Poachers take advantage of Corona to encroach on parks
Fears by tour guides that Kenya’s valuable wildlife in parks and conservancies are under threat from poachers during the Coronavirus crisis have become a reality.
The tourist destinations are empty of tourists, guides, hotel and lodges workers, while the cash-strapped Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has been forced to downsize its ranger posts in the parks, opening up the parks to abuse by poachers.
Last weekend, KWS officers arrested three poachers in possession of 38.6 kilogrammes of ivory in a Laikipia West sub-county.
The two were nabbed with the trophies by undercover officers working on a tip-off from members of the public.
The two suspects, Kipkemoi Minito and Alfred Njogu were nabbed with three pieces of ivory concealed in a sack.
Senior Warden Station Gabriel Kiio told KNA the tusks are suspected to have been obtained from an elephant that could have been killed at Mugie Ranch in Laikipia North.
“If you think you can have financial gains from this ivory, know that having been caught with such trophies will attract a life sentence or a fine not exceeding Sh20 million,” warned the Senior Warden.
Most cases of poaching have in the past been brought to the attention of authorities by tour operators while on game viewing expeditions. “We are always the first to spot carcasses.
Now that there are no visitors, rangers alone cannot track the animals,” says Hosea Serem, an official of the national Tour Guides and Drivers Association.
Game reserves and national parks are the pillar of tourism industry and wildlife viewing and safari tourism are vital income and foreign exchange earners.
Current restrictions in movement and the closure of borders in countries have resulted in a decline in revenue hindering the KWS operations.
Last March, the carcass of a very rare white giraffe and her calf, whose tracks had been lost for a few weeks, was found in a reserve in Garissa county. The meat had been removed for sale or consumption. “This is a sad day for the community of Ijara and Kenya as a whole,” said Mohammed Ahmednoor, manager of the Ishaqbini Hirola Community Conservancy.
Officials say attention now remains high everywhere, from Meru Park to the Lewa reserve, where last December, two rhinoceros were killed.
Poaching activity was also found near the Tsavo West last week as the KWS continues to track and monitor elephants.
“KWS relies on tourism to finance its projects. There is need to rebrand the product and take it away from being heavily reliant on wildlife,” Brig (rtd) John Waweru, Director General, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) said during a Covid-19 Sustainability and Remodelling of Wildlife Sector webinar hosted by Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary, Najib Balala.
With the decline of tourism because of the pandemic, some of KWS operations have stalled.
“Revenue has decreased to 98.8 per cent since the pandemic. As a result, we have scaled down operations to between 60 and 70 per cent in 20 parks and reserves, but have maintained mainstream security.
We have also merged some outposts in the process from 144 to 123 and suspended training of our rangers at Manyani and Naivasha institutes,” said Brig Waweru.
The service employs 6,000 employees in the KWS spread all over the country.
With reduction in their number due to the pandemic —few are needed to man entry gates for instance— some of the challenges that the organisation is grappling with in the parks include the escalation of bush meat poaching, especially in Nakuru, Machakos, Nairobi and Makueni counties.
Formed in 1990, through the Wildlife (Conservation and Management) Act of Parliament, Cap 376, KWS manages about eight per cent of the nation’s total landmass, which comprises of 22 national parks, 28 national reserves, and five national sanctuaries.
It also manages four marine national parks and six marine reserves, with 125 field stations outside wildlife protected areas.
Ten out of these 23 national parks generate 80 per cent of the revenue annually from conservation fees.
The total conservation fees contribute 61 per cent of the total income of KWS.
Global funding to wildlife sector is estimated at $130 million (Sh139 billion) annually, but KWS gets only a million dollars a year (Sh106 million), while the rest goes to the other conservation projects.
Moreover, there is a marked increase in human- wildlife conflicts.“We are working closely with our partners in conservation and many have volunteered to be honourary wardens and community scouts to assist in securing the wildlife.
We have also increased community sensitisation and awareness using TV and radio on the importance of conservation,” Brig Waweru said.
KWS has introduced mandatory daily screening of staff and guests as they enter and tour the parks.
The service involves local people in wildlife protection by providing jobs as trackers and eco-guards in the national parks.
But when these jobs are threatened, people living in the vicinity of protected areas become accomplices to poachers.
According to Simon Mordue, European Union Ambassador to Kenya, the EU has dispatched $15 billion (Sh1.6 trillion) to assist in the Covid situation and urged the KWS not to forget the parks that secure biodiversity.
“The funds will be redirected to anti-poaching and paying of KWS and other rangers.
We also need to look into the role of the youth and capture their imagination in understanding the importance of wildlife,” he said.
Questions arose over whether KWS is overburdened with functions. “KWS function is research, regulator, mobilising community.
To what extent are we balancing or are some areas suffering? Are we underfunding it?” asked Dickson Kaelo CEO, Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association.
Speaking at the Webinar, Balala said wildlife is an important component in the tourism sector, adding that there is a need to strengthen the tourism department in order to have better collaboration with KWS.
“We are still using 1975 policies, which need to be changed. People must own wildlife and feel part and parcel of it not just the government,” said Balala.
The CS said there is a need to establish a fund, which will not be affected by the economy or tourism earnings, set aside for the preservation of wildlife.
“There is need to think out of the box when it comes to preserving wildlife,” Balala said.