Kenya's parks are in grave danger. This crisis is a threat to Kenya's unique biological diversity and the world's last great ungulate populations. Also, because tourism is Kenya's largest earner of foreign currency, poorly protected parks threaten to undermine Kenya's economic stability as a whole.
Parks are threatened by inadequate protection and monitoring, poorly managed impacts from tourism and an absolute lack of investment in infrastructure. In today's politically volatile climate, the unfortunate reality finds the parks being ‘mined’ for short-term profit with no long-term interest in sustainability. Of particular concern are parks located in the former range of Maasai peoples in southern Kenya. Maasai have been increasingly marginalized since European colonists came to Kenya at the turn of the century. Their best land and most important dry-season grazing areas now belong to agriculturists of different ethnic groups. Maasai are left only with marginal lands, out of which protected areas have been carved. Today, because there is little hope for Maasai regaining lands now under agriculture, pressure is put towards protected areas to provide for increasing populations.
In a very complex situation, both Kenyan Maasai and the wildlife which depend on Maasailand are in peril. Before colonists came to Kenya, the nomadic Maasai used migration routes essentially identical to those of wildlife. As their best dry season rangeland has been converted to agriculture and government policy has moved to privatization and settlement, migration patterns have broken down causing severe rangeland degradation. The once-exclusively pastoral Maasai are now unable to sustain themselves.
Meanwhile, Kenya's tourism industry brings in approximately $500 million of foreign exchange annually. The Masai Mara Game Reserve and Amboseli National Park are two of the most heavily visited parks in Kenya, also two sites of great controversy. The irony in this situation is that while these parks and their wildlife are earning huge amounts of income for Kenya, their existence is threatened because the rural Maasai, who formerly ranged over this land, are receiving very little of the benefits. Herein lies the problem. The Maasai bear the burden of conservation while the government and tourism industry share in its profitability.
The conflict results in spearings of rhino, elephant and lions, and invasion of protected areas by cattle. This past summer, a Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris tour group witnessed several herds of Maasai cattle, hundreds of head each, boldly cutting a swath several miles inside the reserve boundary near the Talek River in the Masai Mara Game Reserve. On four separate occasions we reported these illegal intrusions to rangers and park wardens, each time being promised a remedy. In one incident, a female cheetah was separated from her two vulnerable young by a passing herd. Only luck saved the cheetah cubs from being directly trampled as the cattle came within ten meters of where they were hidden. This harassment will directly decrease wildlife diversity and shatter the now intact ecosystem. As the northern extension of the Serengeti ecosystem, the Masai Mara is crucial dry-season habitat for three million Wildebeest and a million and a half other ungulates during the dry season. As the wettest part of the vast Serengeti ecosystem, the Mara is essential in dry seasons. Degradation of the Masai Mara Game Reserve is a loss for the whole Serengeti Ecosystem.
A further impact is that rangeland degradation reduces the ability of areas outside the parks to support wildlife, essential especially for Amboseli where the park contains about 6% of its ecosystem. The tragedy is that these are the most diverse savanna ecosystems that have ever existed. Most amazingly, the Serengeti Ecosystem is essentially intact, with enough land area protected to encompass the entire ecosystem and very little impact to date on those lands. BUT, if that protection falters, the trip from intact and integral to degraded and unsustainable is frighteningly quick at the hands of man.
When domestic livestock enter lands occupied by wild game, the first effect is a disruption of predator-prey interactions. We have chosen a cheetah to color this page because they are often the most vulnerable. Cheetahs are amazing hunters, but timid with potential competitors. Cheetahs are very easily scared off their kills and if feeding young, that disturbance can quickly cause starvation. Furthermore, Maasai herders will obviously protect their herds, which can mean killing lions if threatened. Two recent incidents by unknown culprits involved the killing of a rhino in the Masai Mara Game Reserve, where the horn was left intact - clearly a political statement, and spearing of an Elephant in Amboseli National Park. On their last remaining lands, disturbed wildlife has no land left to migrate into. Elephants when forced out of traditional ranges can become rogues, especially if they have been injured by a spearing or gunshot wound in the process. Removing predators and the additional grazing pressures of domestic livestock push grasslands beyond an ability to regenerate, especially since grazing becomes consistent year-round instead of sporadic with migratory wild ungulates. Land degradation and erosion ensues.
Okay, so what can be done?
This problem is not new, but the severity of impacts is increasing. Revenue sharing programs have attempted to offset the costs of lost grazing lands to the Maasai. These systems have been plagued by corruption from the outset, crippling effectiveness and keeping services from those who really bear the costs of conservation. The government needs to be convinced of the importance of investment into the parks and of rooting out corruption in revenue sharing programs. At present the government believes the parks can be ‘mined’, that is, a major source of tourism revenue which need no investment. This will not happen until the government feels tourism revenue is threatened by a failure on their part. But what they fail to realize is that with increasingly crowded parks and competition for tourism from Tanzania and other African countries, Kenya cannot assume that either revenue or wildlife will always be there.
We suggest the following steps to those interested in helping Kenyan conservation:
1. Join conservation organizations working in Kenya, and tell them of your concerns!
African Wildlife Foundation
1400 16th St. NW. Suite 120
Washington DC 20036 USA
AWF works mostly in East and Central Africa, encouraging education and community cooperation in order to align wildlife protection needs with local realities.
If you join a conservation organization, TELL THEM YOUR CONCERNS. It is important for the conservation community to see people are watching, and to hear about issues like this. If you have visited Kenya or have a vested interest in the area, use your experience to relate this!
2. Write to the people who influence Kenya's park policy. Follwing are a few addresses.
Kenya Wildlife Service
KWS is responsible for implementation of the mandates of protected lands. Whether they do this efficiently and with the best interest of the wildlife at heart is not necessarily a given. If they perceive a threat to tourism, they will act, but until then my impression is that many political forces pull at their multiple mandates, one of those forces being those who would see the parks as 'multiple use zones', where the wildlife eventually lose out.
P.O. Box 40241
Kenya Association of Tour Operators
P.O. Box 48461, Nairobi
Tel: (254-2) 225570
Fax: (254-2) 218402
KATO has a strong and significant voice in Kenyan politics precisely because tourism is so important to Kenya. If KATO perceives a relaxation of protection for parks and ensuing degradation as a threat to tourism, they will speak up loud and clear for KANU, the ruling political party, to hear.
Letters to the editor speak to all of Kenya, and I am happy to say that Kenya does have a strong pride in the protected lands and wildlife that tourists love so much.
Daily Nation Contact Form
When you write, we suggest you fax and/or email a copy and send a printed copy as well.
If you would like to explore the full complexity of this issue, please read about this Kenyan policy failure in a paper written by Ted Cheeseman.
Cheesemans' Ecology Safaris is seeking to develop a grassroots tuition fund to help three self-taught naturalists through wildlife college. With the training and qualification of wildlife college, these dedicated intellectual men could begin to achieve their dream of preserving natural habitats and native wildlife in their homelands.
Learn more about this funding effort and make a contribution >>