Up in flames: Who’s burning Tsavo?


Bernadine Mutanu, Nation

Date Published
See link for photos. 
The hissing and crackling fire can be heard from a distance and as far as the eye can see, are flames and smoke.

On a sunny, windy Wednesday, Samson Mwanganyi watches helplessly as his 100 acres of grass goes up in smoke.

The resident of Makwasini village in Kasigau cannot believe his investment of 17 years has just been destroyed by fire in minutes. A neighbour, who was clearing his farmland, has cost him a fortune. He had hoped to keep some cattle, but that has to wait until the grass grows back.

Minutes into the interview with Mwanganyi, a drone flying low approaches to assess the situation and interrupts the conversation.
Mwanganyi tells HealthyNation the drone is from Wildlife Works, which runs Rukinga Ranch, bordering his land. Wildlife Works hopes to keep off another fire from the ranch.

In a span of less than 10km, the HealthyNation team counts at least three areas where large swathes of land have been consumed by fire at the sanctuary.

Rukinga, in the Kasigau Corridor Protection Area, is one of the 28 group ranches and rhino sanctuaries in the Tsavo Conservation Area (TCA), covering one million acres of rangelands Taita-Taveta County.

For the past five months, the ranches in Tsavo have been burning. Fires which have not been put out to date.

At least 197,000 acres of Tsavo had been razed by arsonists by early September, as the scramble for meagre resources threatens the biggest conservation area in Kenya. Everybody wants a piece of Tsavo from the grass, the water, the meat to the wildlife trophies.

TCA is 43,000 square kilometres and covers Tsavo East, Tsavo West, the Chyulu Hills National Parks and the 28 group ranches in Makueni, Taita-Taveta, Kitui, Tana River, Kilifi and Kajiado.

At 12,600, it is home to the largest elephant population in the country, according to the 2017 census.

Rukinga ranch covers 80,000 acres of land and harbours at least 11,000 wild elephants. It also is home to at least 15 lions, 25 cheetahs, 10 leopards, 50 Grevy zebras and 25 wild dogs, according to the Wildlife Works. It borders the 96,000-acre Taita ranch and the 48,000-acre Lumo ranch.

These and other animals are being decimated by human beings at a time when the United Nations is warning biodiversity is declining globally at rates never known before.

Although most of these fires have been emanating from the group ranches, the government-protected areas have also not been spared.
Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Senior Assistant Director Robert Njue blames human activities for the fires. Livestock herding, illegal honey harvesting, charcoal burning, poaching and farming are threatening to snuff the life out of Tsavo.

While some fires are involuntary, most are voluntary, says Njue, who adds that poaching increased one month into the pandemic. “Some are caused by herders, who are deep inside the parks,” he says.

In Tsavo West National Park and the surrounding ranches, livestock herds dot the area. Large swathes of land have also been destroyed by raging fires.

Catch arsonists
Asked why herders would set on fire the areas they depend on for pasture, Njue says some of them could be retaliating after they were forced to move out of the protected areas.

KWS has been seizing the livestock to force owners out of hiding, so that they can be charged with encroaching into Tsavo. “They might also be diverting attention from illegal herding by lighting these fires as they continue to graze,” says Njue, adding that except for two fires, all others were intentionally lit.

There have been claims that KWS had reached an agreement with some herders, allowing them to graze their cattle in the park during the Covid-19 period since there was reduced activity. But, containment measures have now been relaxed and tourists have started touring the parks and the herders have to leave.

Most of the herders in the conservation area are from outside the counties where TCA is located. During the dry seasons, herders from North Eastern counties move south in search of water and pasture, sometimes entering the parks without authorisation.

“Some fires are accidental, but there are those who want to graze their cattle in the ranches. We do not want that because this is a conservancy. This is why they are razing the area in protest of their removal. It is very hard to catch the arsonists,” says Renson Dio, the Taita Conservancy chairman.

Run helter-skelter
The fires that spread accidentally are caused by farmers trying to control ticks and to instigate the growth of forage, he adds.

Although Lavencia Mghoi, the assistant chief of Mwakitau sub-location, says it is hard to know what or who causes the fires, he understands what it takes to put them out. “I mobilised young people from the Desert Team and using twigs, we helped put out a fire which had occurred in Lumo Conservancy,” she says.

Kent Shuma was one of the young men, who helped put out the fire. “I called my team of 14 members and informed them of the emergency. They understand the importance of conservation and that is why they did not hesitate to help,” he says.

According to Maurice Nyaligu, the Landscape Program manager at African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), the fires are heavily centred on the borders of the park (under KWS) and community-conserved areas, especially in south of Tsavo West, which borders group ranches.

“This year’s fires are a bit unusual; they have been very sporadic. The first fire started in Tsavo East and then there were sporadic fires in parts of Chyulu Hills, then in group ranches such as Lualenyi in Tsavo West then in the community conserved areas such as Ngene Ranch,” he says.

The distribution of the fires is uneven, he adds, and it is hard to tell exactly whether they follow a pattern.

Unlike the Kenyan side, Mkomazi National Park in neighbouring Tanzania has not reported many fires. Nyaligu says Mkomazi has a different terrain. It is a bit hilly unlike Tsavo West and East, whose terrain is flat grassland.

