Neglect, poor strategies and too much focus on big five killing Kenya’s wildlife

The eland is now an endangered specie. (Photo: Reuters)

Kenya lost nearly a third of its wildlife population in the last 40 years according to a new study. And more than a dozen wildlife species could become extinct in a couple of years unless urgent remedial measures were taken. It was that too much focus on the big five, especially elephants and rhinos has masked the devastation to other species.

“Our results show that wildlife numbers declined on average by 68 per cent between 1977 and 2016,” says the report by the Directorate of Resource Surveys and Remote Sensing (DRSRS), the International Livestock Research Institute and Germany’s University of Hohenheim.

The last 40 years have witnessed a lot of activity to stem poaching, which is blamed for the loss of elephants and rhinos. Three high profiled ivory burning ceremonies have been held since July 9 1989, when then President Daniel Moi ignited some 12 tonnes of ivory.

Exactly 22 years later, President Mwai Kibaki repeated the same feat by torching 335 ivory tusks and more than 40,000 trinkets worth Sh1.5 billion. President Uhuru Kenyatta kept the tradition by torching ivory worth Sh15 billion last year.

These three events cemented the poaching narrative as the main culprit of wildlife loss and hoisted elephants and rhinos as the two main flagship species defining Kenya’s wildlife loss.

Entire truth

But this is not the entire truth. A group of scientists led by Dr Joseph Ogutu say Kenya risks losing 18 animal and bird species due to negligence. They include warthogs, lesser kudu, Thomson’s gazelle, eland, oryx, topi, hartebeest, impala, Grévy’s zebra, waterbuck, wildebeest, giraffe, gerenuk, Grant’s gazelle, buffalo, elephant, ostrich and Burchell’s zebra.

Their report, itled Extreme Wildlife Declines and Concurrent Increase in Livestock Numbers in Kenya: What Are the Causes?,challenges the efficacy of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). “The declines raise very grave concerns about the future of wildlife, the effectiveness of wildlife conservation policies, strategies and practices in Kenya,” it reads.

In an eight-week investigation dredging through dozens of archival documents and a series of interviews, The Standard on Sunday has managed to piece together the trail of destruction that bedevils Kenya’s wildlife resources.

“The catastrophic loss of wildlife implies the loss of vital genetic diversity and other values of wildlife. The loss of wildlife is almost always associated with the degradation or loss of their habitats in Kenya,” says Dr Ogutu, a researcher at the University of Hohenheim. “This implies the loss of critical ecosystem services provided by the rangelands, such as purification of water and air,”

Some reasons for wildlife loss include human interference and increased livestock numbers.

“Causes of the wildlife declines include exponential human population growth, increasing livestock numbers, declining rainfall and a striking rise in temperatures but the fundamental cause seems to be policy, institutional and market failures,” the report says.

The scientists recommend policy, institutional and management interventions to curb the declines, restore rangeland health and the strengthening of community and private wildlife conservancies in the rangelands.

In 2014, at the height of the poaching resurgence reminiscent of the 1980s era, a task force on wildlife security was appointed by Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources Prof Judi Wakhungu. It was chaired by Dr Nehemiah Rotich, a former director of KWS.

Its final report started with the chilling words: “Kenya’s wildlife is under siege. The jewel that is the hallmark of the country’s crown is under serious and ever-increasing threat.”

These words still ring true today. Dr Rotich, who has been involved in wildlife management for the last three decades spoke to The Standard on Sunday last weekend.

“We were a 15-person task force with experience in wildlife, security, community leadership, public finance and natural resources management,” he says.

“We visited the whole country and spoke to community leaders and academics. We studied the entire management structure of KWS.

What we found out was disturbing and three years since we submitted our report, complete with recommendations for change, nothing much has been done.”

The task force’s report, titled Lifting the Siege: Securing Kenya’s Wildlife, recommended “a major overhaul of KWS. Anything less will not help revitalise KWS to deal with the enormous security threats and the wildlife decline that Kenya is facing.”

According to the task force, KWS was structured to fail from the start. “The key concerns about the structure of KWS includes a top heavy organisation at headquarters level, an over-fragmentation of departments and units at both headquarters and in the field with a consequence of overlapping functions and unclear reporting lines; an infighting over roles, with poor reporting systems, and a communication process that has also become very much one-way between headquarters and the field, with much weaker communication occurring between field personnel.”

Dr Wilbur Ottichilo, who once served as chief scientist and deputy director in charge of biodiversity conservation and planning at KWS says the Kenyan conservation sector is in ICU. “All we are waiting for is to take it to the mortuary and eventually bury it,” he says.

“We warned them two decades ago about declining wildlife and habitat loss. They never did anything and never cared to listen,” says Dr Ottichilo, who is  currently the Emuhaya Member of Parliament.

“We wrote reports, built scientific models and scenarios on all the threats facing Kenya’s wildlife covering all our parks and reserves using the best science available and warning of the impending wildlife disaster. We even gave solutions. Nobody took action and we were never taken seriously..”

He says that the 68 per cent loss that DRSRS is talking about, is 68 per cent of the 30 per cent that was remaining in mid-1990s when they told their bosses at KWS about the calamity Kenya was facing.

“In mid 1990s we had already found out that we were losing our wildlife and our deductions which have never been challenged because were thorough was that we had lost 70 per cent of our wildlife then.

“We wrote reports, built scientific models and scenarios on all the threats facing Kenya’s wildlife covering all our parks and reserves using the best science available and warning of the impending wildlife disaster.”

Paul Masela, a KWS spokesperson, denies claims of negligence, saying KWS is doing its best to conserve the country’s delicate ecosystem in the face of a growing human population.  He says KWS needs at least Sh7 billion annually to perform optimally.