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Biodiversity conservation in Kenya - can it succeed?

by John Waithaka*

* African Conservation Centre
P.O. Box 62844
Nairobi

Kenya is a country with many different ecosystems, from tropical rainforests, dry forests, mangrove forests, savannah grasslands, fresh and salty lakes, coral reefs, deserts and semi-deserts.

These hold biological resources of enormous economic, social and cultural value: over 25,000 known species, including 21,575 species of insects, 314 mammals, 88 amphibians, 1067 birds, 191 reptiles, 180 fresh-water fish and approximately 7,500 plants. There are 265 and 485 endemic species of animals and plants respectively. Kenya is probably one of the few countries in the world with large and beautiful mammalian species that migrate annually in large herds.

Importance of biodiversity

Kenya is largely dependent on its biological resources for its social and economic development. Agriculture, livestock, forestry, nature-based tourism, fisheries and other biodiversity resources account for nearly all the employment, economic output, export earnings and fuel energy requirements. Biodiversity is inseparable from human needs; its conservation is crucial to political stability, economic development and national security.

Parks and reserves as safeguards

Kenya has designated 7.5% of the country as protected areas. These consist of 59 parks and reserves. Tsavo National Park, the largest of them all, covers 47% of the total protected area system. Over 80% of biodiversity exists outside protected areas, many of which are becoming ecological islands surrounded by human settlements. Parks and reserves do not necessarily cover all the biodiversity-rich areas; in fact, over 97% of aquatic biodiversity and a large portion of terrestrial ecosystems lie outside them. They are, therefore, inadequate safeguards as they are too small to meet species' habitat needs or sustain important ecological processes.

Landowners have the final say on how to use their land outside protected areas. Their highest priority is usually to earn money from it, from livestock production, agriculture, and urban development. These activities often require land to be cleared of wild animals. The national campaign to increase and diversify food production in the rural areas has made people less tolerant of wildlife, and land-use conflicts escalate while conservation policies do not help resolve them.

Policies

There are about 80 legal statues relating to conservation and management of biodiversity resources in the country. Most of them concentrate on biodiversity conservation for economic, social, scientific, and cultural purposes, but fail to reconcile and integrate conservation goals with human needs. Farms, forests grazing areas, fisheries, protected areas and villages have been treated in isolation to the detriment of all. Sectoral policies, conflicts, lack of political support, poverty and inadequate budgetary allocations all contribute to the decline in biological resources. The interests of stakeholders are often ignored, and the available human capacity is not effectively used. Policies which recognise the full value of biodiversity are hampered by poor governance, political patronage and widespread corruption.

Threats

Biodiversity conservation is currently threatened by mismanagement brought about by demographic, economic and technological changes. The population has increased from 5 million in 1950 to 30 million today. Many biodiversity-rich ecosystems have been degraded or destroyed. Most of the forests have been destroyed through excisions, charcoal burning, fires, logging and criminal practices such as the growing of bhang (Cannabis sativa). Only 15% of the forests inherited from the colonial government in 1964 exists today. Over 160,000 hectares of protected forest and many more unprotected groves have been converted to other uses.

Water pollution, particularly in areas with intensive industrial, agricultural of human settlements is widespread. Horticultural and floricultural development for European markets has put great demand on water, so many rivers fail to flow their entire courses during the dry season. Drainage basins have attracted intensive multiple land uses which have resulted in environmental degradation, siltation, water pollution and changes in flooding frequency. Swamps that are important refuges for rare antelopes, primates, wetland birds, fish and other aquatic species are under intense threat from reclamation for agricultural purposes. Others are drying up because of over-extraction upstream. Widespread water abstraction, sedimentation, agrochemical residues, industrial waste and domestic sewage are destroying biodiversity in many of the Kenyan lakes.

Many animal populations have been eroded because of the above activities. Some species have disappeared while many others are at the verge of extinction. There are only a handful of Sitatunga antelopes left, fewer than 10 lammegeyers, a dozen dugongs, about 30 roan antelope and 150 sable antelope. The elephant population declined from 170,000 to 20,000 during the catastrophic poaching of the 1970s and 1980s, while rhinos dropped from 20,000 to 300 within the same period. In the recent past, the population of the endemic Hunter's antelope has declined from 12,000 to about 350, mainly due to poaching for the pot. More than 200 Kenyan species appear in the IUCN list of endangered species but this is a gross underestimation.

