Nairobi — Before the Mau forestland rush, the dark- green rain forest was a showcase for the diversity of life. There was hardly a break in the canopy of giant trees, and virtually every acre was alive with all kinds of flora and fauna.
Then, in the mid-1980s came a horde of settlers, both legal and illegal, slashing and burning huge swathes of the forest to create land for farms and infrastructure.
They came to enjoy a promised land, full of milk and honey, but in essence produced a trail of devastation.
Sadly enough, their action is replicated in other parts of the country. Economists might not see a problem with the galloping population increase, but with an additional one million new mouths to feed every year, environmentalists have all the reason to be worried.
“The country is losing its biodiversity at an alarming rate due to destruction of the natural resources and we have started to pay the price,” says Dr David Western, a former Kenya Wildlife Service Director.
Due to degradation of natural habitats, as a result of population pressure and poor farming practices, the country has lost 50 per cent of its wildlife population in the last 34 years.
Initially, pressure on natural resources was concentrated on the high potential areas, but things have changed in the past decade, with attention turning the arid and semi-arid land (Asal), one of the most suitable habitats for wildlife.
Under threat is the country’s jewel, the tourism sector, the third largest foreign exchange earner, after horticulture and tea exports. Tourism is also cited as one of the critical sectors in Vision 2030, the economic blueprint, which aims to transform Kenya into a middle income country.
However, conservationists are concerned the country is killing the goose laying the golden egg and that the grand targets could turn into a pipe dream if habitat loss continues unabated.
“More and more Asal areas are being opened up for agriculture despite being unsuitable for farming, resulting in the loss of biodiversity,” says Dr Western the chairman of the African Conservation Centre.
Studies conducted by the organisation in Amboseli National Park and Maasai Mara Game Reserve, for example, reveal that settlement patterns around the protected areas, have changed from temporary to permanent, with most families opting to grow crops rather than practice pastoralism, suitable for such environment.
As a result, in the Amboseli National Park temperatures have risen by three to four degrees in the last 30 to 40 years, a fact that conservationists blame on loss of vegetation cover. “We have to be careful when preparing for climate change by ensuring we are not degrading our habitat,” adds Dr Western.
The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is also concerned about the loss of habitat. Patrick Omondi, head of species conservation and management at KWS concurs with Dr Western’s sentiments.
“Land degradation and change in land use coupled by lack of enforcement of land use policy are the country’s top reasons for biodiversity loss,” says Mr Omondi. Zoning as stipulated in the land use policy, for example, has never been enforced, and is the reason why unsuitable land use practices continue in Asal areas.
“Protected areas cannot survive without buffers and if allowed to continue our priceless wildlife will move to neighbouring Tanzania,” he adds. The East African country is one of Kenya’s leading competitors in tourism.
However, Kenya is considered the richest in biodiversity, in East Africa. According to KWS, the country has a total of 407 species of mammals, 1,103 birds, 261 reptiles, 63 amphibians and 314 birds and 6,506 known higher plants.
But these numbers might sharply decline as the country continues to pay little attention to the problem. In fact signs are already beginning to show. Some of the mammals that roamed the expansive Asal areas two decades ago, for example, have declined in numbers and are now confined to conservancies.
Dr Charles Musyoki, senior scientist in charge of species conservation at KWS, says the number of flora and fauna categorised internationally as critically endangered stands at 16. Those considered endangered are 34, while vulnerable ones are 55, bringing the total of threatened species to 107.
Habitat loss is now forcing closely-related mammals to interbreed, raising possibilities of some of the sub-species becoming extinct in the near future. However, there are species considered less endangered at the international level, but critically under threat of extinction in Kenya.
“There is a mismatch between the international list and the local one, which calls for concerted effort by government, organisations and individuals in conserving both,” says Dr Musyoki.
All these problems, can be traced back to habitat loss and land fragmentation due to population pressure and to some extent climate change. “The number one problem facing wildlife species is habitat loss, people moving from high potential areas to marginal areas, where 80 per cent of our wildlife reside,” adds Dr Musyoki.