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Africa: Birdwatching in Kenya: The untapped billions

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News of the rare migratory bird, osprey, that flew about 7,000 kilometres from Finland to Kenya, and later died under the care of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) veterinarians in Karen, Nairobi, ought to be a wake-up call to tourism sector.

t is a challenge to shift lenses to bird-based tourism, and see how best it can be preserved and monetised to open up new revenue streams and opportunities after success in wildlife and beach tourism.

The four-year-old Osprey, a fish-eating bird species that was caught by a fisherman in Lake Victoria’s Siaya County side, after enduring the long flight, died as a result of dehydration and starvation, KWS confirmed. The species is widely distributed across the world, but mostly found in North America, Northern Europe, Asia and around the coast of Australia.

Back in Osprey’s home in Finland, the bird was part of 477 bird species in that country under Birdlife, an organisation of 30 bird societies that promotes bird watching, research, and protection. It offers birdwatching tours, and education, to local and international bird and nature enthusiasts, that attracted 6.7 million foreign tourists in 2017 alone. Birdwatching alone pumped pumping 4.6 billion euros (Sh508 billion in today’s rates) to the Finnish economy that year, and provided 140,200 jobs.

The organisation is also a rare platform for scientists and birdwatchers to gather information to influence projects, policies and legislative recommendations.

According to Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, executive secretary of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of wild animals (CMS), “Birding plays a significant and growing part in the tourism industry … opportunities to participate in wildlife watching are increasingly be a factor in tourists’ holiday choices today”.

And countries have been reaping big from this trend. In 1999, for instance, the Costa Rican Tourism institute estimated that 41 percent of its $1-billion (Sh100 billion) tourism revenue was from tourists who came primarily for birdwatching.

In the United States (US), birdwatchers are estimated to spend over $2.5 billion (Sh250 billion) each year, and 40 percent of American bird lovers are willing to travel to discover new birdwatching opportunities.

A market analysis on bird-based tourism shows that in the US, approximately 46.7 million people observed birds around the home and on trips in 2011, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) national survey. A large majority, 88 percent (41.3 million), observed wild birds around their homes, while 38 percent (17.8 million) took birding trips away from home. Bird watchers averaged 110 days of birding in 2011. Away-from-home birders averaged 13 days.

The survey found that bird viewing and photography is “the most steadily growing recreational activity in the US, growing by 287 percent from 1982 to 2009.

Another study shows that UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, and Sweden, are increasingly becoming important European bird tourism providers. “There can be no doubt that bird watching has the potential to be a significant tourism market segment,” points a recent study by the Caribbean tourism organisations (CTO), adding that “growth is expected to be strong over the next 10 years.”

The CTO estimates that three million international trips worldwide are taken each year for bird watching, and many more trips combine birding with other activities.

The only quantitative study to date on avitourism to South Africa conservatively estimated that by 1997 between 11,400 and 21,200 birdwatchers spent between $12-$26 million (Sh1.2 — Sh2.6 billion) annually in the South African economy.

Bird-based tourism is growing rapidly, particularly to developing countries. According to the study, “Bird watching is reported as being the fastest growing outdoor activity in America, while another notes, “An increasing number of birdwatchers are travelling to long haul destinations to spot new birds that cannot be seen in their own country or region.”

With global trends slowly shifting to birdwatching, to developing countries, as unexploited area in tourism, how can Kenya, already a tourism giant, utilise the untapped opportunities?

The CTO study recommends that to capitalise on this growing market, however, developing countries have to offer what birdwatchers require, more specifically, safety and security of their countries, and accessibility without many red tapes, unnecessary delays, and infrastructural development right from point of entry into national parks and hotels.

According to Antony Ham, author of Lonely Planet guidebooks, including the guide to Kenya, international tourists heavily rely on travel alerts, of which the country has been flagged severally due to terrorism and less of what could happen inside the parks and hotels, to make decisions.

Fortunately, Mr Ham says, “the risk zones are easily avoided without compromising your safari. When taking normal safety precautions, Kenya is considered safe as a safari destination and for most tourism in general.”

Further, the CTO study recommends that quality of birdlife, and knowledgeable guides to boost the subsector are key drivers to the subsector’s growth.

According to Africa Bird Club report titled Turning to Birds to Boost Revenue, degradation of water quality as a result of pesticides, logging of trees, overgrazing and illegal grazing are some of the greatest dangers to birding.

And, as forests recede, so are the rains, it points out, adding: “Destroy the forests and you destroy Lake Nakuru. Then no flamingos, then no tourism — we know about that.”

Birdwatching in the country still lags, despite successes in other tourism sectors.

Biodiversity Atlas, an aggregator of Kenya’s biodiversity data, estimates that the country has one of the richest avifauna diversities in Africa, with around 1,100 bird species recorded. Of these, about 800 are year-round residents, 60 are afro-tropical migrants, moving within the continent, and 170 are palaearctic migrants that journey from Eurasia each winter.

The major migratory flyways in Kenya include the 550-kiometre long coastline with its associated creeks, reefs and beaches, and the chain of lakes stretching along the Rift Valley from Turkana in the North to Magadi in the South. A total of 170 palaearctic migrant bird species migrate to Kenya from Eurasia for the northern hemisphere’s winter — eleven of these species have local breeding populations that are year-round residents. Around 60 species in Kenya migrate only within Africa, including Madagascar.

Magical Kenya, the official travel and tourism guide by the Kenya Tourism Board (KTB), says that “Kenya’s birding is one of the best in the world. And, birdwatching in the country is good all year around”.

It further says that it’s not unusual for birding trips to record 300-600 different varieties on a short trip or to record more than 120 at a particular site on a single day.

The variety of birds in Kenya, it says, is made possible by the favourable climate, diverse habitats and geographical features that make it a suitable migratory route for birds. “Even without venturing outside Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, more than 600 resident and migratory bird species are found; more than in any other capital city, and more than in most countries.”

However, official data on Kenya’s birdwatching by local and international arrivals, direct revenue and employment opportunities as well as clear-cut policies on how best to preserve, educate communities and tour guides to reap economic benefits are at worst non-existent and scanty at best.

On its digital platforms, KTB’s has dedicated its focus on promotional packaging campaigns on the existing opportunities, while lumping the entire tourism industry in one bag, without showing distinct uniqueness of sub-sectors which can be grown separately, yet complementing each other.

“The patterns and trends in the country’s birding, KTB says, is during the rainy seasons of April and November that coincide with migration of birds from and to Europe and Asia.”

“Migrants make up only about 10 percent of Kenya’s birdlife. Spectacular birds of the bush — guinea fowl, go-away birds, rollers and barbets, to mention but a few — are active all year.

“To see Kenya’s rarest, indigenous and unfortunately endangered birds, the bird enthusiast needs to seek out forests or highland grasslands tucked away among various farmlands.”

KTB notes that the coastal region and forests are preferred by most birds, saying that Arabuko-Sokoke forest near Malindi, tops the list, with the six threatened bird species of the Sokoke Scops Owl, Sokoke Pipit, Spotted Ground Thrush, East Coast Akalat, Amani Sunbird and Clarke’s Weaver.

Some other areas including the forest “islands”, its says are at the top of the Taita Hills, near Voi, is home to the beautiful but critically endangered Taita Thrush and Taita Apalis, as well as the endangered Taita White-eye.

Source: businessdailyafrica.com

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