Endgame in Africa
Confronting the dilemmas of environmental conservationBy John Ryle • February 1999 • The Times Literary Supplement • The Dust of Kilimanjaro by David Western • Expanded with afterword • Posted 2016 • 4,149 words
The dilemmas of wildlife conservation are nowhere more acute or consequential than in Eastern and Central Africa, in the countries of the Great Rift Valley, where the last of the world’s big mammals exist alongside rapidly expanding human populations hungry for land, in decayed or malformed nation-states where the field of politics has become a disorderly competition for individual enrichment—or, in an increasing number of cases, all-out civil war. For the last ten years Kenya has been at the forefront of the struggle to conserve the habitat of the unique fauna of the region. This struggle is epitomized by the careers of two white Kenyans: Richard Leakey and David Western. Their rivalry and the interlocking trajectories of their careers provide a vivid illustration of the tragic difficulty of reconciling conservationist ideals with current political processes in sub-Saharan Africa.
Richard Leakey, scion of the dynasty founded by his father, the palaeoanthropologist Louis Leakey, was the founder and first director of Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS), a government body established in 1989 to replace the department that administered the thirty-odd national parks and reserves that the country inherited from the colonial administration (or which were established after independence). Richard Leakey was already celebrated as a palaeontologist and conservationist when he took on the job. He had been a vociferous critic of corruption and incompetence in the previous parks administration and his appointment by President Daniel arap Moi was universally applauded by the western world’s conservation organizations.
Leakey’s international reputation enabled him to raise unprecedented sums from the World Bank and other donors to reestablish the capacity to police the Kenyan parks. Under his leadership KWS became a formidable force. Well-armed anti-poaching units with a shoot-to-kill policy put an end to rampant elephant and rhino poaching. Leakey persuaded President Moi to stage a public burning of the huge stocks of confiscated ivory that would otherwise almost certainly have found their way onto the international black market; the resulting photo opportunity provided a vivid signal of the new national wildlife policy. Tourism in Kenya grew and the funds that Leakey raised internationally were complemented by increasing gate fees from the parks.
But Leakey’s success in stemming corruption in the parks service earned him the bitter opposition of powerful kleptocrats in the Kenyan political establishment, who were thus deprived of a key source of income. The well-armed KWS game-scouts were perceived by them, furthermore, as a para-military force, a potential threat to their power and influence. Leakey’s abrasive personality, which had made his achievement possible, did not help. The defence of the territorial integrity of the parks was presented by his opponents as an imposition on the human population of the adjoining areas. In some cases these neighbouring peoples were the established inhabitants, long accustomed to grazing animals within the parks, and troubled by the depradations of wildlife straying over park borders into their farms and gardens. And some of Leakey’s critics were their representatives in government.
Leakey was undaunted by criticism, confident of support from international funding bodies and from a wily President, for whom the wildlife issue was a way of playing for time as donor pressure for democratization in Kenya grew. In 1993 Leakey survived a plane crash, possibly the result of sabotage, in which he lost both his legs. The following year, a government investigation into his administration of KWS was announced. Leakey was accused of racism by his own boss, Noah Katana Ngala, the Minister of Tourism and Wildlife. Following what Leakey interpreted as the withdrawal of Presidential support, he resigned. Soon afterwards he and a number of other prominent Kenyans announced the formation of a new political party, Safina, to oppose KANU, the ruling party of President Moi.
Parks beyond parks
Leakey’s replacement as head of KWS was David Western, who is commonly known in Kenya by his childhood nickname, Jonah. Western is a biologist with impeccable scientific credentials, but with a considerably lower public profile than Leakey. Raised in Tangankiya (now Tanzania), he is identified with a new strain in conservation thinking, community conservation, which stresses the involvement of local people in habitat conservation. Where traditional conservation concentrates on state control of security and resources and on tourism as the pre-eminent source of income, community conservation promotes the dual use of the environment, for example, as grazing for domestic stock and rangeland for wild animals, a concept that Western has dubbed “parks beyond parks”.
