Kenya’s Concerted Conservation

Posted on 22 May 2009. Filed under: Wildlife |

It is 20 years since a small group of Kenyan conservationists set out to protect the few remaining black rhino living in the Aberdare mountains national park.

Their plan was simple: to raise enough cash to erect a stretch of fence to keep the beasts inside the park and away from poachers and from people’s gardens. The government paid little attention, but the local communities living on the slopes of the heavily wooded hillsides were delighted because rhino and elephants kept destroying their crops.

In a few months’ time the labours of the group, Rhino Ark, will be largely over. The seven-strand, 2.5m-high electric fence will be finished, but it is nothing like that which was envisaged in 1989. Instead of being just a few kilometres long, it encircles the whole Aberdare mountain range, which includes some of Africa’s most rugged landscapes and spectacular forests. What is possibly the longest conservation fence in the world stretches up and down hills with a 1-in-2 gradient, passes over rivers and along the edge of hundreds of communities. It will be 400km-long, enclose nearly 2 000km2, has needed nearly 6 000km of wire and the cost will be more than $8-million. Almost certainly, it will become a blueprint for other parks in Africa.

“It just grew and grew,” says Colin Church, chair of Rhino Ark. “In the early days, the motivation was to protect the black rhino, but then we all woke up to the fact that the farmers [who lived near the fence] were celebrating and the reality that this forested mountain area was the lifeblood for millions of people.”

Twenty years ago rhino and elephant poachers could enter the Aberdares with impunity and there were believed to be only around 100 black rhino left in all Kenya. Today, says Maurice Otungah, assistant director of the government’s Kenya Wildlife Service, the park is threatened not just by ivory poachers, but by squatters wanting to farm, illegal loggers, hunters, villagers wanting firewood, and by corporates trying to source illegal water for flower and vegetable farms. Ironically, the threat to the rhino has lifted and there are now more than 600 in Kenya — mostly on heavily protected private game reserves.

Increased human poverty, climate change, a burgeoning population of several million people around the park and greater demand for wood and water in Kenya have all led to new pressure on the Aberdares. At stake now is not just the rhino, say scientists, politicians and conservationists, but Kenya itself.

“It is vital for communities,” says Wangari Maathai, the Nobel prize-winning Kenyan environmentalist, whose family home at Ihithe is just two miles from the eastern line of the fence. “It works well. People must be kept out of the forests. The Aberdares is one of the most important water catchment areas of Kenya. Kenya borders the Sahel, and with climate change it could become a desert [if the trees are felled]. People want to go to the forest because they can grow food, but they do not realise they undermine the future of all Kenya.”

Otungah says: “If in 1989 a few men had not said ‘Let’s fence the Aberdares’, we would only be seeing half of the forests there now. The rest would have been farmland. The fence is some of the best money that has ever been spent in Kenya. Our biggest achievement is the protection and conservation of a whole ecosystem.” — © Guardian News & Media 2009

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4 Responses to “Kenya’s Concerted Conservation”

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