Some things are worth repeating. So I will say this again. Wildlife conservation in Kenya is in deep crisis. The future of our wildlife and all forms of biodiversity, plants, and animals as wells landscapes is grave. In 2013 Kenya’s first lady, Margaret Kenyatta, warned elephants could go extinct in just two decades.
Early this year Dr. Richard Leakey observed that dozens of poaching bosses had been allowed to act with outrageous impunity, orchestrating massacres that could result in the extinction of elephants and rhino. Leakey’s remarks and the outrage by many conservationists and concerned citizens was provoked by the fact that in just three months since January we lost 18 rhinos and more than 50 elephants.
In April, five senior officials at KWS were suspended as part of government investigations into mismanagement and an upsurge of poaching. This action was largely seen as the government’s response to blistering criticism and growing public concern that Kenya could be losing the war against poaching.
Last week, a team of conservationists conducting wildlife census in the Mara counted 117 fresh and old elephant carcasses, with their tusks missing. It is highly unlikely that the elephants died from old age or disease or predation. It is highly likely that poachers killed all 117 elephants. It is highly likely that public servants, at KWS, our security apparatus, customs and immigration officers as well as ordinary citizens looked the other way and aided criminals to spirit away large quantities of ivory thus ruining tourism and diminishing our priceless heritage.
Last week authorities seized 228 whole elephant tusks and 74 pieces of ivory as they were packed ready for export in Mombasa. Senior KWS officials confirmed that based on the size and complexion some of the tusks were obtained from elephants outside of Kenya. The quantity of illicit ivory traded has more than doubled since 2007 and the African elephant faces the most serious threat since the ban on commercial trade in ivory in 1989.
Again, here is something I have said before, which is worth repeating. The inexorable decline of rhino and elephant will change irreversibly, the structure and workings of savanna and forest ecosystems, putting in peril hundreds of wildlife species and threating the livelihoods of pastoral societies. Such dramatic habitat changes could wipe Kenya off the list of leading wildlife tourism destinations.
The biggest threat to tourism in Kenya is not travel advisories. Rampant poaching, which threatens our wildlife and their habitats is the real threat to tourism. But habitat loss through expansion of infrastructure, agriculture and settlement presents an equally significant challenge maintaining viable populations of rhinos and elephants.
In the fight against poaching two things are worth repeating. First, more boots on the ground, with more rangers, is not adequate to confront the sophisticated logistical and organizing capacity of poachers. Second, just like drug lords, local poaching bosses and their acolytes within national conservation agencies are extremely well connected in business and politics. In some African countries poaching money is used to finance presidential campaigns. With the soaring value of ivory and rhino horn it is inevitable that militias, terrorists and politicians will want to profit from it. And we know that public officials profit enormously from corruption associated with poaching.
South African National Parks and private conservancies in Kenya have deployed high-tech systems comprising GPS tracking technologies, aircraft and drones to secure rhino and elephant herds. The deployment of high-tech has led to an astronomical escalation of the cost of conservation per hectare. In the meantime, there has been a huge increase in poaching in the past two years.
What is needed is reliable collection and analysis of large data on movement of elephant or rhino, deployment of rangers, poaching activity, weather data, habitat conditions and using models to identify patterns, including correlations and associations. The goal is to track wildlife and predict where poacher might strike. The goal is to deploy rangers more efficiently, prevent poaching and preemptively strike poachers.
We can hold the line on poaching and prevent the inexorable decline of wildlife. But it will take leadership from the executive to: 1) neutralize the political and financial potency of the poaching bosses; 2) revamp KWS and national intelligence assets to protect wildlife and respond robustly to the threat of poaching; and, 3) enforce national land use guidelines to forestall loss of vital wildlife habitat and promote sustainable land management.