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Time is ripe for public-private management of national parks

By Beatrice Nyabira and Fred Kibagendi

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the tourism sector, protected areas such as national parks, game reserves and wildlife sanctuaries in Kenya were already grappling with challenges of underfunding. A good case in point is the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), whose Annual Report 2017 indicates that during the year ended June 30, 2017, KWS earned revenue of approximately KShs 5.5 billion against expenditure of KShs 7.1 billion.

Given that these protected areas are heavily reliant on tourism, the pandemic only worsened the situation. Reports indicate that in the year ended June 2021, KWS only collected about 20 percent of its projected revenue due to the significant reduction in tourist traffic.

It is against this backdrop that the idea of Collaborative Management Partnerships (CMPs) for the management and operation of protected areas arises. Simply put, CMPs are a type of Public Private Partnership (PPP) under which the government devolves certain management and operation responsibilities pertaining to conservation, to a private partner. The level of responsibilities ceded to the private partner depend on the nature of CMP model adopted and could include funding obligations, marketing and advertising, environmental protection, community development, infrastructure development among others.

CMPs have yielded great results in turning ‘paper parks’ (these are those parks that are recognised as such on paper but are barely operational in the actual sense) into profitable revenue generating assets for both the private partner and government, while simultaneously serving local communities and the public at large. Countries such as Rwanda, Mozambique and South Africa have achieved great success in their pursuit of sustainable tourism and conservation, thanks to CMPs.

In the case of Rwanda, the Akagera National Park has been a resounding success due to a CMP between the Rwanda Development Board and the NGO, African Parks. The two parties entered into a CMP for a period of 20 years (2010 to 2030) and established a project company to which the management and operation functions of the Akagera National Park were delegated. Since then, the number of tourists has risen steadily from 15,000 in 2010 to 50,000 in 2019 resulting in a steady growth of revenue from USD 203,000 to USD 2.6 million over the same period. The partnership has also contributed greatly to restoring the population of eastern black rhinos (from 0 in 2010 to 25 in 2020) and lions (from 0 in 2010 to 35 in 2020) in the national park. Additionally, the number of persons employed in the park has risen from 18 in 2010 to 273 in 2020, 99 percent of these being Rwandese.

This success story demonstrates the benefits that CMPs potentially present. They allow for financial self-reliance of protected areas and shield the protected areas from inadequate allocations of funds by government due to competing interests and changes in government priorities.

Second, CMPs also present an opportunity for transfer of various risks from the government (and indirectly taxpayers) to the private party. This includes revenue/demand risk, which is the potential for loss that can result from a lack of adequate visitors to generate sufficient revenue. This incentivizes the private party to attract visitors by providing exemplary service and developing innovative and well differentiated products. Operational risks and legal risks can also be transferred to the private partner.

Thirdly, CMPs can help to reduce the costs involved in the management of national parks. This is because the government usually relies on permanently employed staff even though tourism is seasonal in nature. Private parties are more likely to adopt optimal staffing arrangements such as seasonal employees. In addition, the government is usually forced to abide by public procurement laws which can be so elaborate that they unintentionally lead to increased costs. The private sector does not typically have these constraints and can thus adopt flexible approaches.

CMPs can also play a role in assuring quality in the management of protected areas. This can be achieved through the government setting standards that the private partner should meet through a performance-based contract. In addition, the private party is incentivised to deliver high quality service in order to attract and retain visitors thus generating revenue.

Finally, marketing and promotion of protected areas as tourist destinations can be easier when in the hands of a private party. This is because limited government resources force the government to focus on the most promising destinations leaving others to remain as ‘paper parks’. In Kenya for instance, KWS manages 23 national parks among several national reserves, sanctuaries and other facilities. In the KWS Strategic Action Plan 2019 – 2021, KWS reports that of the 23 national parks, five (namely Amboseli, Tsavo East, Nakuru, Nairobi and Tsavo West) have historically contributed approximately 80% of its annual revenue. This demonstrates the point that expecting the government to be able to market and promote all these destinations is a tall order. If put in the hands of private parties however, competition is created and the concessionaires are prompted to be innovative in their marketing and service delivery so as to achieve and retain profitability.

Considering that CMPs could help us address some of the urgent challenges that we are facing such as poaching, illegal wildlife trade and illegal logging while at the same time giving the Kenyan tourism sector a much-needed boost, the time appears right for CMPs to form part of our country’s arsenal as we strive to promote conservation and biodiversity.  

The article was published in the Business Daily on 16 December 2021 and can be viewed here.