Community conservation also endorses the controlled commercial off-take of game, a controversial issue in African conservation circles, where those who are against any exploitation of protected species—certainly of big, rare, intelligent species like elephant—are ranged against those who believe that the controlled sale of meat and other animal products is, perforce, the key to their survival. Not that Western is in favour of culling elephants; nor that Leakey is implacably opposed to commercial exploitation of game. Like other differences between the two men, it is a difference of emphasis, one that may seem subtle to outsiders. Community conservation is more a strategy than an ideology, a response to the global failure of draconian measures to protect wildlife. And the change of direction that Western ushered in was seen by many as timely because, despite Leakey’s successes, his achievement was fragile, dependent on personal charisma and continued political patronage from the President.
The proponents of community conservation argue that theirs is a longer-term strategy, an adaptation of traditional conservation practices that can establish a new compact between local people and government. And during his tenure at KWS Western tried to shift attention to the areas continuous to parks, to establishing alliances with groups such as the Maasai who live around Amboseli, one of Kenya’s flagship parks, people with whom Western spent the early years of his career. He was unlucky in that his tenure at KWS coincided with a drastic downturn in tourism in Kenya, the result of growing lawlessness in the country at large. His attempts to cut the KWS budget were unpopular and he was criticised by some of Leakey’s supporters—conservation fundamentalists who saw the stress on community conservation as an abandonment of the central obligation to preserve the territorial integrity of the parks. Last year Western was dismissed; then, after donors threatened the withdrawal of funding, he was reinstated—and then sacked again. Finally, in an unexpected move, President Moi reappointed Richard Leakey to the post. Experience suggests that this may not be for long.
But Western’s sacking was, by his own account, not due to failure in management of KWS, but rather to his resistance to a land grab, an attempt by local politicians to reallocate parts of two parks for their own use. He was purged, in fact, for defending exactly what his opponents in conservationist circles said he was compromising, the sanctity of the park—that is to say, for much the same reasons as Leakey had been sacked earlier. Western’s downfall is further confirmation that differences between conservationists in Africa are insignificant compared to the forces that oppose them, and sometimes conspire to divide them. Whether Leakey can restore the fortunes of KWS while politics in Kenya continues so violent and murky remains to be seen.
In The Dust of Kilimanjaro, written before his dismissal, is David Western’s manifesto for community-based conservation. It is also a lyrical description of growing up in colonial East Africa and of the genesis of his love for its landscape and inhabitants. He explains the intimate relation of pastoralists to their herds and environment and, in a striking passage at the beginning of the book, describes the pleasure of hunting, a violent intimacy with wildlife that he has now renounced, but which lies, he says, at the heart of his understanding of the ways of animals.
Given the problems that Western confronted, even before his dismissal, this is a surprisingly optimistic book. I read it over the new year during a journey from Kenya, through Uganda, to the four parks—in Uganda, Rwanda and Congo—that are home to the last surviving populations of the mountain gorilla. This is a region that provides some evidence, if only anecdotal, both of the achievements and the pitfalls of the approach to the management of natural resources that Western champions. Bwindi Forest, for example, in South-Western Uganda, is the location of a new departure in community conservation, a hugely endowed project, with an investment portfolio held in London out of the reach of local politicians, which dispenses largesse to the communities on the periphery of the park in the form of schools and clinics. High-end tourism, with visitors paying hundreds of dollars for the chance to see gorillas, provides an additional income.
So far, the scheme seems to be working; but it is clearly dependent on all local communities, including those in neighbouring countries, being satisfied with the deal that has been struck. Since one of these neighbours is the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the least stable countries in Africa, this is not a certain prospect.
The Virunga National Park, over the border in Congo, offers a striking contrast to the parks in Kenya. This part of Congo has been one of the chief areas of conflict of the civil war. Such complete collapse of civil authority, laying wildlife and other natural resources open to unregulated depradation, is what some conservationists in Africa have come to fear most of all. And as war spreads across the continent Congo begins to look like the future for other countries in the region. In conservationist circles in Kenya last year dire reports were circulating about the demise of the Virunga park’s population of hippos, said to have been slaughtered for meat by marauding soldiers. And there was concern too for the mountain gorilla population, reduced to a few hundred even before the war began.
