Kenya on the brink of recording big five extinction

Published on 07/06/2009

By Joe Kiarie

The big five, the symbols of the country’s wildlife diversity, could soon be no more if current statistics is anything to go by.

Data from Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) shows the population of four of the big five—Elephant, lion, buffaloi,, rhino and leopard—has reduced to a trifle, down from hundreds of thousands back in the 1960s.

And while KWS officials acknowledge the country has been fortunate not to have recorded a single case of animal extinction, they concede this is the reality we are staring in the face if measures are not taken.

You do not need to go far for evidence as events that have transpired in the past 10 days best illustrate the devastation.

Eight days ago, five lions attacked and killed four cows at Oloolaimutiak within the Masai Mara National Reserve. Irate villagers chased away the beasts, then laced the carcass with poison, leaving it behind as bait.

And the trick worked. An eight-month-old lion was later found dead 100m from the carcass. Some 36 vultures as well fell prey and lay lifeless around the carcass. The fate of the other four lions remains unknown. Three days before, a poacher was shot dead after he was caught removing a horn from a black rhino in Laikipia.

These incidents involved two of the big five animals, and it is not a surprise that of the five, only the buffalo is not endangered.

KWS Head of Species Conservation and Management Patrick Omondi says Kenya had more than 20,000 African lions in 1963. It dropped to 2,749 in 2002 and stood at 1,970 last year, showing the danger facing the proverbial king of the jungle. The African elephant is also not safe. Their number stood at 167,000 in 1963 before dropping to an all-time low of 16,000 in 1989. It now stands at 32,000.

One of the 51 elephants killed by poachers this year.


Black rhinos too have declined drastically. Their population stood at about 20,000 in 1970 but had reduced to 391 in 1997. Today the number stands at 603.

Leopards have not been spared either and are today reeling from the devastation of the 1980s and 1990s, when they were widely poached for their valuable skin and body parts.

Kenya has also been famed as a haven for cheetahs and wild dogs, which roamed the bushlands in tens of thousands in the 1980s. But today, according to KWS, there are only 1,160 cheetahs and 800 wild dogs.

Vast space

“These two animals have particularly been endangered because they need vast space for movement, and people continue to encroach on their land,” says Omondi.

And that is not all. Various antelopes are also walking the extinction line.

The KWS data shows the country has only 100 roan antelopes, which are confined at Ruma National Park in Nyanza Province. The number has dropped from more than 20,000 in the 1980s.

Sable antelopes have also been reduced from 10,000 in the same period to less than 200 today, while the population of the Hirola antelope has fallen from 14,000 in 1970 to 600 today.

Sable antelopes are now only found at Shimba Hills while the Hirola are almost exclusively found in Ijara District.

The Grevy’s Zebra, only found in Kenya and Ethiopia, could soon be rendered extinct. Its population has fallen from more than 20,000 in 1970 to 1,800 today.

Out of these, 150 are in Ethiopia, and the rest in northern Kenya, near Lake Turkana. And so dire is their survival status that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has listed them under Appendix I, which offers them the highest form of protection against poaching. Spotted hyenas are also facing extinction. Mr Omondi notes that despite efforts by KWS to protect these species, poachers are still getting their way.

“Last year was one of the worst as we lost 98 elephants to poachers. This year alone, we have already lost 51,” he states.

Wrong signal

He blames the upsurge on the recent partial lifting of ivory trade that allowed South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia to sell their ivory to Japan and China in 2007. “It was a one-off sale but sent the wrong signal to the traders, and that is why Kenya was opposed to the decision. It opened up the trade and it is not a surprise that not so long ago, we seized five tonnes of ivory being smuggled to Tanzania via Loitoktok,” says Omondi.

At the moment, Kenya has the fourth largest African Elephant population in the world after Botswana, Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

On the remaining African Rhino, Omondi says KWS has been forced to monitor them day and night since the demand for their horns is too high in the Far East.

“But we are still overwhelmed by the poaching menace and are about to boost our aerial and ground surveillance. At Tsavo Conservation Area, we have four light aircrafts patrolling daily, but we still record poaching cases,” he notes. Kenya has 19 light aircrafts for wildlife protection and boasts the best anti-poaching unit in Africa. At 603, the number of African rhinos is the third largest in the world.

And while singling out human wildlife conflict as the main cause for the decline in the lion population, Omondi laments that poisoning of the carnivores is emerging as a leading way of killing them, particularly among the pastoral communities.

Roam outside

“This is because lions often roam outside the national parks during drought,” he explains.

And in a desperate effort to conserve the remaining animals, KWS has established programmes to save them. A similar programme to save Bongos is also underway.

The programme targets to raise the elephant population to 50,000 by 2050.

But Omondi says Parliament must enact land policies to assist clear key animal migratory routes that have been encroached by human beings.

“Today, there are 2,000 elephants in the Mara. But they cannot stay there the whole year and need the area around the park. Migratory corridors are vital and the issue of land has to be addressed swiftly since the Mara and other parks cannot survive without dispersal areas around them,” Omondi warns.

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