Kenya is the land of the black rhino, buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion, the magnificent giraffe, and yes the picturesque Grevy’s zebra. We also take pride in the iconic wildebeest migration. But how long will this last?
Wildlife populations along with their habitats are in a catastrophic downward spiral. A recent report by Dr Joseph Ogutu and Prof Hans-Peter Piepho makes for dreadful reading. The report reveals calamitous rates of decline over the last 40 years. Seven wildlife species are critically endangered, 19 are endangered, 37 are vulnerable and nearly 44 ecosystems and associated habitats are endangered.
Over 70 per cent of Kenya’s wildlife is not in gazetted national parks. These animals range freely, especially in the arid and semi-arid lands, among pastoralists and their livestock. However, this peaceful co-existence is no longer tenable. Conversion of rangelands into agricultural land, expansion of human settlement, and habitat degradation from livestock grazing and logging for charcoal have severely restricted wildlife habitat.
Expansion of human settlement, especially through urbanisation and large infrastructure corridors, has also caused serious, irreversible disruption to wildlife migration. For example, thousands of zebra and wildebeest are now less likely to move into the Masai Mara region in the dry season, which could in a few short years bring the iconic wildebeest migration to a tragic end.
I was in Nairobi National Park at the weekend. The state of the park is heartbreaking. The quality of range resources extremely poor. The march of bushland and invasive weeds seems unstoppable. My sense is that a study of habitat occupation and use patterns by resident wildlife species in Nairobi National Park will show that a significant portion of the park is unusable.
I agree that poaching is immoral and endangers our wildlife, especially the charismatic species such as elephant and rhino. But in my view, the most virulent threat to our wildlife and the critical resources they depend on is habitat loss.
Habitat loss due to conversion of rangelands to settlement and agriculture and more importantly, especially in protected conservation areas, habitat degradation due to neglect.
Ogutu and colleagues have observed that declining forage quality, exacerbated by land degradation is causing buffalo to abandon their hitherto preferred habitat. What happened to the beautiful science of rangeland management?
We must reinstate good science. Guns and rangers are necessary but not sufficient to secure our wildlife and their fragile habitats. Moreover, climate change will exacerbate range degradation and intensify human-wildlife conflict over pasture and water resources.
Land and land use are a political and emotive subject. But it is now time to take hard decisions on how we manage the vast rangelands where 70 per cent of wildlife is found as well, as the vital migration corridors they depend on.
The explicit recognition of conservancies, county governments and the National Spatial Plan 2015-45 offers great opportunities to re-set the relationship between wildlife and humans to open a new chapter in conservation. We can save this incredible heritage — our wildlife and our wilderness.
Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University