Kenya Wildlife Service turns cor-

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2000:

NAIROBI––Kenyan foreign minister Bonaya Godana announced on December 23 that Nairobi has been selected as host city for the permanent headquarters of the sixnation Task Force for Cooperative Enforcement Operations Directed at Illegal Trade in Wild Fauna and Flora.

The task force was created by the 1994 Lusaka Agreement. The choice of Nairobi as permanent host city amounts to an international vote of confidence in both the stability of Kenya and the capability and integrity of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

As KWS goes, so goes Kenya itself––an economic and historical lesson well known to KWS director Nehemiah Rotich.

Rotich succeeded to his office in July 1999, having previously been among the closest longtime observers and critics of KWS in his former position as founder and director of the East African Wildlife Society. Rotich had also served––twice––on the KWS board of trustees. His 1998 resignation in opposition to former KWS director David Western’s proposal to introduce trophy hunting was reportedly the beginning of the end of Western’s disastrous regime of nearly six years.

Soon thereafter, Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi replaced Western with previous KWS director Richard Leakey. But the second Leakey regime at KWS lasted only six months before arap Moi promoted Leakey to head the entire Kenyan civil service, and appointed Rotich, who never before worked in government, to succeed Leakey.

“Our direction of the future, for the foreseeable future,” Rotich told A N I M A L PEOPLE in a recent audience at KWS headquarters, “will be to recapture the direction and focus of the past, when KWS was directed by Richard Leakey from 1989 until 1994. Our emphasis will be on conservation, including protecting species against poaching, and on increasing tourism by improving facilities and infrastructure. We will not be radio-collaring wildlife just for the sake of radio-collaring, and doing studies just for the sake of doing studies: there must be some benefit to the species resulting from the research.”

Western influence

Western was a biologist, well-connected among the international wildlife management establishment. Under Western, polite critics of his regime say, academic science took precedence over all other activity. Radio-collaring animals, for instance, seemed to become a higher priority than protecting them from poachers. Tourism was almost ignored––unless the tourists were from international grant-giving agencies. Then they were ferried around in private helicopters.

Blunter observers believe radio-collaring for “science” may just have insured the success of poaching operations. At least two rhinos who were reportedly radio-collared late in the Western regime have reportedly disappeared, believed to have been poached. The frequencies of the radio signals were supposedly known only to KWS personnel––but in parallel cases, rhino horns vanished right out of the KWS headquarters, and so did a computer which had almost all the KWS rhino information on its built-in hard disk.

The KWS law enforcement staff was disarmed and cut back to 25% of its former size. Some voices suggested to ANIMAL PEOPLE that this was because arap Moi feared armed rangers might contribute to political instability, especially after Leakey formed an opposition party called Safina in 1995. Vehemently denounced by arap Moi, Leakey ––who lost both legs in a 1993 airplane crash ––was dragged from his car and flogged by supposed arap Moi loyalists. Safina nonetheless ran a slate of candidates against arap Moi’s Kenya African National Union party in 1997. Leakey and several other Safina members won seats in the Kenyan parliament.

But Leakey and Safina never even hinted at pursuing any political ambitions outside the parliamentary process. And Leakey quickly resigned his parliamentary seat upon returning to KWS.

Others said arap Moi was more concerned that armed rangers might join and exacerbate ethnic strife breaking out in the northern and eastern parts of Kenya, where trouble spilled over the borders throughout the 1990s from Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, and especially Somalia. But the KWS was among the most stable institutions in Kenya, and the armed rangers had been the first line of defense against insurgents who armed themselves by selling ivory and rhino horn, and sought to destabilize the arap Moi government by destroying tourism.

If Western opposed the dimunition of the KWS ranger corps, he made little noise about it. Tourists, ANIMAL PEOPLE heard from many directions, were not really welcome at all during the Western regime, because corrupt administrators wanted no witnesses. Meanwhile Western and others used the decline of tourism as a pretext to push for legalizing hunting, banned in Kenya since 1967. Western reportedly argued at international forums, alongside would-be hunting lodge concessionaires said to be close to arap Moi, that hunting revenues should be developed as a source of funding for conservation. Western echoed the policies espoused by the governments of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia, the World Wildlife Fund, Safari Club International, and the Bill Clinton/Albert Gore White House.

