Refugee crisis threatens wildlife in northern Kenya

Newly arrived Somali refugees walk to a registration centre at the Dadaab refugee camp on July 10,2011 in northeastern Kenya.
Newly arrived Somali refugees walk to a registration centre at the Dadaab refugee camp on July 10,2011 in northeastern Kenya. 

A two way push by the government to contain human wildlife conflict in North Eastern Kenya could help tame a growing threat to the region’s natural resources due to an influx by refugees and human labour.

The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is counting on the success of community owned conservancies and establishment of game farming to contain a renewed appetite for game meat as the region experiences a surge in refugees fleeing from war and drought in Somalia.

According to Thomas Mailu, the KWS officer in charge, Garissa, the government agency has noted rising incidences of poaching, with illegal syndicates being traced to neighbouring countries, including Tanzania due to porous borders in the North Eastern frontier.

“The influx of refugees is not only degrading the environment due to demand for firewood for cooking and building shelters but those that have not enlisted in the camps are relying on game meat for food,” says Mailu. “But we want to involve the community as a stop gap measure through establishment of game farming and conservancies.”

Emerging details however suggest that the human wildlife conflict stretches beyond the refugee influx, where community elders maintain that civilian workforce ferried into the region to supply labour for ongoing road construction projects, are also hurting the ecological balance.

Mourid Abdi Dolal, a village elder links the growing appetite for game meat among civilians to the prolonged drought which has wiped away hundreds of livestock, while those that survive are carted away to sections that have shards of pasture, usually hundreds of miles away.

Still, says Dolal, the fact that land in Northern Kenya is classified as Trust Land makes it very difficult for communities to settle and protect the wildlife, hence their vulnerability to poaching and illegal hunting.

But conservationists warn that the growing threat to wildlife is not restricted to North Eastern alone, but will soon eclipse most part of Kenya’s habitats that host one of the country most treasured foreign exchange earner.

A fact finding team from the Kenya Climate Change Working Group (KCWG) which was in Garissa in May this year found out that human wildlife conflict ranked as the second out of 17 concerns that are weighing down on Kenyans due to the effects of climate change.

According to Joseph Ngondi, a programme officer at KCWG and a lead lobbyist pushing for the establishment of the Kenya Climate Change Bill, it will not be long before wildlife previously thought to be secure makes it to the list of endangered species, as the country continues to face prolonged drought.

“Human wildlife conflict is not a concern of North Eastern Kenya alone,” says Ngondi. “KCWG has noted alarming cases of game hunting. This is why the government should have a legislation which defines how to handle the region wide problem.”

A well-meant government move to link the North Eastern Kenya to East and Central Africa through infrastructure development is also said to be having a negative impact on the region’s natural heritage.

For instance, the government has earmarked Isiolo town for upgrade into a resort city as well as a transit route linking the Horn of Africa with the East African Community (EAC).

While plans to build Isiolo airport are said to have taken off, a railway line passing through the town from Juba to the Lamu are among the infrastructure expected to roll out in the next few years.

However, local leaders are calling for the community involvement in such projects to cushion their natural heritage from exploitation.

Paul Mello, the chairman of Isiolo Game Park management committee, cites a previous incident where an oil exploration company was allocated a settlement site along a wildlife migratory corridor as an indicator that the region’s heritage is vulnerable to exploitative forces.

It is a trend that leaves Garissa residents in stitches and awe as they recall an incident where a roadside vendor was arrested for selling roasted hyena meat to unsuspecting pedestrians, following the discovery of the scavenger’s head in the quack’s house.

North Eastern Kenya is rich in diversity and is host to an array of wildlife including the Dik dik, Oryx, Gerenuk, Gazelle, Impala, Giraffe, Warthog, Hyena, Hare, Ostrich, Jackal, Leopard, Cheetah and even the Elephant, according to Mailu.