Kenyan Wildlife: Wetlands, Poaching, Maasai and Control


By Ashvin Ramasamy

Overview

Kenyan wildlife is interdependent on a number of sensitive factors. The diversity of species, both migratory and native and the coexistence with humans, reflect a long standing culture. The welfare of wildlife plays a central role in the healthy functioning of the environment as well. Kenyan wildlife is internationally recognized for its diversity and uniqueness. Recent improvements in conviction rates and tighter law enforcement have resulted from coordinated efforts of international actors and local authorities in an interplay of personnel training and resource allocation. Today, wetlands, rivers, indigenous communities and illegal trade explain the risks and challenges of Kenyan wildlife.

Wetlands As Refuge for Wildlife

The network of wetlands in Northern Kenya has an integral responsibility in sustaining wildlife but mounting pressure since 1970s from small scale farming has been disruptive. The Marura riverine wetland has lost some of its functioning abilities due to upstream agricultural production. More so, the agricultural development pattern promoted the settlement of human communities along riverine systems to benefit from resources of the catchment area. Due to the strong concentration of pollutants emanating from agriculture run-off, the sensitive region faces potentially irreversible losses. Marura swamp stands as a refuge for domesticated animals but also for numerous wild animals. Over 100 migratory and resident bird species call it home. Also, over 100 plant species can be found in this area, stretching from Uasin Gishu county to Bungoma County over 74 km. The most common flora is papyrus Cyperus papyrus L., a tree species endemic to Africa. It holds high value potential to riparian communities and to the construction and furniture industries. For this reason, settlements and expanding extractive industries are damaging the fragile ecosystem of the whole wetland area; encroachment is also driving down the diversity of species.

With only six wetlands under official protection by the Ramsar Convention, the public and wildlife conservancies have put tremendous pressure on local authorities to expand control. In some cases, wetlands serve as the last safety net for the wellbeing of wildlife in their respective regions. One strategic approach called for by community leaders is wildlife management plans versatile enough to extend over riverine systems to include Marura swamp, for example. This would also be a critical tool for implementation in watershed areas in different capacities.

In response, the local government is engaging the community to reuse collected water so as to reduce demand for water withdrawal from sensitive wetlands. Although, this frame of thinking fits squarely into sustainability practices, the fact remains that authorities have not laid plans to implement protection schemes. The government of Kenya has not drafted a national wetland policy for defining modes of action and allocate necessary resources.

Remediating damaged wetlands involves the education of socio-economic groups (usually communities dependent on one or more high value resource). Case in point, an in-depth study of Marura Wetland revealed high levels of pollution, explained by phosphates stemming in large part from agricultural fertilizers but also very murky waters consequentially. In addition, the increased presence of dissolved salts (with indication of human sources) coupled with physical changes in the water levels created electrical conductivity beyond acceptable standards. Excess pollution and altered physical characteristics effectively limits healthy ecosystem functioning.

Aligned with Indigenous Values

For millennia, the Maasai have lived in close relation with nature, rearing livestock and cohabiting with wild animals like rhinoceros, zebras and lions. At the foundation of Maasai culture lies the triumvirate interlink of livestock, wildlife and humans. The triangle functions holistically, meaning that the functioning of each part supports the other two. Like an electrical circuit connected in series, should one load fail (e.g., a battery or light bulb) the circuit loses current and collapses. The “current” that sustains the power in circuity in Maasai terms refers to the notion of respect: a vital virtue that they uphold towards nature, and wildlife community protection services.

In several geographical areas, Maasai groups interface directly with wildlife, that is where boundaries of reserves and parks are left ungated. On any given day of the wet season, livestock is at risk of predators lurking in the vicinity. Lions often attack herds of sheep owned by Maasai communities. At times, a few lions can wipe out an entire population of livestock. Innovative solutions such as LED lights deter predators from entering bomas (or enclosures) at night by emitting a series of flashes. The Maasai have since been able to sleep peacefully.

On the flip side, the strong presence of carnivores inevitably leads to a reduction of herbivores competing for pasturage with livestock. The Maasai understand the implications of good conservation practices. They promote good land use practices by engaging their communities in conservation support. When law-making introduced a bill that redefined Maasai land as part of the Nairobi metropolitan area, many came to settle on land that wild animals called home. Understanding the infringement that the newly established community had on crucial migration patterns, the government made a financial concession to landowners to keep their property free and open. Maasai communities understand that an inclusive dialogue to wildlife conservation is key to supporting the many populations of wild animals. They also value the education they are giving their children so that returning graduates can help solve conservation dilemmas with innovative solutions.

Fighting Wildlife Crime

90 percent of tourism relies on the sustainability of wildlife in East Africa. Talks on combating poaching and illegal wildlife trade in the past decade have centred on the deficient legislative system. This symptom links to an Africa-wide problem that has brought about the death of thousands of endangered and at-risk species. Kenya has had multiple cases of rhino and elephant poaching since 2000. Recent capacity-building efforts, training and sensitisation campaigns appear to turn the tide. NGO initiatives aimed at enhancing legal abilities of Kenyan prosecutors to tackle wildlife crime have been paying off. Kenya participated in regional collaboration efforts in 2016 with east and central African countries in what became a reliable platform on which to coordinate prosecutorial efforts in transboundary cases: the East African Wildlife Prosecutors Coalition. The $2M aid received last year helped boost law enforcement activities at previously weak international ports and routes often taken by illegal traders. In 2014, reports showed about 70 percent of transport of trafficked animal parts made their way by sea because legal enforcement and control at ports lacked capacity and training.

Where legal procedures often ended without due punishment for violators, recent data on conviction rates suggest progress is being made. 91 percent of wildlife crimes ended up in prosecution in 2017 up from 44 percent in 2013. Elsewhere, the Kenyan government reported that the number of elephant poaching dropped from 80 cases in 2018 to 40 in just one year. In 2018, CITES delisted Kenya from a list of illegal ivory trade. This contested decision came in response to consistent action planning for the sourcing and transiting for illegal ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales destined for Asia.

In February, the Kenyan government received essential kits to support its wildlife crime-fighting strategy from a strategic donor. The equipment will empower law enforcement, specifically benefit wildlife crime investigation units will be equipped with crime scene kits as well as guide books and other useful items. The newly acquired tools enable police officers to carry out delicate yet critical forensic work, making prosecution cases more convincing against alleged perpetrators.