Friday, February 17, 2012

Kenya Diaries: Day 9 - Removing Poachers' Snares

On the ninth day of my trip, I woke up in my tent on the grounds of an outpost of the Kenya Wildlife Service. I was with the Africa Network for Animal Welfare on a three-day trip to remove poacher's snares. The second day was the most intense of the three.

Our camp

A weaver bird

A common fiscal

My Kenyan colleagues enjoyed a breakfast of white bread with margarine and black tea with lots of milk and sugar that I did not care to partake in. They kindly sliced me a fresh mango and filled my bag with more fresh fruit for the road.

Before we set off for the day, we had to get water. This area apparently used to have water piped to it, but there was a dispute between two different tribes and a corporation, and one of the tribes cut the pipe so that water no longer flows here. Water now costs 30 Kenyan shillings (about $.40) for 20 liters (5.28 gallons). We were lucky that we would be transporting the heavy containers of water in our car and not via bicycle or on foot like many of the locals must do.

Getting water

Enormous water tanks

In the nearby village, Konza, where we were getting water.

Transporting water by motorbike

With our water back at our camp so Paul could make us lunch, we - together with two heavily armed Kenya Wildlife Service rangers - got in the car and set off for the day. We were returning to an area we had passed the day before where one of the locals told us he found some poacher's snares.

Kenyans, by and large, do not own guns. They are not allowed. Some smuggle them in from Somalia, but the poachers were dealing with were typically poor and lacked resources. "Shifters," Somali poachers who kill elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns, tend to have guns, but we were not in an area with rhinos or elephants.

The poachers around this area use simple wire snares designed to catch an animal around the neck. As the animal tries to pull free, the snare tightens and the animal is strangled. The dry season - now - is the high poaching season because farmers are not busy in their fields and lack means of producing food or generating income, and animals are on the move, looking for water from the few remaining sources. Thus, the poachers know where the animals are going for water and which routes they use to get there.

There are also cattle ranches in the area, and they use barbed wire fences to separate paddocks of cattle pasture that doubles as wildlife habitat. The poachers use the fences, placing their snares where the animals go through the fence. Since ANAW began its patrols, in which its team removes the snares, poachers shifted tactics, placing snares in the bush. ANAW now finds fewer snares and fewer rotting carcasses. A poacher typically only needs to kill one animal to make money, and if they kill five instead of one, they leave four to rot. ANAW estimates that five percent of snares catch an animal on any given day.

During our drive we saw a hartebeest, tons of zebras, and more.

Hartebeest, also known as a Kongoni

Once we arrived, around 8:30am, we set out to look for snares. As we trekked through the bush, I was not quite sure exactly what we were looking for. I tried to follow the leader of our team, Isaac. But soon found myself instead following Johnson ("The Hawk") whose hawklike vision can spot a snare anywhere. For the first few hours, we found animal remains, but not snares.

Isaac and a KWS ranger looking at a piece of animal hide. They decided it was from a cow.

Thorny trees and tall grasses in the bush

Examining some animal remains

There were several pastoralists grazing their herds in this area. The KWS ranger I was walking with told me that we would not find snares here because the pastoralists remove them. The snares harm their cows and goats too. However, we had picked up a man named Peter that Isaac met the day before, and Peter promised to lead us to the area where he had found snares.

Isaac talks to a pastoralist

At a quarter to eleven, after more than three hours of hiking through the bush, Johnson found the first snare. In fact, he found several all at once.

Johnson with a snare or two or three

Then we found the culprit. As she saw us coming, a woman dropped the snare she was setting in a tree and ran away. Somehow it never occurred to me before then that a poacher might be a woman.

Johnson removes the woman's snare

Looking for snares

The KWS ranger with a hartebeest skull

Isaac with a snare he removed

My colleagues explained to me that we were paying special attention to laggas - seasonal rivers that have run dry but have green vegetation year round. The animals frequent these areas for grazing, so the poachers frequent them for poaching.

A dry lagga

Johnson with a KWS ranger

Can you see the snare on the fence? Neither could I. But Johnson's hawklike vision spotted it easily, and he removed it.

A close up of the snare on the fence.

Johnson removes it.

