AMBOSELI: “Starling cockle: two”, “Nubian peak: one”… Planted in the middle of the Kenyan savannah, two men count the birds, with Kilimanjaro in the background. This pilot program in the Selenkay Private Reserve aims to measure natural wealth and one day generate new income from it, in addition to tourism.
The ten luxurious tents of the camp see tourists gather again, after the stoppage linked to Covid-19. They observe elephants, giraffes, antelopes or lions in small groups on 5,000 hectares, located on the edge of Amboseli National Park, in the south of the country, and glimpse the life of the Masai, the owners of the land.
The reserve “is not isolated from communities, it belongs to them,” insists camp manager Daniel Mamai. No fence separates it from the land used by herders for their cows, sheep, goats and donkeys.
“With Covid-19, tourism has completely collapsed and we realized that we needed to find other ways to increase revenue to continue paying rents” to the Masai, Mohanjeet Brar told AFP.
One way is to measure the amount of carbon stored by vegetation and soils, as well as the biological richness of their reserves, to derive carbon credits and biodiversity.
“We want to understand what a healthy grassland ecosystem is and how to monetize certain aspects of it,” says Mohanjeet Brar.
Thus, a company can offset its CO2 emissions or its polluting activities. If the market for carbon credits is well established, although far from perfect, the market for biodiversity credits has yet to be created.
absence of rain
Andrew Davies, a researcher at the American University of Harvard participating in the project, is interested “in the relationship between carbon, plant structure, ecosystem integrity and biodiversity”, he explains to AFP.
To better understand these interactions, the amount of carbon stored in trees and soil is measured, in particular with a drone. On the biodiversity side, cameras and acoustic recorders placed inside and outside the reserve allow us to see which animals are present and their density.
A visual observation completes the device. For a month, morning and evening, team members are stationed at specific points and lift all animals seen and heard for 10 minutes. “We need data,” says one of the guides, Nicholas Koyieyo, watching a fresh giraffe trail on the cracked, dusty ground, pining for rain.
“Is biodiversity greater inside or outside the reserve, and what is driving this growth? Once we know this from a scientific point of view, we can think about making it a credit to sell,” says Andrew Davies.
Initially, it is about selling carbon credits because the market is ready and the Masai will see the fruits quickly, he continues. Second, the zoologist hopes that the biodiversity credits will be sold.
“Our goal is for at least 60% (of the revenue from carbon credits) to go to landowners,” says Mohanjeet Brar.
Gamewatchers Safaris provides income to the Masai through renting land, employment – all of the rangers and nearly all of Selenkay’s crew – and even water for villagers and livestock.
But living conditions are difficult, as Noolasho Keteko, one of the women from the Masai village that borders the reserve, points out. The mother of eight, with her hair cut and decorated with colorful jewelry, also earns income from tourist visits to the village of mud huts and from selling jewelry.
But the camp closes in April and May for the rainy season and the village would need assistance, she explains.
With the additional income from carbon credits and biodiversity, pastoralists could reduce the number of livestock, “this would allow more time for the grass and trees to regenerate and we would have a more balanced ecosystem inside and outside the reserve,” said Nicholas Koyieyo.
They also want to prevent land from being sold, turned into fields and fenced off, preventing the free movement of wildlife. A few kilometers from the reserve, a high fence already bars the landscape to make way for the fields.
Tourists, on the other hand, enjoy the spectacle of a dozen elephants quenching their thirst at a water point, without necessarily being aware of all these issues. But for Maxine Gardner, a 69-year-old American retiree, her stay at Selenkay has allowed her to be more “aware of our impact” on nature.