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Inside Kenya’s wildlife census

NATIONAL
By Peter Muiruri | September 27th 2021

The population of rhinos stood at a high of 20,000 in the 1970s. [Courtesy]

On August 31, President Uhuru Kenyatta received the results of the country’s first national wildlife census.

The report, presented by Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala, is expected to inform the conservation strategy over the coming years. But what, exactly, do the animal numbers mean?

“It is a good and bad story,” said Patrick Omondi, the acting director for the newly formed Wildlife Research and Training Institute.

“We are celebrating the rising elephant population that had been reduced to 16,000 in 1989 from a high of 167,000 in 1973. The reason the late President Daniel Moi spearheaded the formation of the Kenya Wildlife Service in 1989 was to stem the high cases of elephant poaching, otherwise, they would be extinct in Kenya by now.”

The new training institute, to be headquartered in Naivasha, will be the custodian of all scientific data regarding wildlife in Kenya.

While Kenya used to lose 400 elephants annually as of 2011, the population has since increased to 36,000, a 2.6 per cent annual growth, while that of the black rhino has grown to 897 from 400 in 1989.

Infographics: The Standard Checkpoint.

The population of rhinos stood at a high of 20,000 in the 1970s. Today, growing at an annual rate of 3.5 per cent, the future of the rhino looks bright.

“The elephant and rhino recovery investment paid off. Kenya banned trade in ivory and rhino horn, as there was always a spike in poaching once the sale of the trophies was allowed in other jurisdictions. For Kenya, it was a culture of passion, not a money-driven approach, for the rangers who were at times enticed with up to Sh500,000 to look the other way,” said Omondi.

According to the census report, the number of other grazers, such as buffaloes, wildebeests, common zebras, and several antelope species, are either stable or rising.

While these may be seen as success stories, higher numbers require more room for grazing, with related research showing an extensive or total loss of migratory corridors and dispersal areas.

Elephants at a watering hole, Tsavo National Park. [Boniface Okendo,Standard]

In May, an international team of 92 scientists and conservationists, who included Kenyan scientist Joseph Ogutu, released a report that detailed the migratory patterns of ungulates, which included the 600-kilometre circuit made by wildebeests in East Africa. The success of this migration depends on the open corridor between Kenya and Tanzania.

“When ungulates move in large aggregations, their hooves, dung, and urine create conditions that facilitate distinct biotic communities. The migrations of ungulates have sustained humans for thousands of years, forming tight cultural links among indigenous people and local communities,” stated the report.

Mr Omondi said the census report that followed a month later would now form the basis for safeguarding wildlife habitats that are competing with other development projects, such as roads and railways, as well as increasing human settlements.

“The report will help us plan for the rising wildlife numbers. We will share the report with county governments for their spatial planning now that we have actionable data from the government. Those sharing their habitats with animals can now consider wildlife as a land-use option, a means of economic gain within the legal framework,” he said.

On the flip side, the report revealed a decline in some key species, such as the Roan and Sable antelopes, with only 15 and 51 of these animals left in the country, respectively.

With such low numbers, cases of inbreeding may become common, exposing the animals to diseases that could drive them to extinction.

Together with the Hirola, an antelope species found in Garissa County, and the mountain bongo, the Roan and Sable antelopes are listed as “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a category meant for species that have “an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future”.

Antelopes at the Nairobi National Park, Nairobi. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Omondi said the census report would now dictate the implementation of national recovery plans meant to shore up the numbers of dwindling species. In most cases, the plans will include a rewilding process by translocation of some animal populations from other jurisdictions.

“For the Roan antelope, we will start by creating a predator-free sanctuary in Ruma National Park, the only place where these antelopes inhabit. Then we intend to get some animals from neighbouring countries such as Uganda where the natural habitat mirrors that in Kenya. This will expand the gene pool and prevent the 15 animals currently in Kenya from inbreeding.”

The chestnut-coloured mountain bongo faces a similarly bleak future if efforts to create a viable population stall.

Currently, there are only 150 of them in Kenya — 96 in the wild and 54 under captivity mainly in the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy. The bongo is accorded full protection under the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act, 2013.

In the wild, two subspecies of the bongo — the lowland rain forest and eastern montane sub-species — are known to exist. The 150 bongo in Kenya occupies montane landscapes of Mount Kenya, the Aberdares, and Mau forests. Populations that lived in Cherangani Hills and Chepalungu Forest became extinct close to 30 years ago.

To prevent further decline and possible extinction of the bongo, the government formulated the National Recovery and Action Plan for the Mountain Bongo in Kenya (2019-2023) that seeks to “achieve a national population of 730 individuals over the next 50 years”.

Translocation of captive bongos from other jurisdictions is among the proposals in the plan.

All these recovery efforts, however, will still have to confront the biggest threat to wildlife conservation in Kenya: habitat loss through human encroachment in and around conservation areas.

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