Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary Dr. Alfred Mutua flags off an aircraft during the launch of the National Wildlife Census 2024 at Narok Airstrip in Narok County on June 19, 2024. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard] 

Kenya boasts of myriad creatures in unique ecosystems, but whose numbers fluctuate due to climate change, poaching, pests and diseases, human-wildlife conflict and other factors. As the government launched a wildlife census in Narok earlier this week, the importance could not be gainsaid.

A systematic counting of animals is critical to inform conservation strategies, reduce the effects of climate change, and prevent biodiversity loss. A reduction in the number of lions, for instance, or their increase in human-inhabited areas, tells more, including about the health of their habitats. Such information is vital, especially in a country like Kenya, where tourism contributes more than eight per cent to the GDP and directly employs over one million people.

Such environments might be uninhabitable by wildlife due to the effects of climate change. Wild animals prefer certain vegetation and temperatures to live, hunt, feed and procreate. A comparison of wildlife censuses can highlight climate-related changes that affect the distribution of animals.

A decline in the Grevy’s zebra population from over 15,000 in the 1970s to below 3,000 in 2022, for instance, can be attributed to poaching, drought and changes in rainfall patterns.

Data from censuses are therefore key in informing how fast interventions are needed, and which areas to be prioritised. Policymakers can also create effective long-term conservation strategies based on census information.

The Mara and its iconic wildebeest migration is an attraction for tourists and a source of revenue to Kenya. For tourists to arrive at the Masai Mara to watch the wildebeest migration, an airline, crew, and food company will earn. A transport company will benefit from moving them from the airport. More businesses, including a farmer who supplies fresh produce to tourist hotels, also benefit. As a result, families will get basic needs and children go to school.

In this case, information on the number of wildebeests in the Mara, an ecosystem shared with Tanzania, their behaviours, why the population is reducing on the Kenyan side, and where they go, is important when marketing Kenya as a tourist destination, and interventions to have more of them.  

In all these, the role of communities, which sometimes have a deeper understanding of the local environment and wildlife, is key. Communities such as the Maasai, who interact with wildlife, can tell changes in animal behaviour and movements, providing information that cameras may not capture.

Engaging communities in such censuses enhances their sense of ownership and responsibility towards wildlife. This can reduce human-wildlife conflicts and livestock predation by big cats that often cause retaliatory killings.

Besides, conservation initiatives are a source of livelihood and reduce over-reliance on livestock, which mitigates overgrazing that worsens land degradation. Pastoralists are on the front line of climate change, usually suffering losses when their livestock are killed by drought or floods, or the domestic animals’ productivity is reduced as a result of unconducive temperatures. Changes in rain patterns and temperatures also affect pasture availability and quality. Integrating local communities in such activities as census and wildlife conservation projects enhances the resilience and survival of both wildlife and domestic animals.

Wildlife censuses are effective in ensuring conservation and providing the data needed to address climate change and biodiversity loss. An integrated approach, therefore, offers an opportunity for conservation and preservation of Kenya's rich biodiversity for future generations.

The writer advocates climate justice.