and lowest entry fees? How much subsidies can the government offer?  Will licensees be under county or national government? One fear is that parks could become five-star, out of reach of mwananchi.

Is there something we can learn from conservancies? How do they make their money and balance it with conservation? How do they brand themselves? What of mixing domestic and wild animals? What of recreation such as horse riding, golf and sailing?

The uniqueness of our parks makes them great research sites. For example, I have noted lots of male antelopes at Nairobi National Park have lost a horn. With covid-19 and possibility of virus being transmitted from animals to human, research on wild animals will gain more currency. The route to future vaccines might be through wildlife.

We can go beyond conservancies and privatised national parks. Why can’t I be allowed to keep gazelles on my farm instead of sheep? Why not a giraffe or eland? Game farms have great potential, they will not only give consumers choices of meat but become a source of income. It would be cool to find meat from any animal in the supermarkets.

I remember finding deer meat at Walmart. If the Balala model is allowed, I intend to keep one elephant whose tusks will become my pension. And a hyena for a pet. Such a model will ensure no species will become extinct. Some fear that we shall go the ‘quail’ way if game farming was allowed. Market and good regulation will sort that out. After all, we have eaten game meat for our entire history. Skins and hides from game have several uses too, after value addition.

Are we not talking about industrialisation. If privatisation will lead to exploiting the full potential of national parks, we can try it. The issue is not just about more money but conservation and more recreation for Kenyans.

There is something sentimental watching animals in their natural habitat as nature and God intended.


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