The Kenya Wildlife Service has failed to contain elephant poaching in Kenya and it has now reached alarming levels, according to research by KWS scientists and their American counterparts using satellite images.
The peer-reviewed research in the reputable Australia-based Wildlife Research journal on April 12 employed sophisticated techniques to accurately identify hotspots of elephant poaching. It used KWS records, Japanese government data as well as satellite images from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “Recent reports from Kenya indicate continuous year-to-year increase in the proportion of illegally killed elephants since 2003,” the report says.
According to the report, elephant poaching escalated between 1999 and 2002 but drastically reduced in 2003 only to rise sharply thereafter. “At the beginning of 2004, poaching levels rose sharply and eased only slightly in 2007 before rising sharply (again) in 2008 and 2009 to levels not seen in the 1990 to 1998 period.” Only 32 elephants were reported poached in the Tsavo Conservation Area between 1990 and 1998 but that the number rose by more than 700 percent to 236 elephants between 1999 and 2009.
The article Spatio-temporal Patterns of Elephant Poaching in South-eastern Kenya reported research was carried out by scientists from KWS and Miami University about poaching activities between 1990 and 2009.
The researchers found out that though KWS rangers appear well armed and trained, their anti-poaching operations are ineffective and their presence is not an effective deterrent to poachers. They say that poachers operate even in areas near KWS ranger bases and outposts. “When distances to ranger bases and outposts were analysed, there was a strong negative correlation between poaching (incidents) and distance to patrol bases and outposts,” the report said. This means that poaching is often close to KWS posts.
The researchers said that poachers usually target remote areas that are infrequently patrolled by park rangers in other African countries such as Zambia. They conclude that this may suggest that “there is collusion between anti-poaching units and poachers.”
The report accuses local people living at the edges of the Tsavo Conservation Area of collaborating with foreign poachers. “Most of the poachers apprehended originated from a neighbouring country (i.e. Somalia). Among those arrested were local people serving as guides and porters to the foreign poachers.” They say Somalia is the source of the illegal weapons used in poaching particularly along the Galana river near the Tana River District.
The 23,000 sq km of Tsavo Conservation Area includes Chyulu Hills, Tsavo East and Tsavo West national parks as well as South Kitui and Ngai Ndeithya national reserves. The semi-arid area has inadequate rainfall with the Galana river and its tributaries, the Athi and Tsavo rivers, being the main sources of water. Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks account for 53.7 percent and 44.8 percent respectively of all the elephants killed in Kenya by poachers. Poachers kill more elephants during the dry seasons and ambush them where there both good roads and water.
The report appears to vindicate claims made by Dr Richard Leakey and others that there has been a huge jump in killing of rhinos and elephants recently. Kahindi Lekalhaile, Chief Executive of Ecotourism Kenya, was arrested by police in April after the KWS protested over his allegation that 2,000 elephants a year are being killed in Kenya. He was later released without charge. The highly detailed report highlighted how and when the elephants were killed in national parks and reserves.
The report said elephant poaching has escalated because “the local people no longer collaborate with KWS,” partly because local people are switching from pastoralism to irrigated agriculture, and partly because of lack of compensation by KWS. Financial problems may also prevent KWS from properly supporting its ranger patrol units and outposts.
KWS has reportedly also reduced its support for clean water, health facilities and education bursaries around parks. “This support for community conservation programs has been scaled down in recent years because of budgetary constraints,” states the article. The researchers said that poachers operate in woodlands and avoid open grasslands. Such information could help KWS rangers to decide where to concentrate their anti-poaching activities especially if they used hand-held GPS gadgets “rather than approximation of poaching sites from topographic maps.”