Wild animals in Kenya face extinction by ending up on dinner tables as the worst drought in a generation takes its toll on a people impoverished by years of poor governance, corruption and political sterility.
People have always poached wild animals for meat. It is a carry over from the old days, long before colonialism, when wildlife roamed the land in huge herds. However, our forefathers resorted to eating wild game only in extreme situations. Some tribes, such as the Maasai and the Somali, looked down on people who ate wild game, viewing such persons as too poor to own livestock.
With colonialism and eventual independence, hunting of wild animals for food or, indeed any other purpose, was criminalized. This pushed the trade to the periphery of economic and social activity. Until recently, only a few places along the Nairobi – Mombasa highway and in parts of the Coast and Rift Valley provinces recorded incidences of bush meat trading. In any case, these were places that were in close proximity to wildlife sanctuaries such as the Nairobi, Tsavo, Amboseli, Nakuru and Mt Longonot National Parks.
Today, the situation is different. The country is experiencing a severe drought that has resulted in shortages of maize, wheat, sugar, milk, water, electricity, fruits and other essential commodities. As a result, prices have spiraled upwards in the past two years and made life harder for the majority poor. This explains the desperate situation that is forcing people to resort to bush meat.
Unlike the previous situation when bush meat was relegated to outlaws at the periphery of society, today’s bush meat industry is very much a mainstream affair. Unemployed youths in communities living close to national parks have formed underground syndicates where they sneak into parks to hunt wild animals then sell the meat in villages and towns.
The most popular animals for game meat are buffalo, antelope, impala, dik diks and duikers. These type of animals are popular because they resemble domestic animals both in size and flesh. The buffalo has almost similar characteristics as a cow, while antelopes, gazelles and dik dik look and feel like goats. The guinea fowl resembles the domestic chicken while warthog meat reminds one of pork. Other animals being hunted for food include zebra and giraffes.
Drought and poverty have become so bad that people are eating wild animals that were previously banned in traditional culture. Baboons, monkeys, squirrels, rats, hawks and eagles have become part of the people’s diet in recent days. This is negatively affecting their numbers. In certain parts of Kenya, monkeys that used to run around freely because nobody would disturb them have retreated in fear deep into the bush. A few weeks ago, a television programme highlighted the plight of villagers who admitted to slaughtering baboons for food.
The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has tried its best to cope with the phenomenon but it is difficult to fight a hungry, unemployed and desperate population. Despite the dangers of arrest and prison sentences, more and more people are getting into the bush meat trade for lack of alternatives. The current drought has worsened the situation as many farmers have exhausted their food supplies. Cattle, goats and sheep have died in large numbers and even where they still survive, the production of milk is insufficient for the family’s nutritional and financial needs.
People are also lashing out at wildlife, some of which has ventured into human settlements in search for food. Elephants are rampaging through farmland stripping bare any available piece of greenery. In Pokot and Mbeere Districts, homes have been invaded by snakes that are unable to find anything to eat in the bush. This has resulted in an increase in snake bites.
While monkeys and baboons are cowering in fear in certain parts of Kenya, they are very destructive elsewhere. Reports have been made of gangs of primates roaming the landscape in search of food. Nothing can stand in their way as dogs are pounded into mince meat.
Kenya government response to the drought was late and disjointed. Many of the top personalities in government are partly responsible for the current food mess. Post election violence following the disputed 2007 elections severely disrupted farming activity. By the time peace was restored in April 2008, the planting season was all but gone. The maize scandals of late 2008 pointed at a ruling elite greedy enough to make billions of shillings from hungry people. Food prices sky rocketed because cabinet ministers and legislators were buying out government food stocks for export to Southern Sudan where prices were almost three times what they would get in Kenya.
Kenyan leaders continue to engage in a financial orgy of spending. Most of the money is going towards pay hikes, luxury mansions, limousines and extra body guards. The biggest debate in Kenya today is not on how to provide food to the starving masses but on who benefits from political appointments geared towards the next general elections in 2012.