Rumors of death penalty for poachers never held water, Agence France Presse reports––but Patrick Mwalua’s projects do
VOI, Kenya––Rumors stoked since April 2018 by a Xinhua news agency report that Kenya will soon introduce the death penalty for poachers not only have no legal or legislative foundation, as ANIMALS 24-7 reported in February 2019, but were apparently also wrongly attributed to remarks by Kenya wildlife and tourism minister Najib Balala.
Wrote Mary Kulundu of Agence France Presse on April 12, 2019, “According to Xinhua, Balala made the comments [that started the rumors] during the official launch of northern white rhino commemorative stamps at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, located in Laikipia County on the slopes of Mount Kenya.’
Balala was not even at the event
“That event was organized by the Postal Corporation of Kenya. However, a post on the organization’s Facebook page revealed that Balala was not at the event, and was represented by Patrick Omondi, a former director of research monitoring and strategic initiative at the ministry of tourism.
“I was the one reading the minister’s statement at the meeting,” Omondi told Agence France Presse, “and I can tell you nothing I spoke on behalf of the minister was related to the death penalty for poachers. I think in that meeting one of the local leaders casually said that poachers should be killed, but nothing official came from the ministry.”
Dozens of mainstream media reports and hundreds of thousands of social media posts during the next year attributed the claim of an impending death penalty for poachers to Balala. Most also treated Balala’s alleged statements as a fait accompli.
Poaching cops the headlines
ANIMALS 24-7 was among the few media to report accurately that Kenya had not introduced the death penalty for poachers, but––while also accurately tracing the rumor back to the Xinhua News agency report––failed to discover that Balala had not personally been present at the event where his purported remarks were quoted.
While Balala’s alleged bluster dominated global coverage of Kenyan wildlife issues for slightly more than a year, pea farmer and kidney disease patient Patrick Kilonzo Mwalua, 43, led a grassroots campaign that for two and a half years may have saved more wildlife than all Kenyan anti-poaching campaigns combined, by simply giving hundreds of animals in the drought-stricken Tsavo National Park region frequent deliveries of water.
Elephant and rhino poaching, especially by murderous militias who conduct hit-and-run raids from Somalia, have long made headlines both within Kenya and abroad.
The poachers have fired the ire of western donors for generations. Many donors have generously funded anti-poaching projects, both by charities relaying money and equipment to the Kenya Wildlife Service and by private anti-poaching forces.
Not allowed to actually operate within Kenya, or within most bordering nations, western-backed private anti-poaching armies skulk wherever they can, mostly in places where the bars are open, unlike in Islamicist-dominated Somalia, and where social media communications with U.S. and European funders are relatively easy.
But drought kills the most animals
Reality, however, is that drought has killed far more of Kenya’s iconic wildlife since 1970 than poaching, serious as poaching has at times been.
Elephants, for example, the most aggressively poached species too big to be “bushmeat,” peaked in number in the Tsavo eco-system at about 25,000 circa 1972, midway through a catastrophic four-year drought. Because elephants have a 13-month gestation cycle, many of the young elephants born during the drought were conceived before it began.
Together with elephants born in the last few years before the drought, the babies and their nursing mothers suffered the brunt of it.
Even those young elephants and their mothers who survived the last drought years were so severely weakened as to continue dying in greater numbers after normal rains resumed.
“High juvenile mortality”
The “prolonged phase of high juvenile mortality,” as the University of Nairobi described it, killed at least 5,900 elephants according to the official count. At least 9,000 elephants died, according to the late Dame Daphne Sheldrick, founder of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, who spent almost her entire life closely observing the Tsavo elephant population.
An explosion of poaching followed, cutting the number of elephants in the Tsavo region to barely 5,000 by 1989, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species imposed the global ban on ivory trafficking that remains in effect today.
The Tsavo elephant population had already begun a recovery when the CITES ban took effect. Many observers credited a “shoot-to-kill” anti-poaching policy proclaimed in 1984 by then-Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi.
The “shoot-to-kill” policy was actually put into effect in 1989 by Richard Leakey, who was appointed by Moi that year to head the Kenya Wildlife Service.
130 suspected poachers were shot within the next few years, but some of them turned out to have been unarmed herdsmen carrying nothing more menacing than a stick for driving cattle, goats, or sheep. Others were truck drivers trying to fix their vehicles after breakdowns.
The “shoot-to-kill” policy meanwhile encouraged serious poachers to improve their armament and shoot at wildlife rangers before they were fired upon.
