Wildlife poaching is on the rise across Kenyan forests and important conservation areas, some of which are home to the rarest wildlife species.
Yet, unlike in the past where mainly elephants and a handful other majestic mammals were primary targets, tact seems to have changed as poachers now have their eyes trained on bush meat for quick money and food.
And it is suspected that government’s recent decision to release over 4,800 inmates from local prisons is playing a part in fuelling the resurgence.
The prisoners who were serving less than six months jail terms for petty offences were released in April to de-congest prisons and avert Covid-19 outbreak in the correctional institutions.
“Most bush meat poaching offences in this country are categorised as petty offences and therefore it’s not surprising that following the release of petty offenders during the Covid-19 crisis, bush meat hunting is suddenly soaring,” a wildlife conservation officer who requested anonymity observed.
Because hunters employ myriads of dirty tricks to kill and preserve their kill, beef consumers in the city are being advised to stay vigilant as the bush meat finds its way to butcheries.
Parks and conservation areas in the country are currently recording low tourism activities following the Covid-19 pandemic which has for the last three months disrupted travels and social interaction.
Decline in tourism activities has led to a dip in revenues for conservancies forcing them to scale down daily park patrols.
In the Maasai Mara’s Mara Triangle, rangers estimate that between 30 to 40 hippos have been killed by armed poachers in the past two months alone.
Mara Triangle Park administrator David Aruasa said they recently nabbed five poachers of Tanzanian nationality ferrying dried hippo meat towards the boarder.
“On May 27 our anti-poaching unit found fresh poachers tracks along the Kenya-Tanzania border. Our Canine unit immediately trailed the tracks for five kilometres and smoked out the criminals from their hiding,” Mr Aruasa explained.
The poachers, he added, were carrying at least 50 kilogrammes of dried meat with a street value of Sh50,000.
“Basically, the bush meat hunters are mainly doing for commercial purposes. These poachers invade the parks and pitch makeshift camps where they chop and dry the meat after a hunting spree,” explained to Mr Aruasa.
The senior ranger further noted that the ongoing rainfall has made the bushy vegetation outgrowth in the parks effective hideouts.
As rivers become flooded by the heavy rains, hippos are moving to shallower swamps and pools which makes them a target.
Animals such as hippos, giraffes, antelopes, zebra and wildebeests are top poachers’ targets, the wildlife conservationists said.
“We are currently using two anti-poaching patrol vehicles instead of four due to inadequate funds,” said Mr Aruasa, adding that they hand over arrested criminals to Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) for prosecution.
The situation is not any different in the Tsavo-Mkomazi ecosystem where according to Maurice Nyaligu, the Tsavo-Mkomazi Landscape Manager at African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), there has been a resurgence of both trophy poaching and bush meat hunting within certain hotspots following the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr Nyaligu warned that the spike in bush meat trade could stir a public health risk since poachers not only kill their prey using hazardous poisons and chemicals, but some wild animals are also natural hosts for a number of zoonotic diseases that are deadly to humans.
“Animals such as buffaloes are natural hosts for anthrax. When people consume wild game from a buffalo carcass without knowing what it died off, then there is a real danger of infection,” the expert warned, adding that some poachers simply collect dead carcasses in the wildlife before selling to unsuspecting consumers as beef in local markets throughout Kenya.
He urged the public to learn the difference between bush meat and regular beef. As a general rule he pointed out that bush meat from savannah antelopes tends to be more lean and reddish.
Meanwhile, wildlife conservationists in North Rift have also raised alarm over rising of cases of game poaching in most government forests.
The most affected is South Nandi forest in Nandi County where residents hunt gazelles, antelopes, forest warthogs and colobus monkeys among other wild animals for meat.
A recent monitoring exercise in the South Nandi forest by Birdlife International in collaboration with Nature Kenya revealed the threat to endangered spices of wildlife had grown exponentially in the last few months.
The forest is rich with biodiversity and is also home to Turner’s Eremomela (Eremomela turneri), a rare and critically endangered bird making it one of the most important conservation sites in the world. This saw it recently classified as one of the 66 Important Bird Areas (IBA) in Kenya.
South Nandi forest is a unique ecosystem owing to the fact that it is a transitional between the lowland forests of West and Central Africa and montane forests of central Kenya highlands.
Mr Peter Kiptanui, the Projects Coordinator at South Nandi Biodiversity Conservation Group (SONABIC), attributed the rise in poaching to minimised patrols by Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and KWS.
“Bush meat hunting has increased inside the forest and in the nearby Kibirong wetland. This has been due to minimal activity by KFS and KWS wardens during this period of Covid-19 pandemic,” said Mr Kiptanui.
He warned that poaching could result into massive biodiversity losses if left unchecked.
He further noted that most locals still do not appreciate the value of forests and continue to indiscriminately destroy them. The conservationist also said the slow implementation of policies and lack of capacity for conservation at national and county levels as a big challenge to conservation.
But even as poaching is on the rise, the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife has been reluctant to admit the claims, instead downplaying the threat.
Tourism Cabinet Secretary (CS) Najib Balala recently said that “the incidences are so far not higher than what had been recorded during the same time last year… however that is not to discount the possibility of an increase given the situation we face with the ongoing pandemic.”
The CS said the government emergency budgetary support will provide funds to KWS and other wildlife conservancies in the interim to ensure there is no laxity in security for wildlife.
A few donors have also pledged support to the community conservancies during this period, Mr Balala told the Business Daily.
Organisations such as AWF and other like-minded entities within the region are already providing various forms of support to KWS and community conservancies to help suppress poaching and the spread of Covid-19 in the parks.
“KWS will remain vigilant and has not reduced patrols and surveillance around the country,” Mr Balala said, adding that cases of bush meat hunting in the Tsavo Conservation area and Kilifi where both suspects were arrested and prosecuted.