Tourism, one of the main drivers of East Africa’s $74.5 billion economy is headed for tougher times thanks to increasing destruction of wildlife habitats.
Studies on the region’s parks and reserves namely Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, Tsavo and Amboseli and Ngorongoro crater reveal the protected areas have lost up to 60 per cent of their large mammals — lions, leopards, cheetahs, zebras, rhinos and wildebeests — in the past two to three decades.
“If a solution on how to reverse the declining numbers is not found, tourism earnings in the region will definitely be affected,” Kenya Wildlife Service senior assistant director Patrick Omondi said.
Last month, a UN-backed meeting in Kigali called for tougher laws to protect the endangered mountain gorillas found in Virunga sanctuaries in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The meeting warned that the tourism sector in the three countries, will be affected given the continued destruction of habitats.
For example, in Rwanda, tourism and mining have played a big role in the revival of the economy.
The endangered mountain gorillas have been a major tourist attraction not only in Rwanda but also in Uganda.
“Joint efforts to apply wildlife law are important because gorillas play a key role in the ecology of Africa’s forests,” said Convention of Migratory Species of Wild Animals executive secretary Elizabeth Mrema.
Last year, the economies of the EAC member countries combined raked in more than $3.2 billion in tourism earnings.
Kenya’s, for example, rose 15 per cent above 2009 to hit $0.9 billion (Ksh73.7 billion), buoyed by increased tourist arrivals.
In fact, the number of foreign tourists visiting Kenya grew from 952,481 to 1.01 million.
Tanzania earned Tsh 1.9 trillion ($1.3 billion) from travel and related activities during the year ending November 2010.
The 714,360-plus tourists who visited Tanzania came from Britain, Germany, the US, Italy, France, Spain and the Scandinavian countries.
In landlocked Rwanda, the tourism sector rebounded from the global economic meltdown, to hit $200 million.
Earnings in Uganda have also been on the increase from $165.3 million in 2001 to over $600 million by end of 2009.
A chunk of the visitors who entered Kenya and Tanzania, for example, visited the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem, known worldwide for its spectacular wildebeest migration.
The spectacle, a delight to watch, involves thousands of wildebeests, zebras and gazelles moving from the exhausted grasslands of the Serengeti in Tanzania to Kenya’s lush Masai Mara.
As they cross the Mara River, many fall prey to crocodiles and floods.
However, the unique wonder could be history in less than a decade, if conservation efforts are not stepped up.
If that happens, Kenya and Tanzania would be the greatest losers.
A recent study conducted by scientists from Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Cambridge University says that urgent efforts must be put in place to secure the future of the parks and their role in tourism.
The index of change in population abundance created by the scientists for a multitude of species in 78 protected areas in Africa, found an average decline of almost 60 per cent in the population of 69 key animals. Mara-Serengeti was one of the national parks studied.
The researchers found the decline in animal population was occurring faster in East Africa and West Africa, unlike Southern Africa where the numbers were on the increase.
“Although the results indicate that African national parks have generally failed to maintain their populations of large mammals, the situation outside the parks is almost undoubtedly worse,” study leader Ian Craigie said.
Mr Cragie adds that many species like rhino are practically extinct outside national parks.
The director of ZSL conservation programmes Jonathan Baillie says the results are worse than initially thought.
Mr Baillie, however, adds that the increasing population trends in southern Africa “provide hope and demonstrate that protected areas can be very effective for conserving large mammals if properly resourced.’’