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SOS Rhino : In the News : Poachers Threaten Tourism

Poachers Threaten Tourism

  The East African Standard (Nairobi)

February 6, 2005
Posted to the web February 7, 2005

Luke Mulunda

llegal hunting and snaring feeds a ready bush-meat and ivory market.

High demand for bush meat, coupled with a thriving underground trade in ivory, is threatening Kenya's most revered tourist attraction: wildlife.

Poachers are targeting all species of animals, big and small, to feed a booming illegal trade in game meat and elephant tusks run by well-knit networks spanning Africa, Europe and the Middle East, according to a report by a local wildlife trust.

"Wildlife is under siege and is disappearing rapidly," said Dr Daphne Sheldrick, the director of The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

The 2004 report details how poachers dodge a financially incapacitated Kenya Wildlife Service, roaming the country's parks in search of game meat and ivory. Particularly targeted are the dik dik, a territorial long-muzzled antelope, the rhino and, of course, the elephant, which is used extensively to advertise Kenya's tourist attractions. A recent survey shows that wildlife has decreased by as much as 60 per cent since l990 when the culling of wild game was legalised on a quota system within privately owned ranches.

The Sheldrick report reveals that a highly structured syndicate of ivory poachers operates in Tanzania between Kilwa and Dar es Salaam, where ivory is hidden in sacks of maize or cassava and ferried on bicycles to village outlets at night.

Kenya's tourism heavily depends on wildlife, which the country is well endowed with, and a drastic reduction or extinction of animal species would sound a death knell for an industry that directly employs half a million people and contributes Sh42 billion to the country's GDP.

A sea-sawing sector that is powered by tourists from Europe, America and the East, local tourism has lately been on an upturn after a two-year slump occasioned by negative travel advisories by governments of source markets due to terrorism fears.

"Tourism may be returning," said Dr Daphne in an interview, "but the product is dying in droves not only beyond protected areas where everything has fallen to bush-meat poachers but also within Kenya's largest and most important national park - Tsavo."

Kenya Wildlife Service, while admitting the existence of poaching, said the vice was now occurring on a small scale. "It was high during the drought last year," said Connie Maina, the head of corporate communications. "Now it has dropped due to fairly tight controls."

Bush-meat is sold widely not only in local butcheries, but also further away in Central, West and North Africa and the Middle East, where the demand is great, according to research by the trust. Game meat is also smuggled into European capitals such as London, Brussels and Paris where there are large African immigrant communities, she said.

Various reports have confirmed this. In October, last year, the Born Free Foundation, an international non-governmental organisation which works to protect wild animals, startled city residents with a revelation that more than half the meat sold in butcheries was either game meat or from unknown animal species. KWS, the state-run body in charge of wildlife resources, was conservative in its estimation of game meat consumed locally, with its spokesman at the time, Mr Edward Indakwa, putting the figure at between 30 and 50 per cent.

The country, says the Sheldrick report, lost 33 black rhinos last year. In May alone, five were poached in Tsavo East, a huge setback for efforts aimed at protecting this endangered species. One poacher was arrested while the rest escaped by swimming across the crocodile-infested Tana River.

However, KWS said only 16 rhinos - eight black and eight white - were poached, while half of the small animals ended in butcheries as game meat.

The trust runs a de-snaring project consisting of six teams in the Tsavo. The project, started in 1999 discovered about 14,452 snares last year, translating to a monthly average of 400.

"This is jeopardising the very existence of many of the smaller antelope species, particularly those of a territorial nature, such as dik dik," said Dr Sheldrick. "It is unsustainable, incredibly cruel and set to impact negatively on the country's vital tourism industry. It also poses a health hazard to consumers."

Snaring is a very ancient method of hunting, where wire nooses are set on game trails leading to watering points, high up in trees to trap giraffes, around communal dung-piles to target territorial antelopes and in freshly burnt grasslands where fresh green shoots attract large numbers of herbivores.

Dr Sheldrick says that 17 elephants were poached in the Samburu National Reserve last year, adding that on November 10, some people were arrested in Kitale with 17 elephant tusks weighing 65 kilogrammes. "This is taking a toll on the famous cave-digging elephants of Mt Elgon, whose numbers are dwindling rapidly."

Prior to last year's CITES meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, Kenya had lost 150 elephants to poachers, a number Dr Sheldrick says is an underestimation given KWS personnel's inability to effectively monitor the parks.

Maina could not give details on elephants, saying KWS conducted a head count of the pachyderms last week and would release species-specific results after collating the data.

Poaching is sometimes condoned due to poverty and hunger and Dr Sheldrick said perpetrators are usually handed "extremely light" sentences where they serve just a short period in community service.

Tsavo East is home to an estimated 800,000 animals and the trust says that at least 300,000 are lost annually to poachers. "The toll is unsustainable, particularly as wildlife populations are subject to natural controls such as predation, drought and disease and Tsavo is an arid environment where survival is tough.

Dr Sheldrick has no time for legal hunting, saying it will benefit a few wealthy individuals, yet the collapse of tourism will impact negatively on every individual. A thousand snares at a 5 per cent daily success rate, she said, can catch up to l8,250 animals in a year.

"Unless the bush-meat crisis is addressed," said Dr Sheldrick, "this insidious form of poaching will bring down Kenya's lucrative tourist industry and annihilate its irreplaceable wildlife heritage."

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