Wildlife census lays bare how human activity fuels conflict (Kenya)


Pauline Kairu, The East African

Date Published
Some good news came along with the bad at last week’s Kenya government unveiling of results from its first ever comprehensive national wildlife census (2021) report.

While the census recorded an increase on some of the charismatic species such as elephants, rhinos, lions, giraffe, Grevy’s zebra and hirola, the populations of several other species such as the roan and sable antelopes, and mountain bongo are doing so badly that not more than 100 individuals could be counted.

Also, generally, there were relatively lower records of the plain game species.

The elephant, one of Kenya’s iconic wildlife and a national heritage has seen its population grow from 32,214 animals in 2014 to the current population of 36,169 animals in 2021. This represents a 12 percent increase in seven years or 1.75 percent annual increase over the period. This is a sign of success of efforts put in place by the government to curb elephant poaching.

The 2014 period marked the peak of poaching and a bleak moment in Kenya. Elephant numbers were adversely affected, as population reduced from 35,588 in 2012 to 32,214 in 2014.

The national giraffe population also grew from about 23,000 in 2019 to about 34,240 in 2021, a 49 percent increase in three years. However, part of this increase is attributed to inclusion of more updated data of reticulated giraffes in northern Kenya in 2021 as the data used in 2019 for these counties was for 2011.

Kenya’s president while launching the report termed the inaugural inventorying of the country’s wildlife resources a proud historic moment in recognition of their place as a strategic national asset.

“This national effort provides the required information to guide future conservation and management of our wildlife resources, in a manner that minimises human-wildlife conflict and also promotes sustainable development,” President Uhuru Kenyatta said.

“Our nation is renowned for rich biodiversity spanning air, water, and land; natural wealth that makes us a conservation and tourism destination second to none,” he said, adding, “As the world grapples with climate change and human activity threatening botanical and zoological life and their habitats, Kenya is leading the way by implementing bold and decisive actions to conserve and promote her ecological wealth.”

Over 30 species of mammals, birds and marine species were counted in various ecosystems by the three-month (April-July 2021) census, through total aerial counts, sample aerial counts, ground counts, individual identification and indirect methods such as dung counts and use of camera traps and desktop review of previous census.

Kenya’s wildlife resource is the main tourism product and a key economic pillar of vision 2030. It is estimated that revenue from wildlife-based tourism accounts for about 10 percent of GDP.

However, Kenya has not been receiving optimised wildlife-based benefits due to inadequate knowledge on the status of its wildlife resources and comprehensive scientific data on wildlife population to inform sound policy direction.

This census has important baseline data to inform policy to sustainably conserve and manage wildlife resources.

Though a legal requirement to once every five years, submit to the National Assembly a wildlife resources monitoring report, only piecemeal surveys have been done either of single or clustered species or localities. Kenya has never undertaken a one-off national census to establish a baseline of its wildlife population status and distribution.

The survey identifies habitat loss, land use and land tenure systems change, exponential human population growth, and demand for land for settlement and infrastructure as reasons for low densities of plain game. Anthropogenic activities such as livestock incursions, logging, charcoal burning, settlements and fires were observed in conservation areas.

“Evidence from the census illustrates the social-economic impacts of activities such as agriculture, human settlements and infrastructure development on wildlife movements and loss of space for wildlife,” noted Balala.

Rope In Communities
“This will require more attention if we are to avert the danger of secluding wildlife in pockets of Protected Areas. Success of Kenya’s model of free-ranging wildlife is based on allowing unhindered movement and distribution of wildlife. It is imperative we maintain this model while taking into account demands of a growing human population and the need for clear benefits.”

Wildlife PS, Fred Segor, said the findings improve understanding of the connectedness of key wildlife landscapes and wildlife distribution, to guide appropriate management actions to ensure stable and increasing wildlife populations.

“This report will guide efforts toward reversing declining wildlife populations, develop strategies to grow stagnant ones and establish economic value of wildlife capital for reflection in the national budgeting process,” said Prof Segor.

