By RUPI MANGAT
Posted Friday, April 10 2009 at 23:19
Everyday, thousands of wild animals get caught in snares across the continent to feed a rising appetite for wild meat.
War-torn countries like the Democratic Republic of Conago are going into the last frontiers and wiping out the few surviving great apes for the pot, while in Kenya, which has no war but unfortunately has unclear policies on wildlife utilisation and an increasingly poor population that sees it as an easy target, poachers set snares to catch anything from ostrich to the tiny dik dik antelope, including Kenyan endemic species such as the rare bongo or the roan antelope.
“Today, the greatest threat to wildlife after habitat loss, is the bushmeat trade,” says Iregi Mwenja, a wildlife biologist who returned recently from a bushmeat conference in Ghana.
“Statistics show that the trade is increasing by the day and we have all the reasons to make the situation worse.” He pauses for a moment and continues. “There’s poverty, landless people settled next to wildlife areas and unemployment. And they all have to eat something and the most available thing is wildlife.”
“Even though our situation is not as bad as in Tanzania or Uganda or other African countries, there’s no reason to celebrate because things are getting worse. For one, we have no national strategy on bushmeat.
“And there’s weak collaboration between the government bodies. The Ministry of Tourism probably doesn’t realise how serious the situation is and this will translate directly in tourist numbers falling as we lose our wildlife.”
In the stark heat of the mid-morning sun on the burnt out plains of Kapiti within half-an-hour’s drive from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, a small team of youngsters walk along the fence, stopping every few metres.
The youngsters are part of a desnaring team, volunteers with the Born Free Foundation – the animal rights group set up by the actress Virginia Mckenna and her late husband Bill Travers, the duo who starred in the 1960s epic film, Born Free.
Born Free supports wildlife conservation work across the globe such as protecting tigers in India, bears in Canada, elephants in Sri Lanka and partnering with Kenya Wildlife Service in Kenya to support its anti-poaching work.
“Bushmeat is a big thing in Kenya today,” says Alice Owen of Born Free. “Statistics show that Kenya has lost 60 per cent of its wildlife in the past 30 years. We’re the generation that’s caused the loss.”
Those not familiar with the term bushmeat will find it hard to fathom how such a cruel and illicit trade has flourished where wild animals meet a slow and painful death trapped in snares with razor-sharp claws.
There are cases of elephants having their trunks amputated to set them free from the snares and lions left to die slow and painful deaths. It’s indiscriminating.
The meat is sold for the pot and it has found its way into urban centres like Nairobi.
Unfortunately, because of no policy on the bushmeat trade, offenders are let off with a minimal fine such as the woman trader in Nairobi’s Burma market who was fined Ksh30,000 ($375) and set free.
With a ready market for bushmeat, poachers have no problem selling the “free meat” to village butcheries and the truckers who ferry containers across the continent.
Unfortunately bushmeat is dirt-cheap in Kenya, unlike West Africa where it is double the cost of the domestic meat.
A chunk of giraffe meat or a dikdik in Kenya goes for as little as Ksh 50 (62 US cents).
This low price does not reflect the true value of the natural resource, undervaluing it at the cost of the national economy. A whole chicken on the other hand, costs five to six times that.
The desnaring team, a group of 10, comprises volunteers from the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya, Kenya Wildlife Service personnel and Born Free staff.
They have been on the move since early morning, walking an average 30 kilometres a day under the hot equatorial sun, looking to collect as many snares as possible.
Alice and I join the group. Two giraffes on the ranch watch us and then continue browsing. I, in my naïve way, ask if we will find any snares today.
There’s a pitying silence and then voices all at once answering, “Yes, without doubt.” Within a few minutes, we find the first snare, then the second and then the third – simple wires fashioned into loops, fixed to the fence to ensnare the unfortunate victim as it steps into it. As the animal moves further away, the noose begins to tighten.
The young volunteers articulate their emotions.
“I was shocked to see the simple method used by the poachers to snare the animals,” says Moses Gichohi, from Wildlife Clubs. “It’s emotionally disturbing to see carcasses rotting in the snares.”
It’s a cruel way of killing,” says Johnson Kitheka who is the expert at desnaring.
He has been to Ruma, Tsavo and other national parks in Kenya to assist KWS to remove snares.
“The problem is that the snares are coming in faster than what we can remove them.”
Continues Elsie Kariuki from Born Free, leading the team, “People do not know the severity of the situation. In less than five days, we have collected 150 snares – which means we have saved 150 wild animals being killed to sell to people. So it’s a really organised market with a huge appetite.”
“When we were at Kasigau [near Taveta] we collected 350 snares in two weeks,” chips in Alice.
“When l first arrived in Kasigua in early 2000, there was only one butchery that sold mostly goat meat. Within one year, there were five more butcheries and most of it was bushmeat. A dikdik sold for Ksh 100.”
“Most of the poachers on this ranch come from the village behind that hill,” says Corporal Mweu, pointing to the massif across the busy Nairobi-Mombasa road.
“The village is called Vota.”
It’s a poor village with few resources to support it. Water is scarce and whatever land there is, is not fertile enough for farming.
The hawk-eyed peasants from across the road keep a vigilant eye on the ranch, setting the snares mostly at night.
“They know we are understaffed,” Mbindyo Mailu the KWS man explains. There are about 13 rangers manning Machakos, Makueni and Kibwezi – an area that extends more than 300 kilometres along the Nairobi-Mombasa road.
Says Alice. “Unfortunately, in Kenya, we see wildlife as a commodity that belongs to the government versus the government being the caretaker of the country’s wild resources. It has always been the cause of a rift as people see the government or KWS being more concerned about the wild animals than citizens. Compensations are low when it comes to injury or death caused by wildlife or loss of crop due to wildlife. People prefer to take matters into their own hands and kill the animal.
“Just a few weeks ago, we intercepted a matatu with the aid of the police after a tip-off at 4am at Mlolongo. We retrieved a sack of bushmeat on the floor of the matatu. It had 256 kilos of wildebeest and zebra meat. But the offenders were released after a weekend in the cell. The judge set them free citing that they were first offenders!” The police know what’s going on but when the offenders are let off so lightly, it seems futile to bring offenders to the book.
“The bushmeat trade is not about to stop,” asserts Iregi. “The government cannot even feed the starving families when there’s drought. So what can the conservationists do?”
The only ray of hope seems to come from the youngsters marching along the fences, giving their time for free to save the last of Africa’s wild heritage.