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September 24, 2018

Good science critical to saving Kenya’s wildlife

Wildebeest migrating at The Mara Rive. /FILE
Wildebeest migrating at The Mara Rive. /FILE

The spectacular wildebeest migration is here again. About 1.2 million wild animals cross the savanna in a 1800km loop between Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve in pursuit of water and pasture.

Ecologists have shown that this migration, the largest terrestrial movement of animals in the world, plays a significant role in determining the ecological health and functioning of the Serengeti and Mara ecosystem complex.

A study published in 2017 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Amanda Subalusky and colleagues revealed that the estimated 6,500 animals which drown in the Mara River every year feed crocodiles, provide half of the diet for fish, add 13 tonnes of phosphorous, 25 tonnes of nitrogen, and 107 tonnes of carbon into the ecosystem.

The slow release of nutrients from bones provides a steady supply of nutrients and habitat for microbes, which become food for fish. Moreover, migratory wildlife consume more than 4,500 tonnes of grass per day and deposit massive quantities of dung across vast swaths of savanna.

The value of wildlife and the complex and delicate balance of our diverse ecosystems is critical to the nutrition and health of people and our economies. Our survival as a species and a civilisation is bound to the stability of our ecosystem.

Our rich wildlife heritage and the bounty of our ecosystems must be more than a curious attraction for tourists and their money.

The state of wildlife and the ecosystems they depend on is dire. Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the national conservation authority, is less than inspiring. KWS is plagued by monumental institutional, governance and capacity problems. The tragic death of 10 rhinos as a result of a horribly coordinated translocation operation, is perhaps the clearest demonstration of the state of affairs at KWS.

Tourism CS Najib Balala said the death of the 10 rhinos was due to negligence and poor communication by KWS officials involved in the translocation.

KWS has been on a path of steady decline for more than a decade. Effective protection of wildlife and management of critical range resources has been severely limited by human resources and operational capacity.

Is Balala cleaning house? Director general Julius Kimani is fired. Dr Charles Musyoki, my former classmate, is the acting director general. Six senior officers have been suspended.

Since its establishment, senior leadership at KWS, including the board, have tended to discount good science, imagining that sound conservation and ecosystem science was trivial in the management of wildlife and their habitat. Instead colossal resources have been expended in anti-poaching.

The decline of critical wildlife habitat due to degradation accelerated by climate change and human-induced land use change demands that managing our wildlife and their fragile habitats must be informed by the best science. Sloppy management of critical habitat resources will accelerate the decline and extinction of our wildlife.

I believe we can, and must deploy good science and strong anti-poaching measures. Can Dr Musyoki halt the decline of KWS and ensure the wildebeest migration endures?

Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University

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