I visited the park last December. Arriving without advance warning at the park headquarters, currently an army camp, I was informed that I was the first visitor there for many months. Then, to my surprise, as I waited at the entrance, an immaculately dressed official appeared, with a enamelled badge that announced him to be the Chief Guide of the Park, and offered to accompany me on a tour of the accessible areas.
The hippo population of the park, though doubtless reduced, was clearly still large: many hundreds could be seen from the main road north. Hippos, though, reproduce rapidly; gorillas do not. Again to my surprise, I found that the gorilla reserve in the park was also functional, with game scouts in place conducting a vigorous trade in black-market tourism. A few indomitable trans-Africa travellers, disappointed by the need to book ahead to see mountain gorillas at Bwindi, were crossing the border from Uganda to Congo, where cut-price gorilla viewing was readily available.
Only one family of mountain gorillas has, in fact, been killed so far during the war in Congo, by an army patrol that mistook stirrings in the undergrowth for a rebel ambush, and there is no evidence that any have been killed for meat or trophies. The entrepreneurial instinct of former park employees who remember the time when tourists paid to come and see them, may be contributing to their survival. Perhaps the message of conservationists—that such animals are worth more alive than dead—has found a habitation in the minds of the inhabitants of the area, even in the present chaotic time. Such sparks of hope do not detract, however, from the high risk of a further downturn in security in the region. This would once more jeopardise the gorillas’ survival. (The fate of lowland gorillas in Congo seems to have been much worse.) The only certain conservation policy is one that issues from the common interests of the inhabitants of the land. And even this can only work when it is these inhabitants, and not marauding gunmen, who control it.
Dilemmas of conservation
What the current situation of mountain gorillas in Congo illustrates—as the problems in Uganda and Kenya also show—is that it is forces outside Africa, almost entirely, that provide the impetus for protection of habitats and rare species. The local constituency for conservation, at least as conservation is understood by westerners, is very small. At village level the struggle for economic survival is liable to preclude the long-term, global thinking that conservation has come to involve.
No African politician, even the most visionary, and even in countries where central government still prevails, can afford to put the conservation of wildlife resources very far up the agenda. It is striking that in his recent autobiography, Sowing the Mustard Seed, Yoweri Museveni, the President of Uganda, who has been generally regarded by Western donor governments, at least until recently, as the great hope of the region, does not mention the subject at all. Both Western and Leakey, though they are citizens of an African country, speakers of African languages and holders of senior government posts, are marginal to current politics in Africa; and the conflict between them, between protective conservation and community-based ecosystem management, is a sideshow in relation to wider developments in the region.
The trick for conservationists in Africa is knowing how to strike a deal with local interests, with those who hold the power of life and death over the animal populations and habitats that need protection, how to reconcile the environmental requirements of both human and non-human inhabitants. In this tricky, shifting, political terrain conservationists are forced to walk a line between corrupt governments, encroaching rebel armies and desperate civilians in an attempt to preserve a space for the wild. Their success in saving endangered species depends on the arts of diplomacy and the creative use of financial resources.
It is not necessarily the case that political stability helps. In a war such as that currently spreading through Congo, though wildlife invariably suffers, conflict may actually slow down loss of habitat. Most wild populations, apart from endangered species whose numbers have sunk below viable rates of reproduction, can revive later if the habitat is intact. The worst news for conservation in Congo, for example, might well not be the civil war, but the development projects that result from peace: the construction of more roads through the rainforest, opening it up further to logging and commercial hunting. In some respects, in some places, as far as some forms of wildlife are concerned, war may even represent a breathing space.
