By Mahanda Indakwa
Tucked in a corner of a local newspaper was a story headlined: “British paratroopers to train Kenyan rangers to fight poachers.”
Why Kenya Defence Forces, whose paratroopers understand this terrain better than foreigners, is not training game rangers 50 years after independence should cause Kenyans to ask themselves a few hard questions.
First, and this is has been the subject of intense debate in wildlife circles for decades, who owns our wildlife? Second, does Kenya really care about its wildlife or “wildlife is our national heritage” is mere sloganeering and hot air? Third, is our fixation with poaching strategic when evidence suggests habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict are the major wildlife conservation challenges? And finally, can we, with certainty, claim that we will have wildlife in the next 50 years? But first, a look at history:
When the colonial government set up the then East African Protectorate in 1895, rape of Kenya’s wildlife resources was going on in earnest. Arab ivory traders had been slaughtering elephants for their tusks for hundreds of years. Europeans, meanwhile, were hunting big game for sport at catastrophic rates.
The East African Railway from Mombasa to Kisumu opened the hinterland even further, meaning more wildlife could be killed faster, both for sport and to eradicate ‘vermin’ — the dangerous wild animals that stood in the way of colonial farmers creating empires out of the so-called white highlands. In Makueni alone, 999 black rhinos, today an acutely endangered species, were exterminated between 1945 and 1946 to create space for agricultural settlement.
Ironically, the colonial government became alive to the threat of wildlife extinction quite early, carving out two gigantic conservation areas, North and Southern Reserve, by 1900. In 1946, Nairobi National Park — the first of nearly 65 parks, game reserves and wildlife sanctuaries today — was established as a protected area where hunting and other human activities were banned. But these protectionist tendencies were at odds with the Government’s own Game Department, which made loads of money licensing sport hunters and shooting animals. Indeed, pioneer game wardens, most former sport hunters, were allocated hunting quotas to shoot animals and sell wildlife trophies to supplement their meagre salaries. Buried within this history lies the origin of the modern day Kenyan’s laissez faire attitude towards wildlife and conservation.
In a 2012 paper titled, The Kenya Wildlife Service in the 21stCentury: Protecting Globally Significant Areas and Resources, wildlife ecologist Dr John Waithaka argues that the British colonialists’ approach to land acquisition, establishment of national parks and game reserves and their relationship and attitude toward African people and their cultures played a crucial role in shaping the attitude of many Kenyans towards wildlife. In fact, it continues to have a bearing on how conservation issues are perceived and tackled today, he says.
Parks and game reserves were curved out of community lands without consulting the locals. Africans, who mostly revered the environment and hunted for the pot at a rate that could not compare to the wasteful slaughter of thousands of ‘vermin’ or as sporting targets by whites, were deemed poachers and hunted down mercilessly. The Waliangulu of Tsavo area, fierce elephant hunters dubbed ‘people of the long bow’, were forced to ‘mend their ways’, ironically by game wardens who bumped off a few elephants annually to supplement their incomes.
Locals could not graze their cattle or collect firewood or herbal medicines on parkland their forefathers had owned for generations. And no one bothered to explain why.
Became a plaything