Key wildlife landscapes in Kenya have seen challenges of land tenure, changing land use system, increased livestock and poor husbandry practices, reduced rainfalls and increased droughts due to by global climate change, which could impact negatively on certain species.

Of concern are influxes of livestock into the key wildlife ecosystems in Laikipia-Samburu-Meru-Marsabit, Tsavo, Masai Mara and Lamu-Lower Garissa.

“This scenario will possibly affect the wildlife species negatively as their habitats become encroached and competition for resources will lead to displacement of wildlife as they avoid competition with the livestock.

The Tourism ministry wants legislation reviewed to recognise community conservancies as protected areas as they constitute an important wildlife range.

In Laikipia-Samburu-Marsabit-Meru Ecosystem, elephants relocated to the hilly areas in the ecosystem, making it difficult for the census team to sight and count them leading to an overall recording of less population than recorded in 2017. Such incursions also fuel poaching as most herdsmen are armed with automatic weapons.

The findings will support the scientific basis and budgetary allocations for programmes dedicated to recovery plans for the endangered, rare and endemic species such the black rhino, mountain bongo, roan antelope, sable antelope among others and their habitats including.

It will also inform special funding to establish the status of species currently threatened by illegal trade and bush meat such as pangolins, dik diks and gazelles and those species that were not covered during this census such as leopard, small carnivores and primates.

As well as budgetary allocation to support development and implementation of “Obtaining this level of information of a vital natural resource allows for better policy, planning and assessment of areas that require focus in our interventions to maintain or improve our national conservation efforts. This also guides the strategic deployment of vital resources aimed at increasing numbers where declines are evident as well as drawing attention to areas that require mitigation measures to avert potential or real human-wildlife conflicts and eradicating the threats posed by poaching and illegal bushmeat trade,” said the Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife Najib Balala.

Kenya will in consonance undertake a national classification of species with low populations in consultation with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Among the critically endangered species were black rhino 897, hirola 497, roan antelope 15, sable antelope 51, and Tana River mangabey 1,650.

Among the endangered wildlife are: bongo 150, lion 2,589, elephant 36,280, Grevy’s zebra 2,649, white rhino 842, sitatunga 473, wild dog 865, cheetahs 1,160, and Nubian giraffe 768.

Of the big five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and African buffalo); buffalo is one of the most abundant and widely distributed species in Kenya and among the big five iconic species with 41,659 individuals counted (not including those in forests).

Population of lions has been on a downward trajectory. Kenya is currently implementing the 2nd edition of the National Recovery and Action Plan for the Lion and Spotted Hyena in Kenya (2020-2030) whose vision is to sustain viable populations of lions and spotted Hyenas in healthy ecosystems as a world heritage valued by the people of Kenya while its goal is to restore and maintain viable populations of lions, spotted Hyenas and their wild prey while minimizing conflict and maximizing value to local communities.

Kenya’s elephant population is classified as the forest elephant and the savanna elephant. The Tsavo ecosystem (estimated at 49,000 km2) accounts for more than 37 percent of the national elephant range, followed by the Samburu-Laikipia ecosystem with 37,937 km2. The Mara and Amboseli West Kilimanjaro ecosystems account for 11,681km2 and 37,937 km2 respectively.

Kenya has the third largest population of rhinos in Africa after South Africa and Namibia having a total rhino population of 1,605 (853 black rhinos, 750 southern white rhinos and two northern white rhinos) as at the end of 2020.

Kenya is home to the world’s third largest black rhino population after South Africa and Namibia. It also remains the stronghold of the eastern black rhino subspecies, conserving just over three quarters (80 percent) of the wild population of the subspecies.

The southern white rhino population is now at 750 having undergone rapid growth since introduction of 51 individuals from Southern Africa in the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s.

Balala urged the global community to recognise the huge financial cost and impact on humans maintaining this successful model, and share in the responsibility through increased investment by development partners in biodiversity conservation and protected areas.