A feature on whale watching published by CNN on Tuesday, January 5th is the cause of a wave of backlash against the international media house by a section of Kenyans.
It isn’t the first time CNN is finding itself on the receiving end of criticism from Kenyans, particularly online. Many Kenyans remember the ‘hotbed of terror’ saga that saw the channel’s Managing Director Tony Maddox fly to Nairobi in 2015 reportedly to apologize to President Uhuru Kenyatta and the Kenyan people.
The station had described Kenya as a ‘terror hotbed’ citing security concerns ahead of former US President Barack Obama’s state-visit.
Now, Kenyans are taking on CNN after they published a profile of Jane Spilsbury, an English woman living in Watamu, with the title “The Woman who Found Whales in Kenya”. Spilsbury is a former lawyer from London living in Watamu with her marine biologist husband.
The feature included several inaccurate claims besides the over-stated headline, including that no one except a few local fishermen, not even the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), knew about the existence of dolphins and hump-back whales in Kenya until Spilsbury set about finding and documenting them 10 years ago.
As documented by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Kenya’s first commercial dolphin watching tours were offered in the 1990s, in areas that included the Malindi Watamu National Marine Park and Reserve and the Kisite-Mpunguti National Marine Park and Reserve.
According to CNN, however, it is only after Spilsbury began her work as a ‘citizen scientist’ that “another tourism industry was born”.
Many of those who called out CNN accused them of erasing the history and heritage of the local population by perpetuating white savior journalism.
The existence of whales and dolphins has been considered common knowledge at the Coast for decades, with the marine mammals present in various common tales passed down generations.
“We were amazed, because no-one knew there were dolphins out there, not even the Kenya Wildlife Service,” Spilsbury was quoted stating.
It is well documented, however, that KWS has been involved in programs to ensure dolphin watching tour operators do not place unsustainable pressure on local dolphin populations.
Between 2006 and 2010, for example, Global Vision International and KWS partnered to conduct a long-term study on the KMMPA’s dolphins. The study provided the first estimates of the dolphin population in Kenya.
It also unearthed worrying statistics. In March 2006, the highest number of dolphin tours in KMMPA’s history (451 boats and 6,246 tourists) were statistically linked to the departure of 78% of the local dolphin population from study area.
Spilsbury is the founder of the Watamu Marine Association which works to promote eco-tourism and ensure the welfare of dolphins. Watamu Marine Association is part of the Kenya Marine Mammal Network.
Here are some of the comments from Kenyans on the CNN report: