John Mbaria questioned Jake Grieves-Cook on his perspective on the poaching crisis.
An abridged version is in The Nairobian (issue 22-28 August) and the full interview is below.
Q1: What is your perspective on the poaching crisis?
A: In the last few years in Kenya there has been renewed poaching of elephants for the ivory trade, of rhino for the trafficking of horns for use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in Asia and of other species for bushmeat, at a rate which is causing a significant decline in wildlife numbers in Kenya. I consider this a disaster for Kenya as these animals are a natural resource for the country and of great importance for our tourism industry as they give us a huge competitive advantage as a unique attraction bringing in hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world. Kenya is one of the last countries on earth to have had substantial numbers of elephants and rhino and it is a shame that we have been unable to protect them and to prevent the illegal slaughter of these iconic animals by poachers and criminals, thereby losing a valuable national asset and depriving future generations of Kenyans of what should be a precious part of their heritage.
Q2: Is it a pointer to a bigger crisis in the country?
A: The apparent inability of the government and the security agencies to prevent poaching and the failure to bring poaching gangs and their financiers to justice is a sad reflection of a wider problem and points to woeful inadequacies in the management of policing and national security. When arrests are made there are rarely any reports of successful prosecutions leading to convictions and the kingpins in the ivory trafficking appear to be operating with impunity, the recent failure to arrest and charge those behind the big ivory haul in Mombasa being just the latest example.
Q3: Is it right to apportion the entire blame on the KWS?
A: KWS has the mandate to manage the national parks, to conserve wildlife in Kenya, and to enforce regulations and laws relating to wildlife so they are the institution with the overall responsibility. This is a huge task, covering the entire country and perhaps the time has come to split some of its functions into separately managed organisations as well as allowing other private sector entities to have a greater role in managing wildlife in the conservancies that have been established outside the national parks and reserves.
Q4: From your own understanding of the structure, operations and the very history of KWS as an institution, do you think that we, as a country, have positioned the wildlife body to effectively handle its mandate (and particularly the protection of wildlife)
A: As mentioned, it may be that the organisation is now too big and has too many separate roles to perform. The work of operating effective anti-poaching patrols, intelligence gathering, arresting the poaching syndicates, prosecuting them and securing convictions could possibly be split off from the day-to-day running of national parks and management of wildlife conservation. In addition, KWS is not well-equipped to handle tourism management and marketing and has not been successful in keeping up with innovations and trends. The tourism facilities in the parks tend to be large mass-market lodges catering for minibus tours. Although this is a popular form of tourism the trend today both here and in other countries competing with us such as Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana and South Africa is for smaller more exclusive boutique-style lodges and for small eco-camps. With very few exceptions, such as Elsa’s Kopje in Meru National Park, Galdessa in Tsavo East or our own Nairobi Tented Camp in Narobi National Park, KWS has not facilitated the establishment of new and innovative high quality lodges or eco-camps. It has been left to the private ranches and the wildlife conservancies under private management to develop higher quality and more exclusive tourist accommodation facilities. KWS could learn something about tourism management by studying what has been done in the conservancies in Amboseli, Laikipia, Mara and elsewhere. Also there could be opportunities for KWS to partner with the private sector in developing concessions in places like Tsavo which is a vast area the size of a small country and under-utilised. Another example would be allowing the private sector to take over the running of trout fishing concessions within the Aberdares or Mt Kenya parks which could offer opportunities for KWS to generate additional income from these resources.
Q5: Do you believe that the poaching crisis is as big as it is portrayed in the media or could be overplayed to achieve other ulterior motives?
A: If you simply look at the numbers it is immediately evident that there has been a massive decline in numbers of elephants and rhinos. At independence in 1963, there were over 200,000 elephants in Kenya and by the 1980s, in a period of just 20 years, the figure was less than 20,000. In the 1970s and 1980s they were being killed in Kenya at the rate of 10,000 every year. The killing ended when CITES imposed a total ban on the ivory trade in 1989, the same year that Kenya carried out its symbolic burning of the KWS ivory stockpile. After that the numbers started growing again until this latest outbreak of poaching, caused by a huge increase in demand from China which has pushed up the value of ivory to unprecedented levels. With a population now of only around 30,000 in Kenya they could virtually disappear within 3 years if they continue being killed at the same rate as in the 1970s and 1980s. For black rhino the situation is even worse. The numbers in Kenya were estimated to be over 20,000 in 1970 and by 1990 the total had dropped to under 400. So within a 20 year period over 20,000 were killed, an average of 1,000 killed every year, or more than 2 every single day. Today they are being killed in parks such as Lake Nakuru, Tsavo and Nairobi right under the noses of KWS and even in some of the well-guarded conservancies like Lewa and Ol Pejeta. In the past Amboseli National Park was famous for rhinos but now they are EXTINCT in Amboseli as all were killed by poachers. This may be too hard for some to believe, hence the conspiracy theories or suggestions that the situation is being exaggerated in the media but the figures speak for themselves.
Q6: Do you think a ‘conservation model’ driven by, for and at the behest of external players through their NGO proxies will ever work for us in Kenya?
