By Kwendo Opanga
When Dr Richard Leakey speaks about wildlife, the world takes note.
Dr Leakey founded the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in 1989 when there was an upsurge in poaching in Kenya’s parks which threatened to wipe out the elephant and rhino populations. He fashioned KWS into a well-funded, all-seeing, all-hearing and ubiquitous scourge of poachers.
Dr Leakey sacrificed plenty for the protection of Kenya’s wildlife and paid for it with both his legs. Admired by many around the world, Dr Leakey was loathed by powerful detractors at home. The latter would argue that he had amassed far too much power and the weaponry of the increasingly mobile units he had created were a potential threat to national security. But Kenya’s wildlife was safe.
After a long hiatus, Dr Leakey emerged from the wilderness last week to, once again, advocate for the safety of Kenya’s threatened wildlife species. This time round, however, Dr Leakey spoke as a concerned private citizen under the aegis of conservation outfit Wildlife Direct.
Flanked by fellow board members Paula Kahumbu and lawyer Philip Murgor, he came out guns blazing at Wednesday’s jam-packed news conference. (READ: Kenya poaching crisis 'national disaster')
He took aim at President Uhuru Kenyatta, telling him to invoke emergency measures and declare poaching a national disaster in order to contain the menace. He lit into the government, charging that it had failed to arrest a cartel of 30 individuals he branded the godfathers of poaching.
And, he tore into KWS, saying that it houses people who are amassing wealth at the back of poaching.
On the matter of invoking emergency powers to protect the elephant and rhino, I say, well spoken. That is going one better than I. I argued here twice last year that protection of Kenya’s wildlife must be regarded as a national security issue in which all security agencies must be involved. I also argued that because tourists visit Kenya to see our wildlife, it would make sense to have a ministry of wildlife.
Because KWS reported last month that the elephant population in the Tsavo is down to 11,000 from 12,573 three years ago, and given that poaching is ravaging most of Africa, Dr Leakey is right to ask the government to do everything within its power to protect our wildlife. But why did Dr Leakey not name the Gang of 30? He said the individuals are well known, suggesting that the government knows them.
Now Wildlife Direct is a private organisation. KWS, on the other hand, is a government agency. Dr Leakey says KWS has been infiltrated by people who are enriching themselves off poaching. He says the government knows the godfathers of poaching. In other words, government is, at worst, a poacher and, at best, complicit in poaching. If this cannot force government to act against poaching, what will?
KWS communications manager Paul Udoto, who was at the news conference, told Dr Leakey & Co to at least appreciate that the service was peopled by hardworking Kenyans who were doing a good job in very difficult conditions. Underfunded and understaffed, KWS cannot police all its 47 parks with only 27,000 ill-equipped rangers. Dr Leakey would agree that most of the funding available to him when he headed the service dried up a long time ago.
But having demonised KWS as a home of poachers, Wildlife Direct must have helped to close the taps of funding that may have been open to the service. Donors are wont to believe assorted conservationists and activists at the expense of government agencies. That is another reason why the government must invest resources in protecting Kenya’s wildlife for this nation’s heritage cannot be turned over to private citizens.
Dr Leakey deserves a special place in the history of Kenya’s conservation and his sterling work in palaeontology. To this, he should add his strong voice in advocating for a streamlined, robust and effective KWS, but not its death by financial strangulation. KWS must be energised, but it must begin by putting its house in order by getting rid of the rotten apples in its ranks.
But why, in the name of our wildlife; why, in the name of our birth right; why, in the name of our tourism, can’t KWS speak for itself and for our game? Why? Mr Murgor said Wildlife Direct had spoken the right things to the right people. It spoke to government, the President and KWS. I have done my bit in these columns and other media.
It’s your turn, KWS. You have ideas on how to stop poaching, don’t you?