This is one of the uncomfortable truths in the conservationist endgame that is currently playing itself out across much of the continent. Another is that, in order to prevail, conservationists like Western and Leakey may have to use of some of the same devious and coercive political tactics as their opponents. Conservation is a political issue; and here, as elsewhere, politics is dirty nad often violent. There is a high price to be paid for preserving the natural environment of the region, a region that is currently being fought over with such bitterness and greed and so little regard for the long-term well-being of its inhabitants, human and non-human alike. ★
In August 1999, in a further twist to the tortured political process in Kenya, President Moi restored Richard Leakey to favour and appointed him head of the Kenyan Civil Service. Leakey’s successor as Director of Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) was Nehemiah Rotich, a biologist from President Moi’s ethnic group, the Kalenjin. Rotich, though, was himself to be suspended in November 2001. Safina, the political party Leakey helped to found, soon went into decline. In March 2001 Leakey was dismissed as Head of the Civil Service. In April it was reported in the Kenyan press that he was about to join another new opposition party, the Democratic Party.
On 1 March 1999 the Bwindi Forest reserve in Uganda was the site of an attack in which eight western tourists (four British and four American) and a Ugandan park warden were murdered. The attack was blamed on Interahamwe (the Rwandan anti-government Hutu militia active across the border in Congo) but the first arrest in connection with the attack, made over two years later in August 2001, was of a Ugandan national.
Mountain gorilla fatalities during four years of war in Congo were reported to amount to eighteen individuals. Conservationists registered a ten per cent increase in the mountain gorilla population in the Virunga chain over the period between 1989 and 2000, from 320 to something over 355 individuals. But numbers of lowland gorillas and other primate species in Congo are reported to have been seriously affected by an ever-burgeoning trade in bushmeat. Another mountain gorilla was killed in Rwanda in mid-2001 and in August that year a Rwanda Park ranger was killed when he and other gorilla trackers were ambushed by Hutu rebels near the Congo border. (See also City of Words, February 8, 1999, “Felling Trees and Eating Chimpanzees”)
In Kenya, in 2003, President Moi retired and Mwai Kibaki was elected President of Kenya. The change of leadership and the political turmoil in Kenya in subsequent years did not improve the prospects for conservation. Richard Leakey gave a speech in which he said that poachers “had an extraordinary level of international criminal backing effectively operating with outrageous impunity, killing our elephants and rhinos at levels that will make them extinct within the country.”
In July 2014, a report sponsored by the Kenyan Government said that in its present form KWS was top heavy and had experienced a “loss of motivation and morale in the field.” In Thailand, officials said that they had intercepted a cargo of over three tonnes of elephant ivory shipped from Kenya.
In 2015 the now septuagenarian Richard Leakey was appointed Chair of the board of Kenya Wildlife Services by President Uhuru Kenyatta. And it was announced that the Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie had signed up to direct Africa, a Leakey biopic which will focus on his fight against poachers in the 1980s when he was the director of KWS.
In a recent article in a Kenyan newspaper, the Standard, Mahanda Indakwa summarized the history of KWS and its directors as follows:
For all his spectacular achievements, critics still blame Dr Richard Leakey for not training his middle level managers or preparing a succession plan at the Kenya Wildlife Service.
These two oversights had a deleterious impact on the organisation in later years in terms of capacity and structure, with much smaller organisations like the National Museums of Kenya and Kenya Forest Service boasting bigger brainpower than the better-endowed KWS.
Leakey’s exit brought in Dr David Western, a Tanzania-born but Kenyan raised and University of Nairobi trained wildlife ecologist. An articulate scientist who wrote his own speeches, preferred carrying out field research rather than sitting in an office and was ill at ease in a suit, he ran quickly into trouble. His detractors accused him of focusing unduly on wildlife outside protected areas (in Western’s view, 75 per cent of Kenya’s wildlife is outside parks) and neglecting wildlife protection, deemed the core of conservation under Leakey. Donors kept off and in the ensuing financial crunch—worsened by the 1998 El Niño deluge and the infamous Likoni tribal clashes that saw tourists give Kenya a wide berth—he was edged out of office.
