Space for Giants

Kenya: Illegal Trade Is a Threat to Wildlife

By Wycliffe Muga, The Star
28 June 2012
If we were to go by the recent wildlife-related news headlines, we might easily conclude that Kenya's fabled wildlife resource is being rapidly depleted. And from this it would be tempting to extrapolate that very soon we will read of the death of the last rhino or the last elephant living in the wild. As it happens, nothing could be further from the truth. Kenya's wildlife populations may have suffered a catastrophic decline over the past 30 years or so: but that was more or less inevitable, given the steep rise in our human population, leading to a widespread human-wildlife conflict, which the wild animals were bound to lose. We are now pretty close to stablising these wildlife populations.

And although it is quite common to see the nation's wildlife written about in grandiose poetic terms ("our priceless heritage" etc.) if you want to understand what is happening to Kenya's wildlife populations, you have to abandon poetry and consider the issues in a cold, dry light. Game parks have to be seen as an "alternative land use" to small scale farming or ranching; the wild animals must be seen as a "natural resource"; and the whole setup of wild animals and panoramic landscapes have to be considered as "environmental assets".

Without such a perspective, it is impossible to have a serious discussion on the science and the economics underlying the existence of Kenya's wildlife and game parks. Now in Kenya, the continued survival of our wildlife is threatened by three factors, none of which yield to easy solutions: First is the rapid human population increase. It is true that our current average is about four children for every adult woman (down from seven children per woman just two decades). But, for a country in which most people are still reliant on small-scale agriculture for their income, we are still too many people living on too little land.

The second threat is the general poverty of the rural population. And given that it is these rural places that the game parks and wildlife conservancies are to be found, it is actually quite amazing that the levels of poaching are not higher than they presently are. Why would a poor man, whose family has a pretty good chance of going hungry on any given night, restrain himself from killing an antelope which would be, effectively, a week's supply of free meat? And why would not a group of villagers, if approached by a middle-man, not seek to bring down an elephant if they knew that this animal's tusks would fetch them more money than their small farms can make them in a year?

But it is the third, and comparatively new factor, which has proved to be the catalyst which combined with the other two, has led to the recent increase in poaching, specifically targeting rhinos and elephants. This factor is the explosive increase in legitimate trade as well as travel, between Africa and the Far East, which is the key market for the illegal trade in rhino horns and elephant tusks.

Thus this increase in smuggling opportunities is actually tied to what is otherwise a positive development: this increase in trade and travel. Kenya Airways has long had flights to China, and a while back even introduced a large plane dedicated to airfreight services on this very route. Korean Airlines has also recently made a grand entry into the market. Ships take hundreds of containers to and from China every week. This illegal trade has thus effectively "piggybacked" on a positive economic development.

It's in much the same way that you will find Kenyan students in jails all over the Far East, where they were arrested for drug trafficking. This followed directly from the realization by Kenyan parents that a first-class college education could be obtained in the Far East (Malaysia, Singapore, etc.) at far less cost than in the US or the UK, leading to an exponential increase in the number of Kenyans enrolling for studies in that part of the world.

In most cases, these were actually just ordinary Kenyans seeking an education. Many were not even from poor families by Kenyan standards. But then they yielded to the temptations posed by drug dealers, and became drug couriers making lots of easy money - until the day when they were arrested. Next week, I will explain how, given this explosive combination of powerful factors driving the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horns, the Kenya Wildlife Service has actually done a pretty decent job.

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