Kenya: Emerging Hurdles in the Fight to Conserve Wildlife

In the complex world of carnivore conservation, the annual two-day carnivore conference held at the Kenya Wildlife Service in Nairobi at the end of October brought together scientists and researchers from east, southern Africa and India.

That African lion and most carnivores are now critically endangered is a sobering thought.

Over a century ago, Africa was a stronghold for big game, devoid of roads, railway, urban towns, farms and fences.

Today, Africa is home to increasingly sophisticated cities and infrastructure including a fast rising human population that is changing the landscape for carnivores fast.

Lion subspecies

Few know that Africa's lions aren't all the same. Laura D. Bertola studied the DNA of African lions including those of the Asiatic lions for 10 years.

Traditional thought was that there were two subspecies of lions--the African and the Asian sounties.

Ms Bertola who defended her thesis in 2015 discovered that African lions are two subspecies: The East and Southern while the West and Central are more closely related to Asian lions than to other African lions.

Over the past 300,000 years lion populations became separated by expanding deserts and rainforests. She collected 200 samples of old skulls, dung and hair from museums including blood and scat from anaesthetised lions to map the genetic tree of lions.

Her research highlights the plight of the lions from West and Central Africa. The IUCN red list gives a figure of 400 lions in West Africa with about a 1,000 in Central Africa and under increasing pressure from humans which means they are in need of better protection.

The genetic variability doesn't end there. Francis Lesilau who researched human-lion conflict around Nairobi National Park went on to research the genetic diversity of Kenyan lions which shows that while there is little genetic variability in the Kenyan lions, the Aberdare lion in central Kenya is slightly different. This data is useful in forensics when trying to establish the origin of lions in smuggled and poached wildlife.

Genetic diversity

It also shows the urgency to safeguard the genetic diversity of Africa's lions including safeguarding lineages, that is, the Southern and Eastern from the Western and Central. A recent case is that of South Africa donating lions to Rwanda in central Africa mixing lineages.

One of the biggest dilemmas for wildlife managers is that of carnivores with a taste for humans as in Tanzania and livestock in Kenya.

In Tanzania the issue of the man-eaters was solved when the pride in Tarangire on Tanzania's popular northern tourist circuit was moved 800 kilometres south to Selous National Reserve in an area that had no lions.

Selous is Africa's largest lion stronghold. While not all survived the remaining population is settling in.

But in Kenya, Chalisa a notorious cattle-raider from Lewa in northern Kenya was in 2017 moved to Tsavo East National Park, 600 kilometres south after the communities threatened to kill him.

For a few days he stayed in the park but then found his way to the community lands and went back to his old habits, spending the day in the park and killing cows at night.

Following his movements via his satellite collar, Mr Chalisa in January 2018 dared a 600-kilometre track from Tsavo East to Shompole Conservancy in southern Kenya, hiding in bushes around human habitation during the day and moving silently at night. He is still out and about.

Scientists, however, point to the horrific stress that carnivores suffer during translocation and in the "new" home.

Many get killed by the resident populations or die in unsuitable habitats. Termed inhumane, long-term lion researchers see it as not resulting in conservation but transferring the problem to the new site.

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