A: If the political will is lacking to stop the poaching and the destruction of Kenya’s natural resources, and if there is a lack of realisation or even interest on the part of many Kenyans that they are losing their national heritage, then we could end up with external players taking on the responsibility of trying to look after conservation in Kenya. However I believe there are many people within the government and within KWS who are genuinely concerned and committed to have more effective conservation management. In fact the President himself has stressed publicly on a number of occasions that the poaching menace needs to be stamped out and that the protection of the environment and wildlife should be a priority for Kenyans. Also more Kenyans are now earning livelihoods from engaging in conservation or are showing themselves to be seriously committed to protecting their wildlife. Conservancies on community-owned lands are being established in many parts of the country and this is helping to reverse the decline so there is some cause for optimism and evidence that Kenyans are increasingly becoming more involved in conservation.
Q7: Do you think that in this day and age, indigenous (or traditional African) thought systems, conservation ethics and cultural practices have a role to play in helping the country protect wildlife?
A: It is too late now to hark back to some golden age when Kenyans lived in a sort of Garden of Eden with an unspoilt environment teeming with animals but certainly a harnessing of traditional African cultural ethics can engender a positive and constructive approach to protection of national resources and wildlife species. However it must be recognised that one of the main reasons that wildlife species decline in the world is loss of habitat. In olden days the population of Kenya was only about one million but today we are one of the world’s 30 most populous countries with one of the highest birth rates and rapidly heading towards a population of 50 million. We already have over 20 million Kenyans under the age of 20 and the population of children in Kenya is now double that of a country like the UK. This is going to put greater pressure on land and demand for space to grow food and access to water. As a result of the rapid increase in population, people need new places to live and have settled on land that was previously wildlife habitat so that outside the parks and reserves the rangeland for wildlife is fast disappearing. Forests and woodland are being cut down for charcoal or for clearance for cultivation. As well as causing habitat loss for wildlife, the increasing growth in human settlements has also caused human-wildlife conflict as wild animals are seen as pests or are considered dangerous and end up being exterminated.
Q8: There are those who say that vested interests have ensured that KWS, on the one hand, remains ineffective and that the entire conservation approach, on the other, remains unchanged since the colonial period. Please comment.
A: National Parks were first established in the 19th Century in the USA and they were introduced in Kenya before independence starting with Nairobi National Park in 1946. Today about 13% of the earth’s land surface is protected as National Parks in countries all over the world. Kenya has less than 8% of its land in National Parks and these form important tourism attractions which have become world famous since the 1960s when tourism to Kenya first started to become an important sector of the economy. It is not correct to say that the conservation approach has not changed since colonial times. There are now many more private sector or community conservation initiatives which are restoring wilderness areas and creating new areas of protected habitat for wildlife with the development of conservancies and which were never there before. This was started by people such as the Craig family and others in Laikipia who set up wildlife conservancies on private ranches and this has now spread into other parts of the country on community-owned land such as in the Amboseli and Mara eco-systems, as well as initiatives such as the Northern Rangelands Trust in northern Kenya. This has added hundreds of thousands of acres of protected habitat in addition to the existing parks and reserves. In many cases the funding to pay for this is coming from small scale eco-tourism and this has developed a new form of tourism which enhances the product range that this country offers and makes us more competitive in the world markets as we compete with the other countries offering safaris and nature-based tourism.
Q9: What do you think is the ultimate implication of the crisis? What is the endgame if nothing concrete and fundamental is done to address the poaching conundrum?
A: If nothing is done to stop the poaching and the destruction of our last elephant herds and the few remaining rhinos then we will end up losing what should be a precious national asset and resource both in economic and cultural heritage terms. And that would be a terrible indictment on all of us.
Q10: What can we, as a country, do to effectively tackle the menace? And where do we start?
A:We need to do 4 things:
Firstly ensure that the parks and reserves, the conservancies, wildlife corridors and dispersal areas are all given full legal and environmental protection so that they continue as habitat for wildlife ensuring that the animals have somewhere to live.
Secondly there needs to be better and more effective anti-poaching patrols to prevent the poaching which is currently happening all over the country and with some indications that the very people who are meant to be protecting the wildlife are sometimes actually carrying out the killing.
Thirdly we desperately need to see effective policing and a recognition that wildlife crimes are a form of economic sabotage so that those involved in poaching and ivory trafficking are arrested and prosecuted resulting in those who are guilty being convicted and punished through more severe fines and imprisonment.
And finally, we need to continue engaging with conservationists, media and governments in the countries such as China which are the main buyers of the illicit ivory from illegally killed elephants so that they can be prevailed upon to take action to stop this happening and to damp down demand.
Jake Grieves-Cook is Chairman and founder of Gamewatchers Safaris & Porini Camps.
He is a Kenyan citizen and was educated at Nairobi School in Kenya and Oxford University in UK.
Jake has been involved in Kenya’s tourism industry for over 45 years, starting his career in the Masai Mara in 1972, and has held positions as Managing Director of Block Hotels, Marketing Director of Kuoni Travel in the UK and was the founder of the tour company Tropical Places in UK.
In Kenya he has been a pioneer in the setting up of wildlife conservancies on land leased from Maasai communities adjacent to parks and reserves.
He has been Chairman of the Ecotourism Society of Kenya, on the board of the Kenya Wildlife Service, Chairman of the Kenya Tourism Federation, a trustee of the EU / Kenya Government Tourism Trust Fund (TTF) and a Vice-Chairman of the East African Wildlife Society. From 2004 until 2011 he served two terms as Chairman of the Kenya Tourist Board.