Nairobi Star Newspaper John Cleave: Weak Laws Turning Kenya Game Reserves into Zoos

Lions, and other Big Five, used to stalk our land in great numbers and were treated as vermin and killed. In 1947 a pride of seven lions strolled across the Makupa causeway that links the mainland to Mombasa Island, and caused instant panic among town residents. A bank manager who owned a gun dispatched them.

Past reaction to dangerous wildlife was to kill them and, in an extreme example, the early colonial game department culled 163 rhinos in one year to clear a small patch of ground for sisal planting.

Sadly, our Big Five numbers have been reduced to dangerously low levels but we now have greater understanding of our moral responsibilities and take measures to protect them. The recent Pride of Kenya campaign advocated sensible measures such as banning Furadan that poisons innocent lions. With only 2,000 left in Kenya we are now obligated to safeguard their future, not only morally but because they are good for business.

Most overseas tourists live in countries that long ago exterminated their dangerous creatures and are willing to spend money and travel long distances to see wildlife in its natural state. However, they can also visit zoos at home and, if the game viewing experience in Kenya deteriorates to that of a zoo, they will stay away.

Regulatory protection under the Environment Management Act does not cover reserve and park management plans and neither does the new Tourism Bill, passing slowly through Parliament. Although it grants wide powers to the Minister of Tourism to protect designated areas, this is intended for monuments and archaeological sites.

The new Forestry and Wildlife Act is still in draft form, but carries the best future hope.

We may, however, have a long wait in a regulatory vacuum.

Meanwhile the clock is ticking. Kenya's population has increased from 5 million at first count to 40 million today. The larger population means a greater need of sustainable income from marginal land areas. The choice may be between agriculture and tourism. Where rainfall is unreliable, tourism may prove the most viable option, because the very rarity of wildlife has increased its value.

Land without farms, schools, clinics, houses and fences can be turned into private wildlife conservancies that create buffer zones and migratory corridors for species movement when adjacent to a national reserve. Due to their small size, the number of visitors to these conservancies must be controlled to prevent the zoo syndrome, hordes of safari vehicles around a single lion. The same is also true for our larger national parks and reserves.

Under a proposed new Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife Act, public and private wildlife conservation will benefit from clear guidelines. Conservation, by definition under the new bill, means the protection, maintenance, rehabilitation, restoration, management and wise use of wildlife.

The act neglects to define wisdom but does not allow non-nature based land use and prohibits all forms of consumption even though this could keep the ecosystem in balance and protect biological diversity. The draft bill, however, does require all public and private conservancies to have an ecosystem plan with a requirement that the opinions of other people in the area be discussed as new developments may adversely affect them.

This planning is currently sadly neglected and the National Environmental Management Authority has no guidelines of maximum beds per acre, does not consult widely with all other camps and lodges, and actually fulfils only a secondary requirement on responsible waste management for effluents and heating.

Many unscrupulous developers, however, now obtain a camp or lodge licence from Nema that would not be allowed under management plans in the new Wildlife Act and the current scramble to build, unethically supported by Nema, is turning our reserves into zoos.

All reserves and conservancies must now agree the number of beds per square acre and prevent overexploitation. Existing camps and lodges need to immediately form associations and protect their environment because the greed of commercial developers kills a conservancy as fast as a lion will eat a warden. Control of commercial exploitation is essential. Tourism is at risk because we have not sufficiently regulated our national reserves.

Although legally challenged by existing camps and conservationist, greedy developers have learnt to circumvent the National Environment Tribunal by steering preventative law suits at the high court, to be bogged down for years. In a legal vacuum the industry must quickly adopt voluntary limits and protect itself from the human predator.

Cleave is the acting chairman of the Kenya Association of Tour Operators.

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