Economy

Wildlife population dips by a quarter in five years

The Kenya Wildlife Service estimates the total elephant population in the country at around 35,000. Photo/FILE
The Kenya Wildlife Service estimates the total elephant population in the country at around 35,000. Photo/FILE 

Kenya’s battered tourism industry is facing a fresh challenge from the continuing fall in the population of wildlife, which is the country’s main source of foreign visitors.

Newly released data shows that the population of some wildlife species dropped by more than a quarter in the past five years alone – causing alarm among conservationists.

The rapid decline in animal numbers has been attributed to poaching, increased human activity such as hunting and infrastructure development, as well as climate change.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has responded to this grim development with a Sh1.8 billion budget allocation to wildlife protection in the next financial year.

Tourism earnings fell 2.1 per cent in 2013 compared to 2012 on the back of a 20 per cent drop in tourist arrivals.

Economic Survey 2014 shows that the population of popular wildlife species such as zebras declined by 21 per cent, giraffes (25 per cent), elands (32 per cent) and buffaloes  (27 per cent) between 2009 and 2013.

The population of elephants, which have come under threat from an internationally driven poaching ring, fell by 23 per cent, according to data provided to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) by the Department of Resource Surveys and Remote Sensing (DRSRS).

The data, which is derived from aerial surveys, mainly reflects the population of elephants living outside the thick forests.

The Kenya Wildlife Service estimates the total elephant population at around 35,000. A website that tracks developments around the African elephant (www.elephantdatabase.org), however, says that by the end of 2013, Kenya had 26,365 elephants, including those in the forest.

Wildlife conservationist Paula Kahumbu, who runs Wildlife Direct, an organisation that tracks developments in wild, said forest elephants whose population was estimated at 7,000 12 years ago, had been hardest hit by poachers.

“KWS uses a higher figure of about 35,000, which I believe is erroneous. Most of our forest elephants, about 7,000, have not been counted since 2001 and are likely to have been heavily hit by poachers,” she said.

Joseph Ogutu, an ecologist based at the International Livestock Research Institute, says the decline in animal population has been going on for years for a number of reasons including land use, climate change and human activity.

“We analysed the population dynamics of 11 ungulate species (gazelles, giraffes, warthogs) within the Nairobi National Park, and compared them to those in the adjoining Athi-Kaputiei Plains, where human settlements and other developments had expanded,” Dr Ogutu said.

“The population of the migratory wildebeests had decreased from nearly 30,000 in 1978 to around 5,000 currently.”

In the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, a major attraction for tourists, Dr Ogutu said human activity was the predominant factor.

“Populations of almost all wildlife species have declined to a third or less in the protected Maasai Mara Game Reserve and in the adjoining pastoral ranches.

Human influences appear to be the fundamental cause,” he said. Of the animals featured in the Economic Survey, only the ostrich population rose in the past five years.

KWS spokesperson Paul Mbugua said destruction of natural habitats was the key driver of the decline in animal population.

“Where roads pass through national parks, road kills are a significant factor. Climate change is also a factor, which has in some instances led to severe droughts or flooding,” he said.

The Economic Survey did not show the population of carnivorous animals such as lions, which experts also believe are also dwindling. KWS estimates that Kenya has 1,970 lions going by the 2010 survey with the majority living in the Maasai Mara and Tsavo complex.

“Lions live in a number of Kenya’s protected areas, but large populations reside in the Masai Mara and the Tsavo National Park,” said Mr Mbugua. There are also significant populations in Laikipia, Kajiado and Narok.

Mr Mbugua said that leopards remained widespread both inside and outside protected areas, although quantitative data on their numbers and distribution are sparse because of the challenge of counting them.

“Predators are impossible to record from these kinds of counts but we know that lions, leopards and cheetahs are all under pressure from poachers who kill them for skin and claws and/or teeth,” said Dr Kahumbu.