This topography might have an impact in terms of how the wind blows, which engineers how the fire moves and spreads across the ecosystem most of the time. “When the fires started, we would report four episodes in a day. We would run helter-skelter trying to put them out in vain. But, we are now more organised, we have learnt some lessons,” says Njue.

Pangolin threat
Along the Voi-Taveta road, a huge fire burned a part of Tsavo West National Park. A smouldering cigarette butt was the cause of the fire, or so KWS believes.

Charcoal producers are also a huge problem in the area and have been a source of many fires as they burn trees for their trade.

The unusual rain between November 2019 and April 2020 has only worsened the situation by creating a lot of biomass, which has fuelled the fires. The dry, hot weather and strong winds that followed exacerbated the situation, says Kenneth Kimitei, the AWF’s landscape ecologist at TCA.

He says the last time there was a huge fire at TCA was in 2009. This year’s fires, according to him, are very rare and very expensive, not only in terms of the money spent in putting them out, but also due to the lost biodiversity.

Njue tells HealthyNation: “We lose biodiversity with every section burned. The fires have not burned the big mammals, but the creepers, crawlers and other small animals like the invertebrates have borne its brunt.”

Invertebrates are important because they help in nutrient recycling and breaking the soil. “It is difficult to quantify the number of small animals we have been lost,” he adds. “Some of the fires started in the middle of nowhere and there are no suspects.”

According to Nyaligu, burrowing animals such as pangolins have also been affected. “We have data of some carnivores that have been burned while crossing the area. This is a major concern because we do not know whether some of those species will rebound to their previous status,” he says. “This is especially because their conservation status is still not fully established.”

Only 2.9 per cent of the protected area has been destroyed so far, says Njue. “There is still a lot of space for the animals to move,” he says, adding that KWS is still quantifying the loss and doing investigations.

However, Nyaligu says wild animals are not evenly distributed in the entire ecosystem because some tend to congregate in large numbers in some areas to access to water, salt licks and other resources required for their well-being.

“Because of this, we cannot say the park itself is a mitigation measure. Certain specific species can only be found in specific areas and if there is a threat in those areas, their distribution will be hampered,” says a concern Nyaligu.

What happens ecologically is that when fires persist in an ecosystem, the fire-resistant species have favourable ground to dominate and this, in the long-term, has an effect in terms of flora and fauna distribution, says Nyaligu.

Giraffe meat
On the one hand, there might be a lot of fire-resistant trees and shrubs, which survive. On the other hand, all non-resistant grasses are eliminated, meaning there will be changes in the distribution of specific wildlife species.

Mammal, crawlers and bird species as well as micro-organisms will be affected, he explains. As a result, there will be disruptions in the food chain, the food web and, consequently, biodiversity and the ecosystem.

The mammals and the big five may not have been burned, but they were pushed either further inside the woods or outside of the protected areas and probably into people farms. “Some young ones have either been separated from their mothers or have died in the fires,” says Dio.

Then, there is poaching, especially targeting pangolins and giraffes. TCA is home to pangolins and international demand and trade is driving poaching, according to Njue. The giraffe is also being targeted for its meat.

According to KWS, poaching has increased, not only in the TCA, but also in other conservation areas. In the past one month, four people have been arrested at the Coast transporting a pangolin. “We want to study, secure and monitor pangolins within the TCA, but it requires a serious and elaborate system,” says the KWS assistant director.

The poachers are also blamed for the fires. Their activities inside the conservation such as cooking, have been linked to a fire or two.
Elizabeth Mrema, the executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, says: “We have no time to wait. Biodiversity loss, nature loss, is on an unprecedented level in the history of mankind.”

Humans, she says, are the most dangerous species in global history given how destructive they are.

Cost of chopper
And, the cost of putting out the fires is huge. Without the joint efforts of the Tourism ministry, Kenya Airforce and NGOs such as the AWF, Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Taita ranches, World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Works and Team Tsavo, it would be an arduous task for KWS, says Njue.

“These fires are very expensive. Whenever there is a fire, 400 people have to be mobilised to put it out. Some fire beaters are also called in addition to fire equipment, vehicles, fuel, aircraft and food,” he adds.

For instance, Sh82, 000 is required for a chopper to fly for one hour putting out fire, says an expert who did not want to be quoted on the issue.

Further complicating the issue, are the poorly maintained fire breaks. “Fire breaks are very important in every farm and every conservancy to prevent fire from spreading,” says Nyaligu.

But, most fire breaks in the areas visited are not well maintained and this could be one of the reasons the fires spread fast.

Now, there are efforts to end the menace once and for all. To control the infernos, KWS is in the process of setting up a fire station in Tsavo East. Njue says KWS will rehabilitate a building at a low cost.

The building is also centrally located and accessible to the group ranches and southern Tsavo West. “If we get resources, we anticipate to put it up by next year. Currently, KWS is working on the costing of the project,” he says.

It is going to be the first ecosystem fire station. “We have started getting equipment; we want to respond actively to fires. We need the fire station because of the effects of climate change, which may never go away, meaning that we shall continue to have dry and wet seasons, and the risky fires,” adds Njue.