A proposal to give elephants the highest level of international protection was rejected at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) CoP17 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The proposal to list all African elephants in Appendix 1 failed to attain the two-thirds majority vote needed. European Union member states, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia were among the countries that voted against. This means high international prices and a big demand for ivory will curtail national efforts to stop the poaching menace.
There have been solutions to counter the wildlife loss menace; electric fencing, hefty penalties, more armed rangers and technology. The recent conviction and sentencing of ivory kingpin Feisal Mohamed Ali to 20 years in jail sends a clear message that Kenya is serious in the war on poaching. While these efforts are significant in addressing conservation challenges, they come with a price and require a long time to establish. There is an even more significant conservation story that hasn’t received the attention it deserves; Kenyan landowners and communities as conservation agents.
Studies conducted in Northern Kenya reveal elephant poaching has gone down by 35 per cent in three years across six million acres of community-managed conservancy land. Amboseli Ecosystem has had near zero levels of poaching as a result of over 350 community scouts supervised by Big Life and ten community conservancies. A study conducted by Living with Lion’s organisation presented evidence that wildlife conservancies played a critical role in maintaining wildlife populations in unfenced areas. The research found the number of lions in four conservancies North of the Mara Reserve had doubled in five years as a result of the benefits community conservancy received from protecting wildlife. The Sera Conservancy has established Kenya’s largest community Rhino sanctuary and the Hirola antelope in Ishaqbin Conservancy in Lamu County.
It is estimated that conservancies have the potential to conserve up to 12 per cent of Kenya’s land mass, thereby doubling the land under conservation and benefit over 5million rural Kenyans. While the enthusiasm is high, few communities actually benefit from wildlife. In fact, many incur huge costs of living with wildlife, either through destruction caused by wildlife or as a result of opportunities that cannot be exploited due to presence of wildlife. Many communities have insecure rights to their land and natural resources, thus have little reason not to overexploit them. It is also evident that many community members attach little or no value to wildlife. This makes it easy for poachers to recruit community support to their illegal activities.
There is urgent need to redirect our national efforts to support conservancies by involving communities to secure land and reduce land fragmentation. We must acknowledge that community lands are important for connectivity in the greater ecosystems and that our policies should provide incentives to land owners as a way of encouraging communities to adopt land use types that recognise the importance of protecting wildlife. Equitable benefit sharing and compensation for loss in the event of wildlife conflict will substantially reduce poaching levels when communities consider wildlife their asset. Repeatedly, we have seen this work in Amboseli, Mara, Samburu and other counties where conservancies have been established. Further, conservation NGOs and the private sector with the support of government can support communities to establish sustainable enterprises around wildlife, expand livestock markets create other alternative income streams to communities, to reduce community members’ reliance on poaching as a source of income or food. The success of wildlife conservancies in Kenya could then be replicated in other countries within Africa struggling with challenges of poaching and habitat loss.