Has Kenya Finally Seen the Light?
There must have been collective panic among the animal rights groups over the weekend of 24 March, 2018. Kenya’s Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife announced that they would be setting up a task force to look into the modalities of wildlife utilization. A cyber (if not an actual) stampede to the door of the minister by the likes of the African Wildlife Foundation and Born Free must have ensued. The ministry’s Facebook page was littered with the type of vile rhetoric we have come to expect from the anti-utilization mob.
The task force is headed by former Kenya Wildlife Service Director Dr David Western, and will evaluate options of consumptive utilization of wildlife (game farming and game ranching) in community and private lands, taking cognizance of the impacts, successes and failures of the previous wildlife cropping program. It will also evaluate how consumptive utilization will contribute to the national GDP, food security, job creation and livelihood support, with a view of creating co-existence between communities and wildlife. For answers, the commission need only to look at the work done on the Swara Plains Conservancy just outside Nairobi by Kenyan national, Professor David Hopcraft.
As a teenager Hopcraft worked in the northern part of Kenya where there was very serious land degradation. When he arrived in the area the first dust storm had just blown through and there was no grass, just bare earth. The few surviving cows were eating the bark off the trees, and there was massive starvation among the people. He realized that it was the endpoint, desertification. He was worried that if it could happen here, it could happen right across Africa.
His initial studies showed that it was not simply a matter of overgrazing. The indigenous wildlife species had been eliminated, and all that was left was domestic livestock, which are not a natural part of the African environment. The ecosystem had been altered and was falling apart. He concluded that wildlife was an essential component to the survival of the range. Wherever wildlife disappears and livestock takes over, the process of desertification begins.
Finding a solution to this problem became his life’s work. After completing a master’s degree though Cornell University, Hopcraft received a grant from the United States National Science Foundation to study the model of wildlife ranching as a viable means of land use. Back in Kenya he started his research on a cattle ranch by putting up enclosures with cattle on the one side and gazelle on the other.
After a few years the results proved very enlightening. First, the productivity of gazelle outstripped that of livestock in terms of lean meat production. Secondly, the range stayed in good condition. In the livestock area the land and vegetation started to degrade and disintegrate through hoof pressure. Paths to the water troughs formed lines of erosion.
By measuring the species diversity of the vegetation and cover he found that the change was dramatic. In the livestock area fewer and fewer species were surviving, while in the wildlife area the opposite was happening. He then looked at the economics and realized that wildlife was far more valuable than livestock.
Hopcraft ended up buying the ranch where the research had been carried out, and over a period of time he removed the livestock and ran it as a full-scale wildlife ranch with 17 different species. When he took over the ranch it was the most degraded in the area, but today you can pick it out on a satellite map because it is in such good condition.
Hopcraft petitioned the Kenyan government to allow landowners to manage and profit from the wildlife resource, and wrote policy papers on the benefits of the sustainable use of wildlife. He wanted to show that this strategy would give wildlife a value. The process took around 10 years, and in the end the government would only allow a culling program. Safari hunting had been banned, and the area was not suitable for tourism as it wasn’t on the tourism map. It could not compete with the likes of the Masai Mara.
The government agreed to allow four districts in Kenya to participate in the program, and it ran for about 15 years. Then in 2003/4 the responsible minister at the time closed the whole wildlife program overnight. The animal rights groups had finally got to the Kenyan government.
Hopcraft turned to consultancy and worked in different parts of Africa. In the early 1980s he was advising South Africans on the lessons that he had learned through his research in Kenya. With private ownership and the ability to utilize the resource, wildlife populations in South Africa burgeoned, and today there are over 20 million head outside of national reserves. In Kenya the wildlife numbers plummeted.
As it turned out, the actual amount of meat that was being produced in Kenya through the legal program was only a small fraction of what was being produced illegally. By closing down the legal program the chance of the implementation of a wise management system was crushed. The end result is that in Kenya today wildlife is worth nothing to the landowner. A buffalo sold to a safari hunter could realize up to US $ 8 000. If that same buffalo is poached, the dried meat may earn the poachers US $ 200. Landowners are essentially businessmen. They have to make an income from whatever land-use option is permitted. If their choices are narrowed because of nonsensical laws, manipulated by a Western preservationist agenda, then it is the environment that ultimately suffers.
Hopcraft estimates that since 1963 Kenya has lost 90% of its wildlife, 80% of its forest land, and between 30% and 40% of the rangelands to desert. The Kenyan government has taken a step in the right direction by setting up this wildlife task force, but they don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Professor David Hopcraft’s work can show them the way forward.