In early 2009, the Born Free/ Wildlife Clubs for Kenya team spent 6 days patrolling the dryland that is the migratory corridor between Tsavo East & West National Parks. Even after having spent countless days on desnaring and anti poaching work in the Athi Kapiti plains nothing quite prepared me for what lay ahead in Tsavo.
While we had to contend with the occasional lion and cheetah in the plains, the first thing we were aware of when we started our foot patrols on Rukinga Ranch (in Tsavo) was the looming threat of elephant and buffalo. With heightened senses and the constant pressure of keeping up with the rangers who had mastered the art of tracking these animals we trudged along in silence. One time, the lead ranger came back running; he’d seen a herd of elephants less than 50 meters ahead of us! Our untrained eyes couldn’t see them through the dense thorny thickets but then we heard the unmistakable breaking of branches characteristic of elephants as they walk through the bush. Luckily the wind was blowing away from the elephants and they therefore did not catch our scents otherwise they would have been greatly agitated. One of us was too afraid to go on so we radioed the vehicle and the rest of us bravely walked on determined not to leave without recovering any snares.
You would think that after collecting nearly 2000 snares this would be easy part, well we quickly learned otherwise. The trees & bushes are so dry they turn a shimmery silver, making snare spotting very difficult. Not only this, but we also discovered that a majority of the poachers do not set snares in the conventional way. Poachers in Tsavo are known to hunt wild animals using bows and poisoned arrows; and then there is the torch & horn device. A poacher will make a powerful torch by combining 6+ batteries to a regular 2-battery torch. He will then attach a bicycle horn to the torch and under the cover of darkness imitate an approaching vehicle. The bright light and noise from the horn will easily startle any animal rendering immobile particular species especially antelope e.g. Dik-dik and Tommy gazelle. Since the poachers often work in pairs, one will startle the animal while the other waits for it to become immobile. He then quickly hacks it to death using a panga (machete) or a knife.
While with experience it becomes easier to predict where poachers will set their snares and thus recover them, poachers who use torch and horn are more difficult to apprehend. They normally work through the night, hiding in the depths of the bush and following animals for miles on end. They often leave behind trails of the night’s activities mainly including animal skins and hooves. In one incidence, this desnaring team recovered the remains of 28 Dik-dik, 1 Impala and what was suspected to be a Gerenuk. The team however did not randomly stumble on the remains; they had followed bicycle tracks first by car then on foot for nearly 10 kilometres hoping to apprehend the poachers.
Other than poaching, the Tsavo ecosystem faces great threat from illegal logging and charcoal burning. Large numbers of men and women enter the ranches everyday illegally cutting down trees for firewood and charcoal. This desnaring team came across 4 freshly dug charcoal kilns and confiscated numerous bags of charcoal. They also apprehended groups of people who they came across while patrolling the bush. One particular group was made up of young women who had taken their children (one- only a few weeks old!) along with them.
Because of the long days that these people spend in the bush making charcoal, many of them also hunt wild animals for food. In one occurrence the team stumbled across a man tending to his charcoal kiln. Although he managed to escape, a few members of the desnaring team chased after him and followed him to his village. Unfortunately they did not get hold of him but recovered numerous bags of charcoal, a bundle of wire snares and the remains of a warthog from his house. By interrogating his family they discovered that this man was a known poacher who had on many occasions, been known to eat wild animals and sometimes share with his neighbours. Since the man got away, the team left the information they had gathered with KWS Tsavo East’s investigation team who promised to follow up and apprehend him.
During the project period, the group also learnt that a KWS team on patrol had arrested a man and his son. They had been apprehended as they left the bush after a night of torch and horn poaching. They had killed an Impala and a Dik-dik.
A few of the people I encountered during that daunting period in Tsavo remain etched in my mind. The 24 year old woman and her 3 week old baby; with the nerve to brave the elephants and take her baby with her, she said she couldn’t sit home and starve to death…The young man and his brother; who pleaded over and over to be set free, claiming that they only burnt charcoal as they had nothing else they could rely on… A man and his son; he couldn’t raise the fees required to take his son to school and was therefore passing on the ‘tricks’ of the only trade he knew would bring food to the table…
It is a tough call for those of us working in Wildlife Conservation. If we are to succeed in our objective to conserve wildlife, we cannot ignore the plight of people struggling to survive...
Elsie Kariuki, Born Free Kenya
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