Human rights abuses
Allies of the al Qaida and Hamas militias, including the Somali-based al Shabab militia, remained firmly in control of rhino and elephant poaching in eastern Kenya, and reputedly continue to dominate it, to the extent it continues.
“Killing poachers has not worked very well,” Kenyan investigative journalist Gitau Mbaria told ANIMALS 24-7 in 2014. “Animals continue to be poached with or without shoot-to-kill orders,” while human rights abuses alienate the public.
Poaching toll vs. drought
On the whole, the elephant population of Tsavo, and indeed throughout Kenya, appears to as closely parallel rain and drought cycles as poaching trends.
Elephant poaching reportedly doubled from 2007 to 2008, for instance, when 98 poached elephant carcasses were found. But 109 elephants were found dead in 2009 from effects of drought.
In Amboseli National Park alone, 14 elephants were killed by poachers in 2009, according to Kenya Wildlife Service data, while 99 elephants died from dehydration and thirst.
Sixty-nine elephants and nine rhinos were poached in Kenya in 2017, prompting Najib Balala to boast to the Chinese state news agency Xinhua of having achieved “an 85% reduction in rhino poaching and a 78% reduction in elephant poaching, respectively, compared to when poaching was at its peak in 2013 and 2012.”
Balala’s numbers would indicate that about 460 elephants were poached at peak, and 41 rhinos.
Poaching vs. natural causes
Poaching has reportedly run as high as 70% of total known Kenyan elephant mortality.
However, a study by 10 scientists entitled “Using Poaching Levels and Elephant Distribution to Assess the Conservation Efficacy of Private, Communal and Government Land in Northern Kenya,” published by the peer-reviewed open-access journal PLOS One in September 2015, found in sampling done during 2002, 2008, and 2012 that among 2,403 verified elephant deaths, only 36% could be ascribed to poaching.
Natural causes, including effects of drought, accounted for 33% of the deaths, or almost as many, while 31% were due to unknown causes or non-poaching human/elephant conflict.
Balala pushes “cropping” wildlife
The Xinhua news agency report about the alleged speech that Balala did not make claimed that Balala said, “We have in place the Wildlife Conservation Act, enacted in 2013, which fetches offenders a life sentence or a fine of U.S.$200,000. However, this has not been deterrence enough to curb poaching, hence the proposed stiffer sentence,” i.e. the death penalty.
The Xinhua news agency may have been eager to publicize to a largely Chinese audience that poachers––and presumably also wildlife traffickers––might get the death penalty, because of the widespread belief that elephant and rhino poaching, in particular, are fueled by Asian demand for ivory (more coveted in China) and rhino horn (in most demand in Vietnam).
Balala, meanwhile, was advancing a formal proposal to reintroduce the legal sale of wildlife meats and “cropping,” the Kenyan term for game farming.
Cover for reintroducing trophy hunting
The Balala “cropping” proposal, fast-tracked by a Balala-appointed “Task Force on Wildlife Utilization” in August 24, 2018, is widely seen as a camouflaged attempt to reintroduce trophy hunting, banned in Kenya since 1977.
A “death penalty for poaching” proposal, even if Balala had pushed for it, would likely have been a political non-starter. Kenya has had the death penalty on the books since 1893, including for wildlife-related offenses such as shooting at a ranger, but has not actually carried out a death sentence since 1982.
Far from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital city where Balala holds forth, Patrick Kilonzo Mwalua “has been in animal conservation for 14 years,” wrote Fran Blandy of Agence France Presse in 2017, “having joined conservation efforts right after leaving school. While working with rangers,” as a volunteer, “he noticed a buffalo sleeping at an empty waterhole in the middle of drought, with seemingly no help in sight, and it touched his heart.”
Picked up Mary Jo DiLonardo of the Mother Nature Network, also in 2017, “Mwalua began renting a truck in September 2016 when he noticed the area had become incredibly parched and there was no rain expected for many months. Making the rounds in drought-stricken Tsavo West National Park, carrying 3,170 gallons of water, about four times a week Mwalua makes a 55-mile round trip to fill dried-up watering holes in the park. He estimates that each truckload of water costs about $250 and he delivers about two or three in one day.”
2009 drought killed 40% of Tsavo wildlife
About 40% of the wildlife in Tsavo West died during the 2009 drought, according to an International Fund for Animal Welfare assessment.
