Kenya Land Conservation Updates

Tsavo, an ecosystem under threat

Cattle at a group ranch in Tsavo East. Picture by Rupi Mangat

Cattle at a group ranch in Tsavo East. Picture by Rupi Mangat 


The Tsavo is timeless. It is one of Kenya’s most stunning national parks, unrivaled in its diversity of landscapes and wildlife.

“Tsavo West is my favourite park,” says Jamal Din, who has operated a petrol station for close to 20 years by the park gate at Mtito Andei, the half way town between Mombasa and Nairobi.

“That’s because, besides living next to the park, it’s the only place you can see the Big Five, fresh water springs, thorn scrub, lava caves, hills and lakes,” he says.

For administrative purposes, Tsavo is divided into two parts — Tsavo East (9,065 square kilometres) and Tsavo West (11,747 sq km) — and opened in April 1948.

The two make Tsavo Kenya’s largest national park at 20,812 square kilometres — almost the size of Rwanda (26,338 sq km) or half the size of Switzerland (41,285 sq km).

The story of Tsavo is well documented, starting with the construction of the Uganda Railway between 1896 and 1901 from Mombasa to Kisumu.

The Man Eaters of Tsavo, a book by John Henry Patterson, written in 1907 about the infamous, maneless lions that devoured Asians and Africans working on the railway.

Remnants of the two lions are currently exhibited at the Chicago Museum of Natural History. Later, Daphne Sheldrick chronicled the park in The Tsavo Story, published in 1973. It offers many insights into the park’s beginnings.

Tsavo’s early years were traumatic, marked by a drought that wiped out large herds of elephants and rhinos. Before the park could recover, gangs of armed poachers moved in.

From the 1970s to the mid 1990s, animals in Tsavo and other parks in Kenya were killed on an unprecedented scale. More than 90 per cent of the rhino and elephant population was wiped out in an era of mismanagement and corruption. The illegal trade was fuelled by the high prices offered for “wild gold” — ivory tusks and rhino horns — owing to high demand in the Far East and petro-dollars from the newly rich Middle-East states.

It was not until the 1990s that the carnage was brought under control, with the world lobbying for protection of the mega herbivores and other animals.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) placed the elephant and the rhino under Appendix 1 — meaning no trade in the animals or their related products is allowed.

In 1989, Kenya burned 12 tonnes of ivory worth $1 million to send a strong message on its determination to curb the trade.

The government also formed the Kenya Wildlife Service to manage all national parks and reserves.
Finally, after years of neglect, poor infrastructure and terrible working conditions for wardens and rangers, Kenya’s national parks started being well managed.

Today, Tsavo is one of the last wildernesses of its size on earth, with a “mind-boggling biodiversity.” This phrase was coined in the 1990s after the Earth Summit of 1992 in Rio de Janeiro.

Biodiversity takes in the totality of life on earth — the ecosystem, the species and the genes. And 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity.

But managing Tsavo and other parks is not any easier today. The threats are ever present and diverse.

Contemporary Tsavo

At first glance, a park that is almost 21,000 sq km may seem big enough for all its flora and fauna. But when you compare that with Kenya’s total area of 580,367 sq km, the land is less than three per cent.

The population dynamics against which the two Tsavos were created in the 1940s have also changed dramatically. In the 1940s, the human population of Kenya was about one million, compared with today’s 40 million.

The land bordering the park was not as populated as it is today and there was less human-wildlife conflict. Poaching did happen then, but not to a scale that spelt doom. Overpopulation and poverty were not so rampant. Trade in arms to strife-torn states like Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Ethiopia and northern Uganda was not a big issue. Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and Al Shabaab did not exist.

Climate change and global warming were unheard of. The snow on Mt Kilimanjaro and the forests draping the Chyulus were intact, supplying water to thousands of people downstream and keeping the water table, the springs and the rivers functioning.

Meat hunted for the pot was not to the scale of today’s bushmeat trade, which is as worrying as poaching. Compounded, the stress on Tsavo’s ecosystem is enormous, requiring a multi-dimensional approach from the park administrators.

Dan Woodley, the senior warden at Tsavo, is no stranger to parks in Kenya. His father, Bongo Woodley, was in the first group of wardens in the newly established national parks in the 1940s. Dan and Bongo followed in their father’s footsteps. I met the two brothers at Kamboyo station, facing Ngulia escarpment.

Dan had just returned from an aerial patrol of the park, since much of it is inaccessible by road. He told me of the notoriously porous borders between Kenya and Tanzania (the boundary between Tsavo and Tanzania is 150km long).

When “Kenyan” elephants, rhinos and other wildlife stray into Tanzania, there is little protection for them as the country allows sport-hunting.

Conflicting policies offer little help to the wildlife.

There has been concern about poaching since the beginning of 2010. Four black rhinos have been killed so far. It is a big loss for a species that is yet to recover from the mass killings of the 1970s-90s, which reduced the rhino population of 6,000 to less than 50.

Tsavo’s rhino population has now increased to 60 in the Ngulia sanctuary, and an extra 10 were released recently into the greater park.

The story is the same with the elephants. Before the 1970s, there were about 36,000 elephants. The drought killed 5,900 while poachers massacred almost 90 per cent of the population, leaving only 6,000.

Over the past one year, a number of elephants have been killed and their tusks chopped off.

“Dead elephants fall under three categories — those that died of natural causes and still have their tusks; those that have their tusks and notable spear wounds (indicating a human-wildlife conflict) and those that have their tusks missing — a clear case of poaching,” said Dan.

“Previously, the tusks were not hacked off, indicating human-wildlife conflict. But now the tusks are being severed and smuggled out of the country,” he added.

Like many experts, he blames the conflicting policies on wildlife in other countries.

Futuristic Fortunes

How the Tsavo ecosystem is handled depends on visionary policies. Wildlife alone cannot pay for all social needs.

Private ranches and conservancies surrounding the park are one way to ease the pressure and allow wildlife to move safely in and out of the park.

Dan Woodley, the senior warden at Tsavo, says: “KWS helps in community projects bordering the parks to cater for social needs like schools, dispensaries, water and cattle dips and helps in income-generation projects like farming in aloe and harvesting honey from beehives.

“In traditional economics, eco-services provided by natural resources are not part of the equation.

“But today, environmental economics is becoming more appreciated. Industries at the coast should be taxed for the eco-services that the Chyulus provide. This money can then be channeled directly into the conservation of the Chyulus.”

It’s been done in other countries like Brazil. Rio de Janeiro is one of the busiest ports in the world.

For centuries, it’s been a port of call to resupply ships with water and food, and in days gone by, slaves. “150 years ago, the minister for environment in Portugal (Brazil was Portuguese territory) declared coffee plantations be destroyed and replaced by forests,” narrates the game warden.

It took 21 years to replant 127,000 acres on the hills. “The forests now supply more than 70 percent of Rio’s 12 million people with water. It can be done,” says Dan.

Forest Fact

When a park is laid bare, its retention capability is reduced because the root system is destroyed, leading to a
cycle of soil erosion and water runoff

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