Wednesday, July 28

Wildebeest, bustards and bongos: Kenya launches first national wildlife census | Kenya

Planes, helicopters, boats and 4x4s are being deployed, hundreds of camera traps and satellite collars are being monitored, and a number of droppings are being studied in Kenya as the country embarks on its first national wildlife census.

The census, which covers the country’s 58 national parks and reserves, private and community conservation areas, is due to be completed by the end of July. It will cost 250 million Kenyan shillings (£ 1.6 million) and includes a count of land and marine mammals, key birds such as ostriches and kori bustards, and endangered primates. Results are expected in August.

The goal of the count is to establish a baseline of the status and distribution of wildlife to inform policy direction. The country’s tourism and wildlife cabinet secretary Najib Balala said the census would also recommend modern strategies for the conservation and effective management of wildlife. while monitoring the number and distribution of rare and threatened species such as pangolins and green and hawksbill turtles, whose numbers are decreasing due to intense poaching.

Hirola antelope in Kenya's Tsavo East National Park.
Hirola, a rare species of antelope on the IUCN “Critically Endangered” list, in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park. Photograph: Andrew Woodley / Alamy

While the country has made specific counts of endangered animals such as elephants and rhinos, there has been little monitoring of other rare, endangered and threatened species “whose numbers and distribution have declined significantly in the last three decades.” the government says. These include rare species of antelope, such as the sable, sitatunga, hirola, and mountain bongo. The mountain bongo Y hirola They are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “critically endangered”.

According to the report, key wildlife landscapes in Kenya have experienced challenges in terms of land tenure and use, drought and the climate crisis, factors “likely to have a negative impact on the wildlife population of certain species. ”.

“Therefore, it is important to conduct this national survey to establish baseline data on the status and distribution of the wildlife population for future use, to understand wildlife population trends and changes in their distribution. We also need to know if a given area has the carrying capacity for particular animals and the effects that climate change and increasing human population have on wildlife conservation, ”said Balala.

Balala said the count would also help mitigate the growing cases of human-wildlife conflict and cut a growing compensation bill, which now stands at 14 billion Kenyan shillings.

Terrestrial and aerial techniques are being used to count large mammals in the open savanna, arid and semi-arid areas, while camera traps and manure counting are used in forested ecosystems.

Plane flies over a herd of zebras in Amboseli National Park, Kenya
An aerial count that took place in Amboseli national park in 2013. The national wildlife census will mark the first time that data from all parks in Kenya has been coordinated. Photograph: Tony Karumba / AFP / Getty

Dr. Patrick Omondi, acting director of the newly formed Wildlife Research and Training Institute, said the government was using “internationally recognized peer review methodologies” to arrive at accurate data.

“Deployment of personnel and equipment depends on the size of a conservation area,” he said. “For example, we deployed a team of 50 and 13 aircraft, both fixed and helicopters, in the Tsavo ecosystem, the largest in the country. Other methods include the use of satellite collars, especially for migratory animals, to avoid double counting. Aerial voice recorders are also being used to analyze the presence of specific animals in a given area.

“In forested areas, we have installed camera traps to count nocturnal animals like pangolins. This will be the first time that an African country has counted the number of pangolins, which are currently the most trafficked animals in the world. Aerial surveys will also be used for the great marine life, such as whales, sharks, dugongs and sea turtles ”.

Dr. Paula Kahumbu, Head of conservation agency WildlifeDirect, said that if the census was conducted well, it would reveal the ecological emergency faced by protected areas that affects not only animals, but also the lives and livelihoods of millions of Kenyans.

But he added: “Counting alone is not enough. The census must report on the state of the land and habitats, which are the critical life support system for animals. The integrity of Kenya’s protected areas is being affected by developments such as roads and railways, hotels and military camps, which affect the movements of animals.

Paula Kahumbu and the WildlifeDirect team
Paula Kahumbu and her colleagues at WildlifeDirect, an award-winning team of conservationists in Kenya. Photograph: Johann Vorster / Whitley Awards 2021

“In addition, habitat quality such as frequent bush and forest fires, overgrazing of livestock in parks, destruction of forests, sand collecting, and destructive fishing practices reduce biodiversity, as well as create land. fertile for the rapid spread of invasive species ”.

Kahumbu said that even the number of animals once considered “common,” such as wildebeest, had plummeted by as much as 90% in the Nairobi, Narok and Amboseli ecosystems, mainly due to habitat loss.

The 2020-30 management plan for Nairobi National Park shows the collapse of a wildebeest migration that numbered 30,000 animals in the 1960s “with only 200 currently using the park.” The report also details a 70% decline in wild boar, water antelope, hartebeest and gazelle populations.

According to the government report, the corridors that once linked the park to the greater plains were obstructed by development, urban sprawl and subdivision, or blocked by fences.

“Our parks, reserves, forests and conservation areas are the life support system of Kenya. They provide water, generate energy, clean the air and provide resistance to the climate crisis and extreme weather conditions. Since they cannot exist as islands, urgent legislation is required to secure buffer zones, wildlife corridors and dispersal areas, ”said Kahumbu.

Jagi Gakunju, a conservationist and tour operator in the Masai Mara, said the exercise would be more successful if the government took advantage of wildlife data collected by the many conservation agencies operating in Kenya.

Kori bustard
A kori bustard among zebras in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Photograph: Martin Harvey / Alamy

Most private and community wildlife conservation areas, he said, have been conducting their own censuses over the years, so your contribution is vital.

“Nature Kenya, for example, is the local partner of BirdLife International and it has invaluable data on avifauna, as do other conservation agencies whose statistics are incorporated into global databases. It would be good to review that data and determine how the current way of counting wildlife differs from what has been done in the past. The current exercise should be an accumulation of past initiatives, ”Gakunju said.

Cynthia Moss, the American-born conservationist whose organization Amboseli Trust for Elephants has been conducting the world’s longest research on elephants, he said his organization was willing to share the data collected for nearly 50 years.

“I think the initiative is good for conservation,” he told The Guardian by phone. “We have accumulated a lot of information over the years and we are willing to share it, should the authorities require it. In any case, the government has more resources than private conservationists ”.

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