The Secret Shamba in Kimana Sanctuary

The use of Kenya’s national parks, reserves and other wild spaces for recreational purposes, particularly for music festivals and sporting events, has been a contentious issue over the last few months. Conservationists were understandably appalled by the decision to allow the 29th edition of the Koroga Festival to take place in Hell’s Gate National Park on Valentine’s Day. And, in July, the park will host the East African leg of the World Rally Championship.

While Hell’s Gate is a unique conservation area because it offers a range of recreational activities such as gorge walks, rock climbing and cycling, its suitability as a host of large-scale events attended by thousands of people is certainly questionable.

The park is recognised by Birdlife International as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area of international significance, and is the only protected breeding colony of critically endangered Ruppell’s vultures in Kenya. As critics of the Koroga Festival have consistently pointed out, the event exposed these and other threatened birds of prey to disruptive levels of noise and night-time light.

While I generally think that Kenya’s wild spaces should be left wild, the occasional recreational event – if managed properly in the right location, and informed by a thorough environmental impact assessment – can have the potential to raise significant funds for conservation areas and their surrounding communities.

A good example was the Secret Shamba event held in Kimana Sanctuary a couple of weeks ago.

This 5,700 acre sanctuary is in the centre of a crucial wildlife corridor linking Amboseli National Park with the Chyulu Hills and Tsavo protected areas, providing animals with a safe route through the narrowest part of the space between two settled areas. It is communally owned by 844 Masai, who set aside the land as Kenya’s first community conservancy in 1996. Tourism provides the primary revenue stream for this community, but millions of shillings were also raised for the sanctuary and the local economy through the Secret Shamba event.

The concept of Secret Shamba was created by an ambitious group of DJs called Midi Minds Kenya, who sought to innovate Kenya’s social scene by organising small-scale events in areas of natural beauty, for the benefit of the communities and organisations that manage and protect these areas. For this latest event in Kimana Sanctuary, they partnered with Big Life Foundation, Marafiki and Ker and Downey Safaris, and gathered a line-up of well-known international DJs.

To mitigate the impact of the festival, the organisers ensured that ticket sales were limited to a maximum of just 250 people. The site chosen was also within a few hundred metres of the sanctuary boundary, and was the area least used by wildlife within the corridor. Animals pass through a very narrow access route while moving into and out of the sanctuary, which is adjacent to farms, houses and churches, and music and noise from Kimana and Isinet towns can he heard on the sanctuary’s boundaries throughout the year. So the wildlife that use the corridor are highly habituated to human activity. Kimana Sanctuary is also the location of the biennial Masai Olympics – a two day event attended by over 1,500 people, including 300 warriors who stay in the sanctuary to hold an overnight ceremony.

A few people I’ve spoken to have argued that funds could have still been raised for the sanctuary by holding the Secret Shamba event at a more typical venue for a music festival, such as a nightclub in Westlands. By holding it in the sanctuary itself, the organisers were able to attract higher profile international DJs, and raise more money for the cause through higher ticket prices.

But the foundation of the event’s success was the prioritisation throughout of its impact on the sanctuary, its wildlife and the communities that protect them. Without a similar focus on impact, such events can do considerable damage to Kenya’s wild spaces.

To register for future events, head to www.secretshamba.com.

Photo credit: Aakash Chotai