Turning African Wildlife Into Moneymakers Rather Than Dinner

A grassroots group in Kenya is rescuing zebras and giraffes from poachers’ snares and helping communities profit from preserving animals.

(Photo: C. Sappa/Getty Images)

Apr 13, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Rachel Cernansky is a freelance journalist based in Denver, Colorado.

On a hot, dusty March day in central Kenya, everyone in the car has their eyes peeled, looking for animals—zebras, giraffes, warthogs—that are showing a limp or another sign of distress. It doesn’t take long to find them. The team from the Nairobi-based Africa Network for Animal Welfare spots four snared animals in the first 10 minutes of the drive around this government-owned land. Together with staff from Kenya Wildlife Service, the government agency in charge of wildlife protection, the ANAW staff zero in on their target, a zebra with a snare wrapped around the bottom of its left hind leg.

After a high-speed chase, the wildlife service vehicle gets close enough for the veterinarian to dart the zebra. With the animal now on the ground and unconscious, KWS staff cover its eyes and get to work. They cut the metal wire of the snare and pour all sorts of solutions on the wound, a bracelet of blood and broken flesh around the zebra’s ankle. Though the wound appears deep and painful, Catherine Chumo, ANAW’s communications officer, says it’s nothing compared with most of the snare wounds they see.

That’s not hard to believe. Earlier that morning, the car had stopped to inspect remnants of a hippo carcass and found snare wire around what had been the animal’s neck. Dennis Makau, ANAW’s head of animal welfare, guesses the catch, probably less than a month earlier, brought a lot of people out to celebrate, as hippo meat is considered a delicacy.

ANAW aims to reduce poaching in this part of Kenya, a grasslands area near the famous flamingo-covered Lake Naivasha. The illegal killing of elephants and rhinos for their tusks and horns attracts the most attention, but poachers also target smaller animals for bush meat, both to eat locally and to sell. And because they leave snares in the field and return days later to see what they’ve caught, the traps catch everything from zebras to farmers’ cattle.

Makau and the ANAW team visit sites like this one to collect snares and rescue snared animals. Since 2007, according to Chumo, the organization has removed 4,996 snares and rescued 49 animals.

Key to the organization’s fight against poaching, though, is its work with the communities living near poaching hot spots. Staffers try to build relationships with residents to raise awareness of the value of wildlife and work with them to find alternative sources of income to reduce the economic allure of poaching. For instance, staffers give the snare wire to local boys, who make and sell art and train villagers in brick-making and beekeeping.

ANAW is also working with government agencies and law enforcement to boost lax enforcement actions against poachers.

The group has focused some of its recent work in Taita, an area near the coast that’s known for poaching—and, at times, for violence between poachers and government officials.

“We’re working toward a more peaceful existence in that area,” Makau said. “Because automatically when there’s a problem with humans, it affects animals.”

The organization has been working with two communities in Taita to protect wildlife habitats and, crucially, wildlife migration routes by helping local landowners develop skills in natural resource planning and landscape conservation. That includes transforming community ranches into community-based wildlife conservancies. ANAW raises money to cover the initial operational costs and to employ young people to serve as “wildlife guardians.”

“They patrol the land—to make sure poaching does not take place and the migratory routes are kept open,” said Josphat Ngonyo, ANAW’s executive director. “It’s a way of giving them a job, but it’s also the ownership. Communities feel they are benefiting from it.”

“Human-wildlife conflict comes as a result of people constructing fences or building or even farming along the migratory corridors,” Ngonyo added. “As animals are passing, they come and eat the crops and they kill people—because when animals feel cornered or threatened, then they attack. By leaving the migratory corridors open, then the animals will feel safe.”

Another potential future benefit: Communities can charge entrance fees for wildlife viewing.

Ngonyo says the strategy is working, in Taita and around the country. The KWS veterinarian in Naivasha, who asked not to be identified as he had not received permission to talk to a reporter, agreed. “Before, we would find six snares per day. Now, we average one a day,” he said after darting his last zebra for the day.

He works with ANAW regularly on animal rescue trips like this one and said the community outreach work has been critical to that decline. “Within Kenya, this is the notorious place for poachers,” he said. “We have to incorporate the locals, and we now have good rapport with communities.”

Community-based conservation has produced some promising successes in countries across Africa and around the world. In a study released last year, researchers in Southeast Asia reported that community outreach had driven down poaching rates to the point where the populations of some animals had begun to recover.

ANAW’s work is designed to target both current poachers as well as potential future ones.

“This is quite key, because snares are indiscriminate,” said Ngonyo. “They do not only catch the animals that the poacher intended to catch, but they catch non-target animals. So elephants get caught, lions, rhinos, and other animals. That’s why as an organization we are focused on de-snaring and finding alternative sources of income. To save animals from an agonizing death, and also to ensure we have a future with animals in the generations to come.”