Many populations are threatened by genetic isolation due to habitat fragmentation and blockage of migratory routes. Alien invasive introduced species such as water hyacinth, Lantana camara, Salvinia molesta, and Nile perch have become a serious threat to indigenous biodiversity. Efforts to eradicate some of them have been fruitless, even with international assistance.

Amboseli National Park, Kenya

Tourism

Uncontrolled tourism is also taking its toll on biodiversity in the popular parks and reserves. Overcrowding, off-road driving, animal harassment, speeding and inappropriate waste disposal mechanisms are some of the activities that are impacting heavily on biodiversity. Popular species (lions, leopards, cheetah, rhino) are not reproducing successfully under the tourist gaze.

Wildebeests migration, Maasai Mara, Kenya

Human-wildlife conflict

Past problems have affected the attitudes of rural communities towards conservation. To many Kenyans, conservation is synonymous with excluding local people from protected areas. The rift between the government and local people over the control of resources is usually characterised by open hostility.

Lack of access to the resources they have historically relied upon for their existence, coupled with increasing competition with wildlife outside the parks, has resulted in bitter conflicts between people and wildlife. Crop depredation, killing of people and livestock, competition for water, destruction of buildings, damage to water installations, fences and other facilities by wildlife does not help, and the usual response is to kill animals in self-defence or to protect property. Poaching is minimal in areas where local people benefit from wildlife through direct or indirect uses. The involvement of local communities in planning, management and sharing benefits accruing from biodiversity-related initiatives forms an essential part of a strong anti-poaching strategy.

It has taken many decades for the country to accept that protected areas cannot co-exist with communities that are hostile to them and to recognise that social, cultural, economic and political issues are not peripheral to conservation, but central to every successful effort. It has now been demonstrated that raising the quality of human life creates positive support for protected areas.

The various attempts to develop national strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity have been unsuccessful due to lack of support by critical stakeholders. So has the attempt to develop criteria for conservation based on biological priorities and their potential for sustainable use. Conservation education and community conservation campaigns and projects have been on the increase within the last few years but have largely been carried out through donor support. The concept of biodiversity conservation for sustainable development is still viewed with suspicion.

Way forward

The long-term survival of biodiversity will largely depend on how quickly and effectively human-wildlife conflicts are addressed. It is becoming increasingly clear that much depends on what will happen outside protected parks. This being the case, the support of local people on whose land over 80% of wildlife live cannot continue to be ignored. The more they are allowed to benefit from wildlife within their landscapes, the more reasons they will find to justify conservation. Unless this is achieved, there will be no room for wildlife in a world where even more people suffer from poverty, natural and man-made disasters, malnutrition and disease. If non-domesticated biodiversity is to compete effectively with other land uses, it must not be stripped of its economic value, as the competitive playing ground is already heavily tilted against it.

EU support

To thwart the looming biodiversity crises, the EU has invested heavily in biodiversity conservation in Kenya within the last decade. Biodiversity support projects have included the Mara Conservation Project, Conservation of Indigenous Forest Projects, the Elephant Conservation and Community Wildlife Conservation Project and the Arabuko Sokoke Indigenous Forest Conservation Project. Community projects have been funded through the Community Development Trust Fund (CDTF). The European Commission has also been actively involved in supporting the tourism sector.

A new € 5,550,000 Biodiversity Conservation Programme (BCP) to enhance sustainable biodiversity conservation in the country for the next five years has been established. It will be implemented within the existing CDTF framework. This demand-driven, multi-window funding mechanism is a partnership approach that targets local biodiversity conservation initiatives in the areas of education and awareness, conservation-based revenue generation, conflict reduction and threat alleviation. Among the beneficiaries of the project will be the tourism industry, community and private game ranches and other organized groups that support long-term biodiversity conservation initiatives. It started in September 2000.