Still looking for snares...

I saw what I thought must be a skull in a tree, and Johnson saw it too. He picked it up and immediately identified it as a warthog skull. I did not see how he could tell until he held it up for me. He estimated it died two months ago, and he assured me it was definitely killed by a poacher.

Johnson holding the warthog skull.

Warthog skull

The KWS ranger finds a snare

You can't see his face but take my word for it: Ladies, KWS rangers are REALLY HOT.

The KWS ranger who accompanied us told me it was his first time going desnaring, but rangers generally remove any snares they find. He told me about some experiences he has had with wildlife, telling me that he has walked right in front of lions at close range and they don't attack unless you run and provoke their chase instinct. However, he's afraid of snakes. And yes, there are black mambas in this area. Anywhere with a lot of stones to hide under has snakes, he said.

After walking for hours and only seeing dry riverbeds, I understood how hard it was for animals to find water. At last, we came upon a pond. A man was there with his four dogs.

Kiilu the dog cools off

At long last, maybe around 1pm, we were done. My body was certainly done. We piled into the car with a total of 13 snares and learned that the KWS warden wanted to meet with Isaac. ANAW partners with KWS, so this was not terribly unusual. We headed into the town of Machakos to meet with her even though every member of the team was exhausted, dirty, and hungry. While we waited for Isaac to speak to the warden, we watched several KWS rangers laboriously fill a tank of water one bucket at a time using a garden hose. The tank was in the back of their pickup truck and they would bring it to their outpost, which did not have another source of water. We really take water for granted in the U.S.

KWS rangers with their full tank of water

So why did the warden want to see Isaac? Well, KWS has their hands full at the moment due to a government project to build a "Technopolis" out in the middle of nowhere, not far from Machakos. The government erected a huge fence around some 2000 acres of wilderness, trapping a ton of wild animals inside. They left a gap in the fence so the animals could escape, but the animals are trying their usual migration routes and finding themselves blocked.

We saw gazelles and other animals inside the fence that morning, and a hartebeest was trying to figure out how to get in. Some animal lovers have put plastic bottles on the fence to make it more visible to the animals, who might run into it and become injured. KWS has been providing the animals inside the fence with water because there is none, and they worry about the trapped giraffes because there is a lack of suitable food within the enclosed area. The day before, KWS held a big meeting about this issue, and now they were ready to drive all of the animals out of the enclosed area. The only thing they were waiting for was the fencing company, because they wanted to close up the gap in the fence as soon as the animals were out.

The sign for the "ICT Technopolis"

In the meantime, there are tons of radio ads to attract investors, calling them to "Konza City" (seriously? Konza at present is a tiny little ramshackle village and an empty area of thirsty animals surrounded by a fence) because it is destined to be "Africa's Silicon Savannah." This is an area so rich in wildlife and it will be turned into an office park and suburban sprawl.

That night, after a delicious dinner of ugali, some kind of greens (kale or spinach), and beef stew for everyone except me, we packed up the car with a laptop and a generator and went into the central square of Konza. We set up a screen by hanging a white sheet on a wall outside a butcher shop, and then hooked the laptop and a projector to the generator to show a film. After a few funny movie clips, the ANAW group introduced themselves and began a locally filmed Swahili movie about bushmeat and poaching. I thought it might be hard to get residents to turn out for a film on wildlife conservation, but I was wrong. In a rural town where few people have TV or movies, anything projected on a screen is rather interesting. They stayed for the whole film and laughed at the funny parts. The ANAW group was pleased with their reaction to the film - even if it wouldn't necessarily end all poaching by residents of Konza.

What struck me is that the residents of this community live side by side with the wildlife but do not benefit from it. Communities that live near wild animals are the ones who are attacked by them or lose their crops and livestock to them. Fortunately, here there is nothing more fierce than a hyena, unless you count the snakes. But others in Kenya make millions from tourism. The wildlife is worth an awful lot of money to Kenyans, but not to the people of Konza. The poachers are just taking their little cut of the value of this wildlife in the only way they know how, and we are asking them not to. I don't agree with poaching of course, but I found the inequality striking. How could the people of Konza benefit from tourism so that the animals are more valuable to them alive than dead?

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