Last month, six lions from Nairobi National Park were speared to death by a group of scared and angry residents from the Oloika area on the outskirts of the park, reinvigorating the fierce debate around wildlife conservation in the country.
Kenya’s wildlife is undoubtedly the most powerful draw of its tourism industry, which is responsible for over 10% of Kenya’s annual GDP. Each year over one million tourists visit Kenya, many attracted by the prospect of seeing lions, zebra, giraffes, wildebeest, elephants and rhinos roaming the vast savannahs, forests and grasslands. Yet behind flashy advertisements for safari packages lies a more complex and difficult reality. In half a century, Kenya has seen nearly two-thirds of its large wildlife vanish.
Kenya’s explosive population growth and economic development have contributed to the spread of sprawling urban centres, putting Kenya’s nature reserves in peril. This growth has been coupled with the failure of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and Kenyan government to balance economic incentives around wildlife.
Nowhere has the clash of development versus conservation been more apparent in recent months than in Nairobi National Park. The park lies only about 7 kilometres from the city-centre and is the only natural game park in the world surrounded on three sides by urban environment. Nairobi’s skyscrapers form the backdrop to the savannah and as well as the lions, the animal population includes rhinos, giraffes, cheetah, leopards, jackals and many more.
While the park is secured by an electric fence on three sides, the unfenced end spills out into the Kitengela area, which was once a wide-open space where animals migrated freely. Michael Norton-Griffiths, an ecologist-economist who researches wildlife policy in Kenya, told Think Africa Press: “When we moved here 30 years ago, there were lions, zebra, leopard, cheetah, and giraffes roaming freely. It was all bush – we had no fences, no roads. People moved here because they wanted to be close to the wildlife.”
Yet, as Kenya’s population has increased nearly four-fold in forty years, Nairobi has expanded in all directions, putting enormous pressure on land and resources, especially in the area around Kitengela and the Athi River-Namanga highway, which cuts straight through Kitengela. “Land for lease” signs crowd the roadside, and the area is continually being divided and subdivided, with construction and settlements rapidly encroaching on areas that were once home to wildlife. This has led to a struggle over the land between animals and humans.
In the past three weeks alone, residents of Kajiado County, where Kitengela is located, have reported that stray lions from the park have eaten more than 80 goats and eight cows. For many residents there, livestock is their livelihood and as such they will go to any lengths to protect them.
Yet the scene which played out last week in the village of Oloika on the outskirts of Kitengela was one of the most disturbing in recent years. Six lions – two adult lionesses, two sub-adults and two cubs – wandered into a fenced livestock enclosure and reportedly killed four goats. Locals managed to surround and trap the lions with cars and waited for the wildlife services to arrive.
After an hour, KWS wardens reached the scene but, according to residents, did nothing. “We sat for five hours waiting for KWS to take action,” says Oloika resident Charity Mutunkei. “Nothing happened, so we took action.” Fearing that letting the lions escape would only make them come back the next day, the villagers descended upon them and speared them to death while the KWS stood by helplessly. “We killed because we had no other option,” insists Mutunkei. Mark Cheruiyot, KWS’s Senior Warden for Nairobi National Park, however, claimed that despite his officers pleading with the villagers, “we were outnumbered”.
As a result of conflicts like this, as well as poisonings, disease, and habitat reduction, Kenya has been losing on average 100 lions a year for the past seven years and there are now only around 2,000 lions remaining in the country.
In recent months, several lions have also escaped in the leafy Nairobi suburb of Langata, to the northwest of Kitengela, terrorising residents of a wealthy housing estate. Reports of lions basking in flower beds, scaring watchmen, and killing small family pets – including a Rottweiler who survived one attack but not a second – are growing. While several lion cubs have been captured and sent to the Nairobi Animal Orphanage, one lioness was shot dead several weeks ago, and residents fear they have not seen the last of the problem.
Nairobi National Park has recently seen a rise in the number of these kinds of cases, but the issue is not limited to Nairobi. About 8% of Kenya is classified as a “protected area”, either as a national park or reserve, and since most parks and reserves are unfenced, there is no true separation between humans and wildlife. With increased rates of human settlement, pressures on ecosystems are building.
In these areas, the fragmentation and failure of Kenya’s wildlife conservation efforts over the past thirty years can be traced to a complex web of incentives and interests in which everyone is fighting for something; Maasai families want fertile grazing pastures for their cattle, farmers want nutrient-rich soil to feed the nation, the rural poor want to increase their income by chopping down trees and selling charcoal, and the government wants to ensure the tourist industry thrives.
The inadvertent result of these interlinking pressures – and failure to adequately compromise – has been the loss of two-thirds of Kenya’s large wildlife. KWS legally own all the wildlife in Kenya, and since the 1970s there has been an absolute ban on all consumptive uses of wildlife, such as cropping, culling, hunting, or ranching. According to Norton-Griffiths, however, this ban has left a “lack of genuine economic incentives to landowners and users to invest in, and conserve, the wildlife resources on their land”.
One of the most promising models for mitigating these issues around Kenya’s unfenced wildlife zones lies in the idea of conservancies, which are essentially buffer zones created for wildlife around parks like the Maasai Mara Reserve. Tour companies and private investors have begun aggregating hundreds of small plots of land, leasing them from individual landholders in communal agreements. They pay a monthly fee, around 3,750 KSH ($45) per hectare per year, to landowners who are mostly Maasai pastoralists who have been granted individual plots from the subdivision of group ranches, and then open up safari lodges and wildlife tours.
Currently, there are six conservancies around the Mara, which are successfully demonstrating a privatised approach to conservation that benefits wildlife, their habitats, and the communities that depend on them.
For the Kitengela area though, given Nairobi’s sprawl and the price of land, a conservancy model would be highly unlikely and would be unprofitable. The most practical solution may be to turn Nairobi National Park into a full-fledged safari park, with comprehensive fencing, separation of the animals, and intensive management of the species and genetic makeup inside.
Unfortunately, until funding is found to do this, it is likely conflicts will continue. Communities will continue to fight to preserve their way of life, and the animals will do the same. Mutunkei sums up, “We like the wildlife, we appreciate it, but we cannot live with it”.
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