“It was so sad. I saw it myself and I felt very bad and I said this should never happen again,” Mwalua told Blandy.
Mwalua is fighting the effects of global warming, and he and his volunteer helpers know it.
“It is a good initiative,” commented Tsavo Heritage Foundation director Jacob Kipongoso, “but how much water can we truck into Tsavo? How many boreholes can you sink?”
Lake could become dust bowl
Wrote Blandy, “The main water source for Tsavo West is Lake Jipe, which straddles the border with Tanzania. According to Kipongoso, its level has dropped 33 feet in a decade.
“At the same rate, in another four or five years it will be a swamp. In another 15 years it will be a dust bowl. That means Tsavo West is dead, finished,” Kipongoso said.
“What all that means,” Kipongoso told Blandy, “is we need now to stop focusing on poaching and start facing the imminent catastrophe which is the mass death of elephants and wildlife from lack of water. The only way you can do that is landscape rehabilitation.”
For Kipongoso, Blandy reported, this means “reverting the land to its state before human activity changed it,” but realistically that is not going to happen.
Even if human activity drawing water away from Tsavo could be stopped entirely, Kenya is a relatively small equatorial nation whose rainfall patterns are heavily influenced by everything else going on around the world. Kenya cannot by itself compensate for the effects of deforestation elsewhere in the southern hemisphere, nor for the effects of carbon emissions in the U.S., Europe, China, and India.
But Mwalua, who now operates as the nonprofit Mwalua Wildlife Trust, formally incorporated in 2018, hopes to buy time for the Tsavo animals through deploying regionally appropriate low-tech fixes.
“Concrete water pans are useful because they minimize water loss through ground seepage,” Mwalua explains on the Mwalua Wildlife Trust web page. “Whether they are filled with our water trucks or with rain water, they are a good source of drinking water for all the animals. Normally, our water pans are shallow, which enables all wildlife access to water, and they are carefully constructed to prevent baby elephants from getting stuck.
“So far, we have created two concrete water pans: one in Lumo Sanctuary and one in Tsavo West National Park. Our plan is to build 20 water pans,” Mwalua says, “15 in Tsavo West and five in privately owned ranches [that are inholders] within Tsavo.
Mud water holes
“Mud water holes are important for storing water during the rainy seasons,” Mwalua continues. “We use excavators to dig the hard ground and make huge waterholes which will be able to store water for at least three to six months after rainfall. We strategically place the water holes so that they are best located to collect naturally flowing water during rains.
“Mud water holes are important not only for animals to drink from,” points out Mwalua, “but also for cooling and parasite management. Many animals will cool off by swimming in the waterholes, or coating themselves in mud, which also smothers parasites like ticks.
“We have dug 20 mud water holes in Tsavo West National Park,. and we would like to make 30 more in the Tsavo ecosystem,” Mwalua says.
International animal charities have tried during past drought cycles to provide water to strategic points within Tsavo East and Tsavo West national parks, but the donated infrastructure has not held up over the years.
“Tsavo has several wells that were drilled in the past,” Mwalua acknowledges, “but power is needed to access the water underground to supply it to various water points. Solar power is a great source of green energy and,” unlike the gasoline-powered pumps installed decades ago, now rusting away, “does not disturb animals with loud noises.
“We have installed two solar pumps in Tsavo West National Park,” Mwalua recounts, “capable of pumping 60,000 liters of water each day. Water is pumped from the wells into a water tank, and water from the tank is then pumped to around six water access points. We hope to install six more solar pumps in the coming years.
“As part of our continuing effort to create sustainable water solutions for animals,” Mwalua finishes, “we will be working to construct water tanks that can store water at various points around the park. These tanks will be filled either by well water or trucks, so in times of need water will be readily available. By planning ahead, there will be less pressure to fulfill the water needs of animals with only a truck, and tanks will provide the opportunity to have water access points in more remote areas in the park that could not be part of a regular truck delivery route.”
Awaiting kidney transplant
Mwalua has already accomplished as much as he has, and has developed his ambitious plans, while on dialysis since 2014.
Mwalua’s brother has volunteered to donate a kidney, and friends are raising funds for a kidney transplant, through a separate Facebook account. The transplant is to be done at reduced cost in India––but first Mwalua must recover from knee surgery necessitated by a recent injury, he told ANIMALS 24-7.
“I have some people helping me in my organization, and will soon post what is happening on the ground,” Mwalua said.