Kenyans eating wild animals as drought worsens

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.

Rains have failed in Kenya, 10 million people hit by famine.

Rains have failed in Kenya, 10 million people hit by famine.

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.

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Development efforts frustrated by environmentalists

An irrigation project that would have turned 20,000 hectares of the Tana River delta into sugarcane fields for biofuel production, appears grounded by protests from environmental conservationists. Environmentalists insist that the present state of the Tana Delta is the best way of improving the economic status of area residents  – through tourism.

The use of the Tana Delta for sugar and ethanol production is supported by President Mwai Kibaki and local Member of Parliament (MP), Mr Danson Mungatana. The Kenyan government says the project will provide employment to locals while providing food and energy security to the country.

Mr Mungatana’s opponents argue that the proposed project will deny their people grazing land during the dry season. The Tana delta is home to both agrarian and pastoralist communities. Mr Mungatana represents agrarian communities while his opponents come from tribes that practice traditional type of cattle herding known as nomadic pastoralism.

The Kenyan government has given approval to several organizations to conduct sugarcane farming in the Tana Delta. The first was MAT International, a company linked to Arab investors but which is yet to begin operations. The second is Mumias Sugar, the country’s biggest sugar miller. Until now, Mumias Sugar had confined its production to Western Kenya. The National Irrigation Board, a state-owned corporation, also intends to revive irrigation projects along the Tana River.

The bulk of opposition to the sugar project comes from environmental conservationists who say that the Tana Delta is home to a wide spectrum of wildlife whose existence would be threatened by the mega project. According to Nature Kenya, the Tana Delta is a, “critical site for the conservation of birds.”  Nature Kenya also backs the pastoral communities agitating for the protection of pasture.

“The Tana River Delta supports several communities and enormous numbers of livestock, wildlife and water birds. The people have adapted their lifestyle to seasonal extremes. Farmers cultivate on receding lake edges, seasonally fertile floodplains, and where the river spills fresh water into their fields with the tidal flow. Other people raise livestock or engage in fishing. In times of drought, pastoralists bring livestock from as far as the Somali and Ethiopian borders to graze on the grasslands.”

Once again, there is conflict between the desire to conserve the environment and national needs for industrialization and employment creation. Across the African continent – and by extension the entire developing world – environmentalists funded by industrialized countries have intervened against development projects.

Still in Kenya’s Coast Province, a couple of hundred kilometres south of the Tana Delta, a massive project aimed at extracting titanium ore has stalled for a decade. Just like in the Tana Delta, environmental concerns and political infighting has ruined what would otherwise have been a major income earner for a country struggling at the lower ranks of global social indicators. Local people in Kwale were continually made to demand higher compensation fees.

The opposite corner of Kenya is also witness to yet another troubled project, thanks to environmentalists and politicians. The Dominion Group of Oklahoma, USA, was granted the rights to undertake commercial farming in the Yala River swamp that drains into Lake Victoria. The area has massive rates of poverty and it was believed that the entry of the Dominion Group would help raise living standards. Yala swamp is also ideal for rice and cotton production and initial tests yielded a huge harvest. But interference by politicians and non-governmental organizations turned the local communities against the project.

By early 2008, the Dominion Group was threatening to pull out from the area due to extortion from local leaders. The announcement was made by the group’s CEO who had flown from the United States.

Communities from Meru, Nyeri, Laikipia, Kwale and Taita Taveta Districts constitute the forgotten victims of environmental conservation. Human – wildlife conflict in areas surrounding national parks has largely been ignored as the country rushes to win internation accolades in wildlife conservation. With people killed by marauding wildlife and crops destroyed, life next to Kenya’s national parks is nothing close to what is portrayed in tourist brochures. Killing an elephant in self defense is likely to attract the wrath of law enforcers and a lengthy jail sentence. However, if a wild animal kills a human being, the survivors get only Kshs30,000 (US$447) in compensation.

“You cannot expect to get grand children if you insist on your children remaining virgins,” Prime Minister Raila Odinga has said on several occasions. The message here is that the country cannot hope to increase food production and boost employment without modifying the ecology. Farms, schools, towns, homes, roads and industries all require land, water and fuel. All these must come from the environment.

In neighbouring Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni ordered the government to proceed with construction of the Bujagali Hydro-Electric Power station. Protests by environmentalists had delayed the project for years, resulting in 12-hour power rationing in Uganda. President Museveni said that national economic goals could not succumb for the sake of conserving a rare frog.

Perhaps, Kenya’s environmentalists should insist on sustainable development rather than total conservation. Otherwise, as Mr Odinga figuratively points out, Kenya’s people are bound to witness widespread hunger, homelessness, disease and death in the near future. Ultimately, it is better for a country to become self-sufficient than to depend on handouts from elsewhere.