Demand for animal’s trophy is driving our heritage to extinction

By Kenneth Kipruto

Last week, The Standard on Saturday carried a special feature on the dwindling number of wild animals in Kenya. A statement by an experienced wildlife consultant summed it all, “In another 15 to 20 years, tourists could visit Kenya to watch some animals in zoos if nothing is done to reverse the current decline in population.”

The writing is clearly on the wall –  act now or forever be doomed.

Let me break down the grim statistics for all to see. Kenya has only 1,000 rhinos left — 700 black and 300 white — down from more than 20,000 in the 1960s. Never mind that the rhino is Kenya’s most protected animal.

The elephant population now stands at slightly more than 30,000 from 167,000 in the 1970s. The jumbos are arguably the most sought after animal by poachers for their tusks, with lucrative markets in the Far East.

Yet it is not only the demand for animal trophy that is driving our heritage to extinction.

There are only 2,000 lions left, down from 15,000 in the 1990s. Kenya now has 1,160 cheetahs roaming our national parks, game reserves and private conservancies.

Our country is home to some of the world’s rare animals. We host the entire global population of mountain bongos, which are unfortunately on the verge of extinction with only 103 left. Shimba Hills National Reserve is home to the last 70 of Sable antelopes. Even the hyenas are on the decline, with some 5,000 left.

Yes, our heritage is on its deathbed. In just 50 years, we are headed the Western way. These statistics mean the coming generations will know nothing of world-renowned national parks, one of which is at the centre the Seven Wonders of the World. Instead, our children will visit zoos and watch National Geographic to get a ‘taste’ of what used to be a wildlife-rich country.

They will never experience the thrill of game drives and camping in the wild. Many will be quick to point fingers on the poaching menace for the decline of our most prized heritage. Heck, even the hyenas are under threat of extinction. What interest do poachers have with hyenas, lions, wild dogs and giraffes?

While poaching has contributed to the drop of the elephant and rhino population, the real problem lies with us – the citizens. The increasing population poses the gravest danger to the well being of our animals.

More people continue to encroach on their natural habitat as the government looks the other way.

Even the Nairobi National Park, the world’s only game park in the middle of a city, has not been spared.

Before his retirement, President Mwai Kibaki commissioned the construction of the Sh17 billion Southern Bypass, that eats into the Nairobi National Park. Little wonder then that a few months later, poachers brought down a white rhino inside the park, which happens to house the headquarters of the Kenya Wildlife Service, the body responsible for wildlife safety. Poachers are getting daring by the day.

Uncontrolled activity around our national parks is, by all means, the main cause of this steep decline.

The Nairobi National Park for example lies next to a busy domestic airport and is surrounded by busy highways and expanding human settlements. The Uganda Railway and the busy Nairobi-Mombasa highway pass through the Tsavo National Park.

Encroaching on forests and game parks force the wild animals to compete for the remaining space, disturbing their way of live.

This means that they are not free to hunt, graze and, most importantly, reproduce.

The increasing number of tourists, however good this is for the economy, has also contributed to decline in animal population. As the same expert said, “How do you expect to see cheetahs hunt with an aircraft roaring over, a balloon flying past, vehicles driving around them and cameras clicking from all angles?”

While the government has put in efforts to control the poaching menace, saving our animals is not about deploying rangers to hunt down poachers. It requires a more in-depth approach.

Otherwise, Uhuru Kenyatta will be remembered as the president who did nothing as Kenya’s most valuable heritage succumbed to a slow and painful death.