Nairobi — A new milestone has been marked in efforts to save the black rhino from extinction.
Participants in the Rhino Charge rally, which has been used to raise funds for the project.
Conservationists working under the Rhino Ark project are happy because they have hit two birds with one stone. By erecting a fence around the Aberdare Forest, they have not only saved the endangered rhino species from poachers but also helped the local community end their perennial conflicts with other wild animals, including elephants which in the past destroyed crops, maimed and killed farmers.
People living as far away as the city have also benefited. The move to conserve the water catchment area will also ensure that they will have a constant supply of water. And that is not all.
Many rivers in the area, which had been threatened by human activities, now stand a chance of being saved. Some have been harnessed to generate electricity, lighting up many homes in all corners of the country and ensuring that industries continue to run. That means more jobs for workers.
But these efforts did not bear fruit in a day. The project began 17 years ago and much of the fence has been built. Now, only a 95-kilometre stretch remains unfenced. But Rhino Ark is not worried about them because much of it consists of plains.
The hardest part of the fencing programme was completed on Friday and was commissioned by Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai.
Members and partners of the Rhino Ark initiative could not hide their joy as they marked the completion of Phase Five of the project, one of the most expensive in human costs.
"Two men lost their lives in a tractor accident," said Mr Michael Karanja, the chairman of the Rhino Ark board of trustees.
At one time, a Kenya Wildlife Service helicopter carrying chief executives of corporate partners of the Rhino Ark project crashed as the bosses travelled to the area to inspect the progress of the fence. Nation Media Group's CEO Wilfred Kiboro and Safaricom's Michael Joseph were among those who survived the crash by the skin of their teeth.
Originally, the survey map had indicated that Phase Five would be about 45 kilometres long. But the distance became 82 kilometres due to steep hills and deep valleys. The technical team had to pass the fence either across a river or a stream after every kilometre. By the time the section was completed last week it had crossed 22 rivers and 50 streams.
Some sections were so inaccessible that workmen had to carry fencing materials on their shoulders for up to three kilometres.
And with a mere 95-kilometre stretch remaining on the western side of the mountain range, the team can see light at the end of the tunnel. Most of the terrain is almost flat. And Rhino Ark expects to have fenced off the distance by 2007.
When the Rhino Ark project was started in 1988, the intention was to save the black rhino from poachers. The animal's highly valued horn was in great demand as an aphrodisiac, especially in the Persian Gulf countries.
Initially, the project's aim was to build an electric fence on the eastern side of the mountain where poaching was rampant.
Today, the fence has not only kept off the poachers but has also eased conflict between farmers living outside the Aberdare Forest and the wild animals inside it.
Before the fence was built, people lived in perpetual fear of attacks and many lost their incomes when their crops were destroyed or livestock killed. No wonder, the community never saw the necessity of protecting either the wildlife or the forest.
The Rhino Ark project has, with time, won the hearts of many conservation-conscious individuals and corporate organisations. The building of the fence has been made possible by the support of donors and corporate partners like the Nation Media Group, KenGen and Safaricom.
Funds have also been raised through such exciting sporting activities like the Rhino Charge off-road rally which is held once a year.
The fence has so far cost Sh400 million but more money is needed to complete and maintain it. In 2002, the Nation Media Group established the Nation Aberdare Forest Fund which has so far raised more than Sh16.8 million towards the project. The Government, through the ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, pledged Sh12 million. Last year, it gave out Sh1.6 million worth of materials.
Communities living next to the fence have also directly benefited from the project. Since 2003, 60 people have been employed to work on the fence every day.
"We have worked with communities along the fence line and they have supported the project. The Gatamaiyu-Karimenu Fence Community, for instance, donated labour valued at Sh2.2 million to build the first 15 kilometres," said Mr Karanja.
According to him, farmers in the lower slopes of the Aberdare conservation area have been able to invest more on their land because the wild animals no longer come down to destroy their crops. The value of their land has also appreciated by 300 per cent, he said.
The Environment permanent secretary, Prof George Krhoda, and the chairman of the Rhino Ark committee, Mr Collin Church, described the fence as a management tool to make the forest beneficial to the local community and the country in the long run.
"Community access requires firm policies for the identified sustainable uses. The flora and fauna of indigenous areas, and the wildlife which underpins our tourist industry, are both national and world heritage assets," said Mr Church.
The main challenge facing the Rhino Ark project at the moment is the maintenance of the fence. The task begins with each kilometre of the fence that is built.
According to Mr Church, watertight and workable solutions need to be found for the management of the fence itself.
"Rhino Ark and KWS are currently preparing a long term maintenance policy and the funds needed for its permanent management. Our target is Sh200 million and Rhino Ark has already raised seed money totalling Sh15 million," said Mr Church.
While KWS manages entry points into the vast Aberdare National Park, measures must be put in place to ensure the non-park sections, which make up more than two thirds of the fence's length, are professionally managed too.
Mr Church said there was also need for clear policies regarding livestock access and grass and dead wood harvesting.
"If this means that one agency of Government, or even an outsourced facility under contract, will best ensure efficiency so that the Forest Department receives full royalties, then such options should considered," he said.