By Reuben Mwambingu
Kenya Wildlife Service officials say communities living around national parks are killing wild animals for food and sell surplus meat and other game trophies to traders, frustrating efforts by conservationists.
As our van snakes through the narrow dusty road approaching Kidong village in Taveta Constituency, adjacent to Tsavo West National Park southern sector, we spot a group of about 10 men at a distance, some carrying gunny bags. Perturbed by the sound of the approaching vehicle, the shabbily dressed men look behind and jack off the road before disappearing into a nearby thicket, leaving behind a cloud of red dust.
They appeared to inadvertently drop some of the sacks in the process. And as we approached the spot, there was more than enough evidence that a poaching related activity was going on. We found about 15 fresh carcasses of dik diks and hares, two pairs of ivory, all stashed in the sacks together with some hunting paraphernalia. Traces of fresh blood drops leading towards where the men had disappeared to were also evident.
Poaching in this remote village appears to be the order of the day according to villagers residing near the park, who admit that they mostly survive on game meat. The residents, who were free to talk to us after confirming that we were not Kenya Wildlife Service warders, disclosed that bush meat is sold secretly at a throw away price and even consumed in some local eateries. “We have people, who have mastered the game of hunting and they know how to track the animals.
They are also very sharp at watching their backs to evade KWS and David Sheldricks Wildlife Trust rangers, who occasionally carry out patrols,” said a villager who spoke on condition of anonymity. In the neighbouring Salaita village, we came across a group of poachers rounded up by KWS rangers in possession of unknown kilogrammes of bush meat, hunting weapons, and vandalised railway materials. The suspects were nabbed at their hideouts after rangers got a tip off from the public.
“Life here is difficult especially during the dry periods. When crops wither, it calls for some survival tactics. I kill small wild animals like dik dik and hares. We eat them together with my family and sell the rest,” says Samuel Nzioki, who confesses that he is a poacher and adds that game meat is on high demand especially because there are no butcheries around.
Residents complain that the animals destroy their crops and therefore, they are not remorseful for their acts. Although Nzioki claims he is not an armed poacher, he is among scores of criminals, who are jeopardising wildlife conservation efforts. In what has been described as the country’s worst single poaching incident in close to two decades, a whole family of 12 elephants was killed by poachers at Bisadi area in the Tsavo East National Park last year in an incident that grabbed the attention of the world, especially considering the ruthless manner in which it was executed, and the obvious determination and courage of the suspects.
After the massacre, a series of more poaching incidents have been reported in parts of Tsavo with reports suggesting that poachers targeting elephant tusks have reportedly changed tactics from use of guns to poisoned arrows. Late last year KWS raised a red flag over increased rate at which poachers are using poisoned arrows to massacre jumbos in the Tsavo region.
KWS Assistant Director in charge of Tsavo Conservation area, Robert O’Brien said the most recent poaching incidents in the Tsavo Conservancy have been carried out using poisoned arrows adding the poison used by the poachers makes it easier for poachers to pull out tusks from the carcass once the animal is killed. In an interview, O’Brien disclosed that several elephants believed to have survived attacks have been discovered in the park with arrow wounds and treated.
“Poachers have now changed their tactics from using guns and are now using poisoned arrows. They target elephant legs because they know an elephant cannot walk on three legs. We appeal to community members to help us in the fight against poaching,” he said. O’Brien says four elephants have been killed with poisoned arrows in the last year in Tsavo. He adds that only one elephant had been gunned down at Dawida ranch three months ago. “Four elephants have died while undergoing treatment from poisoned arrows.
The elephants are shot outside the protected areas. This is the biggest challenge we are currently facing in Tsavo,” he said. The growing trend in wildlife crimes has been reflected in the results of the just concluded 2014 aerial census of elephants and other large mammals in Tsavo-Mkomazi ecosystem where it emerged that the elephant population now stands at about 11,000, compared to 12, 573 in the previous census conducted three years ago.
The census, KWS says unearthed, over 800 both fresh and old carcasses of elephants whose deaths have been attributed to numerous challenges with poaching emerging as the leading cause. Livestock incursions into protected areas, charcoal burning and change in land use in the dispersal areas and wildlife corridors were also singled out as some of underlying factors that led to population decline.
While announcing the 2014 aerial elephant census results, KWS Deputy Director in charge of Devolution and Community Wildlife Service, Benjamin Kavu said poachers have started targeting the elephant families unlike in the past where they used to target matriarchs alone. But once again, grazers were mentioned as the biggest threat to elephant population as they contribute to both degradation of parks while others took part in poaching. “Where there is livestock, wildlife cannot survive because they compete for pasture and water.
During the census, we discovered that in some areas where we counted large herds of elephants in 2011, the animals were nowhere to be seen. Why? Because herders have encroached, there is no water and pasture,” he said. In 2012, more than 10 jumbos and many other wild animals reportedly died in Tsavo as a result of shortage of pasture and water. Kavu said 2014 census results also indicated that a good number and diversity of wildlife exists outside the boundaries of the national parks.
Kavu called on County governments and other land owners to borrow a leaf from the County Government of Taita Taveta and establish wildlife conservation areas to enable them to tap into the growing tourism industry. However, the findings indicates that the elephant population in the Tsavo ecosystem is fairly stable and has potential for growth, according to Dr Erustus Kanga, the Kenya Wildlife Service Senior Assistant Director for Biodiversity.
The aerial counts have been conducted to establish the trends of elephants in the expansive Tsavo-Mkomazi ecosystem and they are held every three years. Mkomazi in Tanzania, Tsavo West, Tsavo East, Chyulu Hills national parks, South Kitui National Reserve as well as the adjacent areas of Taita ranches and Mackinnon area in Kwale were covered in the four days. Aerial counts of the Tsavo ecosystem have been carried out since the 1960’s.
The results help KWS and stakeholders to understand wildlife numbers, wildlife distribution, trends in wildlife numbers and trends in land use changes outside the Government protected areas. Armed with these information, policy makers and park management are able make sound decisions on resource allocation for operations and conflict management. The census is part of a global elephant monitoring system, a directive from the 173-member Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites). The results form the basis of wildlife trade related decisions on ivory trade.