But it is perhaps only under Western’s reign that KWS was strategically organised to manage wildlife scientifically. The wildlife fraternity was at that time split into two sharply discordant ideological groups; those supporting a strict protectionist regime centred around parks and those keen on making the land outside parks the focus of conservation. His was the age of experimentation, of “parks beyond parks”, of eco-tourism and community owned wildlife sanctuaries and group ranches. He was peering deep into the future, to a time when loss of migration corridors and wildlife dispersal areas would render parks unable to function on a sound ecological basis. He is perhaps the only wildlife chief who dared to dream, and his opponents derisively called him one.
The period under Leakey, who served twice, and Western (and later Nehemiah Rotich) could be hailed as the finest for KWS. In these three men, Kenya’s wildlife had a voice that resounded globally, one it sadly lost — perhaps permanently—when they exited the scene. Leakey and Western never saw eye to eye ideologically and it is curious why the two eminent thinkers never realised that neither was wrong but both were right.
Perhaps what Kenya needed, and still does is, a combination of what the two advocated individually: Sound management of parks and reserves (Leakey) running in tandem with the safeguarding of habitats on community-owned land outside parks (Western).
Curiously, two directors who served some of the shortest stints had significant impact on conservation policy. Career game warden Michael Wamithi put an end to an amorphous wildlife-cropping project, which skeptics complained was abused by select large landowners to camouflage sport hunting, banned in 1977.
His successor Evans Mukolwe, later dismissed for hiring rangers without government approval, initiated the enactment of a new wildlife law, a process that has dragged on since 2004. It is also Mr Mukolwe who convinced government to increase funding to KWS, with 400 elephants translocated from Shimba Hills to Tsavo East National Park without a single coin from donors, or the assistance of pesky foreign “experts” as had been the case previously.
Since 2004, the biggest debate has been: Should a conservationist or a management expert manage KWS? Should the organisation be run as a service or a business? These questions were relevant because KWS became horribly (dis)organised internally, often broke, the staff bloated and demoralised, its human resource management structures haphazard. So when Dr Julius Kipng’etich took over, his became a study in management science, with KWS becoming “more corporate”.
But his critics in the service claim that it is on his watch that that the institution became “top heavy”, poaching escalated to the 1980s levels and discipline and morale within the ranger cadre nosedived. But one common denominator throughout 50 years of independence is that conservation operates with the dearth of knowledge that plagued pioneer game wardens of the 1940s. Research capabilities are still appalling, with most wildlife research stations underfunded, underequipped and poorly staffed. Government has abdicated its responsibility to the extent that foreigners have studied our national parks better than we ever will.
The heated wildlife debates of yore are no more, except for puerile, activist arguments on social media charged with emotion and often bereft of facts or historical grounding. Whereas a Wildlife Conservation and Management Bill lies before Parliament, our ecologists, both in government and academia, haven’t bothered to publicly argue the merits and demerits of this law (it would bore Kenyans, who only debate politics and football, to death anyway).
Fixated as we are with poaching, we still talk about communities “co-existing with wildlife”, the same communities who suffer injuries, deaths and crop damage when wild animals strike. Because we have left the thinking to romantics who think wild animals are “beautiful”, we naively hope that throwing a small eco-tourism project at communities will make them tolerate wildlife.
We are blind to the realities of poverty and population growth, the large herds of cattle that swarm our national parks each dry season, the ravages of climate change, the drying of rivers and loss of wildlife corridors and dispersal areas to pastoralists-turned farmers fed up of suffering human-wildlife conflict while others milk the tourism cow.
Yet KWS is better equipped today than its predecessors ever were. Conservation NGOs, many with nothing to show for their ‘donor support’ to KWS apart from newspaper cuttings, colourful and content-laden websites and never-ending workshops, abound as compared to 1946 when none existed. But our habitats are declining and animals dying—while decision makers worry about poachers. Will we have wildlife in 50 years? Who knows? But as the Government plans to merge KWS and Kenya Forest Service into the Kenya Wildlife and Forest Service, let it not be a case of history repeating itself.