1 January 2013

Kenya: Africa's Wildlife Is Under Grave Danger

Photo: Kevin Walsh


Africa's wildlife is under threat as never before. Trafficking in ivory, rhino horn, and other wildlife products is more organized, widespread, and dangerous than they have been in the past.

Under the onslaught of violence, animal populations are dropping. In 1980, Kenya had 175,000 elephants, while today there are just 40,000. Other species, including rhinos, may soon be extinct in the wild.

We are all harmed by this senseless slaughter. Africans who depend on wildlife tourism lose their jobs. Communities and villages are undermined and threatened by the violence. Park rangers are killed. From 2006 to 2012 the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) lost 12 rangers in the fight against poachers. And as elephants, rhinos, and other animals are indiscriminately killed, the magnificent beauty and diversity of our natural world are destroyed.

It is time for all of us to respond to this threat. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently hosted a partnership meeting in Washington, DC called "Wildlife Trafficking and Conservation: A Call to Action," where she said, "It is one thing to be worried about poachers who come in and kill and take a few animals, a few tusks, a few horns, or other animal parts. It's something else when you've got helicopters, night vision goggles, and automatic weapons that pose a threat to human life as well as wildlife.

Local communities are becoming terrified. Local leaders are telling their national leaders they might lose control of large swaths of territory to these criminal gangs. Where criminal gangs come and go at their discretion, such a situation begins to provide safe havens for other sorts of threats to people and governments. Ultimately, wildlife stewardship is also a national security issue, a public health issue, and an economic security issue that is critical to each and every country."

At the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, we work to help Kenya protect its wildlife. We collaborate closely with the Government of Kenya and civil society as part of a broad effort to address the growing threat of poaching and wildlife trafficking. Over the past 50 years, we have provided training and equipment to the Kenya Wildlife Service and have carried out many programs to protect the country's parks and animals.

One of our joint projects with KWS is the Kenya Wildlife Conservation Project, which seeks to strengthen the management of Kenya's national parks and reserves. The project strengthens the "corporate capacity" of KWS to promote community-centered wildlife management and biodiversity conservation. A successful example is the introduction of the SAFARICARD - an online smartcard system for collecting park fees. Together our efforts have also resulted in the expansion of community-based conservation and led to the creation of Kenya's first voluntary conservation easement, which provides protected land to allow the free flow of animals into and out of Nairobi National Park.

The U.S. Embassy has also partnered with civil society, local government, and communities to develop and obtain approval for Kenya's first Land Use Master Plan for the greater Nairobi area to facilitate healthy co-existence of humans and wildlife within the rapidly expanding cityscape.

Beyond efforts here in Kenya to protect animals from poachers, we must also work together to drive down the demand for ivory, rhino horn, and other wildlife products. The U.S. government is working to spread the message that buying goods and products from trafficked wildlife and endangered species is unacceptable. We want "friends telling friends" they don't want to be associated with people who consume, display, or otherwise use products that come from endangered species anywhere in the world.

We need to put an end to the idea that people can enhance their social status through wildlife products and ensure everyone understands the damage poaching is doing. For example, a 2011 survey by the International Fund for Animal Welfare showed 70 percent of Chinese consumers think elephants are not slaughtered for their ivory. This misperception must be corrected.

While putting a stop to poaching will not be easy, we can succeed if we work together. We need governments, civil society, businesses, scientists, and activists to come together to educate people about the harms of wildlife trafficking. We need law enforcement personnel and park rangers to stop poachers from preying on wildlife.

We need trade experts to track the movement of goods and help enforce existing trade laws. We need finance experts to study and help close the black markets that deal in wildlife products. And most importantly, we need to persuade individuals to stop buying ivory, rhino horn, and other products that require the slaughter of wildlife.

In short, we need to galvanize bold, comprehensive, worldwide action against poaching. We need to stop the organized and criminal slaughter of wildlife. Doing so will protect not just the animals, but also the livelihood of many Kenyans, the diversity of the natural world, and the heritage of future generations. We can all do more. Let's work together to end this scourge.

Robert F.Godec is the charge d'affaires at the US Embassy in Nairobi.

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