Public pressure to legalize hunting was meanwhile manufactured by repeatedly cutting back the KWS maintenance budget, so that park fencing could not be kept up. Park neighbors cut fences with impunity to graze their cattle and sheep by day inside the wildlife reserves. Elephants and other animals wandered out at night. Each instance of wildlife depredation on crops and villages was then amplified as a rationale for holding “cull hunts”––especially of elephants, with their ivory-bearing tusks.

Even if enough KWS staff could be mustered to drive the cattle out and fix the fences, the KWS field units often had no transportation, as vehicles donated by wildlife protection organizations were allowed to fall idle from lack of spare parts. The pretext for that was loss of tourist income. Leakey left the KWS with a budget surplus of $120 million Kenya shillings; Western left a deficit of $379 million Kenya shillings.

Park managers who opposed Western were reassigned. Most notoriously, Western flew to Tsavo East National Park to personally suspend then-director Naphtali Kio, who had allowed David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust founder Daphne Sheldrick, widow of the Tsavo East founding warden (see page 16), to gather data on elephants which refuted Western’s claims that Tsavo had too many elephants and that poaching was under control.

When Leakey returned to office, he sent Western a message––at request of Rotich ––by putting Kio in charge of Amboseli National Park.

“That was Western’s bailiwick,” Rotich told ANIMAL PEOPLE. That was where Western lived, and had built his political power base. “After Kio spent seven months putting Amboseli back in order,” Rotich continued, “I sent him back to Tsavo because he is the best administrator we have.”

Richest resource

The job of KWS is not just protecting animals and managing tourism. It really amounts to increasing the wealth of Kenya––and seeing to it that all Kenyans benefit, not just a well-placed few.

Ironically, this often involves conflict with poor Kenyans who see, instead of opportunity, thousands of square miles of grass that their thin cattle are not allowed to eat after severely overgrazing tribal commons; strangers taking jobs that locals lack the education to do; and dangerous wild animals sometimes menacing human park neighbors.

Abundant wildlife is Kenya’s richest natural resource. Kenya really has no other natural resource with much growth potential. The beaches at Mombasa are already heavily exploited. Mining, big elsewhere in Africa, contributes just 0.2% of the Kenyan gross national product. Oil has been discovered in the troubled Turkana region, in the northwestern part of the country, where as many as 100,000 of the 450,000 residents required food aid in 1999 due to drought, but the oil reserves are not believed to be great. The most valuable minerals in Kenya, pound for pound, may still be the fossils of early human ancestors found at Olduvai Gorge in the Rift Valley.

Wildlife-oriented tourism currently earns approximately 10% of the Kenyan gross national product. Agriculture earns 21%, with coffee and tea produced as major export crops, but tourism yields more foreign exchange and creates more skilled employment.

At that, wildlife-oriented tourism–– at almost a million visitors per year––has barely recovered to half the level reached before the troubles of the late 1980s. Recessions hitting Europe and Asia slowed visitation from the nearest major markets throughout the 1990s. Germany, Britain, and Italy together account for nearly 40% of all tourism, while the U.S. accounts for just 9%.

Competition for ecotourists intensified after the gradual end of apartheid in South Africa, 1990-1995. Earlier, the international anti-apartheid boycott of South Africa had helped steer visitors to Kenya.

The ivory war

A strong Kenya Wildlife Service might have better withstood the external pressures. But the KWS, initially called the Department of Wildlife Management and Conservation, was formed in the first place to enable corrupt politicians to more readily plunder the national wealth. The 1976 merger of the Kenya National Parks authority with the former game department brought the reassignment of all senior staff, including David Sheldrick, who had previously protected the national parks and wildlife reserves. Tons of stockpiled ivory were almost immediately exported. More than a decade of almost unrestrained poaching followed.

