New safari lodge feels the heat over black rhino

Saturday March 13 2010

A new tented lodge in the Masaai Mara National Reserve has run into trouble with conservationists and wildlife authorities with  a report showing it is built on a habitat for the endangered black rhino. Photo/FILE

A new tented lodge in the Masaai Mara National Reserve has run into trouble with conservationists and wildlife authorities with a report showing it is built on a habitat for the endangered black rhino. Photo/FILE 

By OMONDI AMIMO

A new safari lodge in the Maasai Mara National Reserve is dogged by concerns that it will endanger the survival of the black rhino.

Conservationists opposed to the project have now taken the fight to the cyberspace.

A new report by wildlife authorities shows that the lodge that opened March 6 is located on a critical conservation area.

According to the report compiled by the acting chief game warden of the Mara Triangle Samson Parsime Lenjir, activities at the 30-bed Olkeju Ronkai Lodge will compromise conservation of the endangered black rhino.

The report says the open riverine ecosystem with wood vegetation and grasslands is an important habitat for the black rhino.

Statistics in Mr Lenjir’s report show rhino sightings in the area declined between January 2006 and December 2009. From 12 rhinos sighted in the area in February 2006, there were none by the end of 2009.

“According to data collected from the Kenya Rhino Programme Surveillance Patrol Log, the number of rhino individuals seen per month in the area where Olkeju Ronkai has been set up has not only dropped but disappeared altogether since construction of the lodge started in June 2008,” the report says.

Hassan ole Kamwaro, the owner of the Olkeju Ronkai Lodge, blames the opposition to his venture on his political detractors and competitors in the tourism industry who, he says, are keen on seeing him close shop.

He singled out the owners of a big lodge in the Mara for blame, saying they had monopolised the lucrative tourism industry and are keen to stop new entrants from gaining a foothold in the market.

He further accused Kenya Tourism Federation (KTF), the umbrella body for tour operators, of being run by a clique that owns more than 30 lodges in the Mara.

These individuals, he said, should not run KTF and Kenya Tourist Board (KTB) due to conflict of interest as they have denied other investors, especially local people, fair play.

The former Transport Licensing Board boss accused the government of failing to deal with the allegedly illegal lodges and camps.

“We have obtained all the relevant licences as stipulated by the law,” Mr Kamwaro said, showing the licences he obtained from the ministries of Health, Environment and Fisheries, among others, to show that the lodge has met all requirements to operate.

“Out of 108 properties in the Maasai Mara, only 29 per cent have the necessary licences to operate. The rest are doing business illegally. The government should not apply double standards when it comes to matters of licensing and environment,” he said.

“Why is the government sitting on the inter-ministerial report on the Maasai Mara one year after the task force completed its work and handed it in?”

He urged the government to make the report public and praised the Tourism ministry for its recent announcement that it will close down properties in the Mara that are operating without licences.

“I hope this directive is enforced at the close of the March 15 deadline that the ministry set and those who fail to comply should be prosecuted like any other ordinary Kenyan,” he said.

Mr Kamwaro disputed a claim that Olkeju Ronkai had been set up within the rhino habitat. He said rhinos do not live in forests but prefer open and grassland areas where they can spot predators.

He said he had documents of approval by experts and relevant authorities which show that he did not only acquire the lease transparently, but enlisted the services of professional environmental scientists to carry out an independent impact assessment.

He said the results showed that Olkeju poses no significant threat to the environment, least of all to the rhino.

A campaign, which has been running for several weeks now on social network sites, seeks to rally international opinion to save the Mara’s rhinos. It has so far gathered 3,738 signatures.

Somak Holidays, contracted to market Olkeju Ronkai through its subsidiary marketing wing Ashnil, denied claims that the lodge poses environmental hazards.

In response, Somak Holidays used Nema’s preliminary EIA report that is based on two major points: one that history has shown that the black rhino population in the area under question has always fluctuated and that their current disappearance is a normal occurrence; two, that similar lodges that were built upstream close to the river much earlier never seemed to have a negative impact on the black rhino population.

On Wednesday at 7 p.m., conservationist Ian Craig will deliver a lecture on the future of Kenya’s black rhinos at the Nairobi National Museum.