Daniel arap Moi, presiding over Kenya since 1978, moved to stop the loss of the national wealth in 1984 by authorizing wardens to shoot to kill in any confrontations with armed poachers. But as the wardens had––and still have––mainly World War I-vintage Enfield .303 single-shot rifles, and were up against automatic weapons, the order initially had more symbolic than actual import. Between poaching, corruption, and increasing numbers of robberies and assaults against tourists, matters only got worse until arap Moi put Leakey in charge of KWS in early 1989.

By then the Kenyan elephant population had been poached down from about 140,000 circa 1973 to perhaps as few as 11,000. Forty KWS rangers and wardens had been charged with alleged corruption. Another 60 were reportedly under investigation. British visitor Julie Ward, 28, had been dismembered and burned in Masai Mara National Park; her father John Ward charged that rangers were responsible, and publicized his claims worldwide.

But Mara, as the park is generally known, was relatively peaceful. At Meru National Park north of Nairobi, Somali poachers-turned-bandits repeatedly shot up the wardens’ headquarters; killed and dehorned the last five resident white rhinos in pens where they had been placed for close protection; and murdered conservationist George Adamson, 83, in late 1988 as he saved a tourist group from an ambush. Poachers had killed his wife, Born Free author Joy Adamson, seven years earlier. Meru was finally closed after two French tourists were robbed and murdered and a British researcher disappeared.

Under Leakey, the reorganized KWS shot back, killing 130 alleged poachers in firefights by 1990, when the CITES ban on international ivory sales cut off most of the market. But Leakey resigned in 1984, reportedly after repeated clashes with arap Moi relatives who favored Western and hunting.

New direction

Those people are now out of power. Leakey, backed by arap Moi, is waging a fight against corruption of unprecedented scope, even firing the entire Port Authority. Meru has reopened, attracting 1,250 visitors in 1998 and three times as many in 1999. Rotich intends to take advantage of hosting the CITES triennial meeting in April by pushing a proposal backed by 21 other African nations to restore all African elephants to Appendix I, the list of species banned completely from international commerce.

In addition, Rotich has endorsed three other proposed CITES resolutions drafted by KWS staff to help undo harm to wildlife resulting from resolutions passed by the two previous CITES triennials.

The first such resolution allowed South Africa to export live white rhinos to “appropriate and acceptable destinations.” The same phrase was later used to allow Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe to export live elephants. Subsequently, a November 21 KWS press release summarized, “Botswana and South Africa faced international criticism for the capture of 30 baby elephants in the Tuli [district of Botswana], and their ‘training’ in South Africa, which is still the subject of a lengthy cruelty case in the South African courts. Most African countries were not aware of Botswana’s intention to permit the capture of infant elephants and subject them to such training in preparation for a future in European and Chinese zoos and circuses. Kenya proposes to limit live sales to mature elephants, and to destinations where the animals will be humanely treated; free to exhibit a normal range of behavior, including social behavior; and able to contribute to the conservation of their species in the wild, with a likely possibility of successful breeding.”

[Winning a 17-month legal battle over custody of five of the Tuli elephants on December 23, the South African National Council of SPCAs released them into Marakale National Park on Christmas Eve. Nine of the other Tuli elephants were released into Marakale earlier.]

The KWS still has problems: tight funds, influential enemies, poaching, and international memory that the killers of Ward and the Adamsons were not brought to justice.

But filmmaker Simon Trevor, for one, thinks the ascendance of Rotich, Kio, and others of their generation marks a long awaited turning point.

“Thirty years ago,” Trevor told ANIMAL PEOPLE, “when I was assistant warden for Tsavo West, we got together and complained about the same kind of poaching problems, corruption in Nairobi, and lack of resources, but we were all white people who had come from other parts of the British Empire, or whose parents had––or in Richard Leakey’s case, whose grandparents had. None of us were more than third-generation Kenyans. Even if we didn’t want to be colonialists, and didn’t think of ourselves that way, that is how we looked and were seen. Today the wardens still complain about all these things, but they are black. They are the faces and voices of the majority of the nation. In terms of where Kenya has been and where it is going, that is a major achievement.”

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