Mountain Rangers at Work on Mount Kenya December 2020

With support from the IUCN Save our Species, cofounded by the European Union the Joint Wildlife Protection Team has been active on the eastern side of Mount Kenya for six months deterring and decreasing illegal activities, preventing poaching and working with local people to increase awareness of the importance of protecting the mountain ecosystem for all those who depend on it.

Every day offers a different challenge as a mountain ranger. Late at night, you can be called to a human-wildlife conflict – elephants have moved into farmland and are destroying a farmer’s whole annual crop and income in one meal. The community are enraged carrying burning flares, and only careful diplomacy calms the situation and your team start moving the herd back into the forest.

The next day you are patrolling deep into the thick undergrowth, searching for a known indigenous timber logger who has been reported to be active in the area, picking up snares are you go. Then you are planting trees, working with the rest of the Mount Kenya Trust team, to reforest large areas of cleared forest land. After resting in camp, you head out to speak to informers who have reports of an elephant poaching gang or charcoal burners. There is never a dull moment.

The eight-strong Joint Wildlife Protection Team were set up in 2008 to protect and preserve the Mt Kenya ecosystem. Alongside two Kenya Wildlife Service rangers, the team are based on the north-east of the mountain, with a 4×4 Landcruiser to move the team deep into the forest and respond rapidly at short notice.

The team is led by Edwin Kinyanjui, a highly experienced mountain ranger, who is a KWS Honorary Warden and the recipient of a Disney Conservation Hero Award. Edwin has always loved wilderness areas and grew up on the boundary of Mt. Kenya defending his crops against wildlife. When the invasive damage grew too intense, the community knew they had to come up with a long term solution and tried bee-hives, chilli-powder and grease rope fences until they finally partnered with the European Union in 2002 to erect an electric fence. The children could suddenly go to school safely and people started appreciating the wildlife because it was not invading. He then took on the role of research assistant for a PhD student and it was this that turned his world upside down, changing his wildlife perspective forever. Edwin believes in treating the issue not the symptoms and loves his work as head of the community scout team. An interview with Edwin is show below:

Human wildlife conflict is something you know a lot about. How do you suggest dealing with it?
It sometimes takes a full understanding of the animals before you begin to protect them but people will not protect if they are hungry, do not have a house or cannot send their children to school. These, then, are the first points of focus. They though must not deforest all the area around them as it leaves the wildlife hungry and dangerous.

If you could solve two issues right away what would it be?
Wildlife corridors: if we had preserved these throughout all our wild places in Kenya, we would have prevented 1001 problems. Snares: they are so horrible to the animals and create so much misery. What do you spend your days patrolling for? Snare foot patrols, illegal logging, cannabis farms, charcoal production, water obstructions, bushmeat hunting with dogs and lately fighting the fires in the Mt. Kenya National Park.

How closely linked is community engagement and conservation?
It is so closely linked and conservation will never be successful without community engagement. It is about educating about better livelihoods, gathering intelligence, sponsoring new ideas dreamt up by the community members themselves and finally really creating an understanding of the long term impacts of deforestation and backing water storage methods.

Why do you conserve?
I have seen so many young people wanting to leave Kenya to find a better life but when I look around and see what we have I realise we have everything we need. To make full use of it, I know that everything goes back to conservation and the management of our resources.

The current threat level to the mountain was highlighted in a recently completed 2020 report by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Kenya Wildlife Service. Illegal threats increased by 51% per cent since 2016. There may well be a link between the larger spread of elephants and larger spread of illegal activities in 2020 (compared to 2016). Illegal logging multiplied 3.5-fold and livestock numbers increased by 75 per cent. Meat poaching was found to be more spread and in the same areas where logging increased. Elephant distribution was more spread than in the same season in 2016 which may indicate some competition for grazing with livestock. Livestock negatively affects the mountains carrying capacity to sustain its wildlife grazers. It is predicted that this trend has continued if not worsened over 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic hardships on the Kenyan economy as a whole.

The Mount Kenya Forest Reserve/National Reserve and National Park are also an Important Bird Area (IBA) with 53 out of Kenya’s 67 African highland biome species and six of the eight species that make up Kenyan mountains endemic bird area. The avifauna is reasonably well known but there is little information on the seasonality, distribution and habitat requirements of some of the threatened species. Forest wildlife includes but is not limited to Elephant, Mountain Bongo, Leopard, Cape Clawless Otter, Cape Buffalo, Bushbuck, Black-Fronted Duiker, Suni, Black and White Colobus and Sykes monkey. Black rhino have become extinct. Mount Kenya is home to approximately 2,500 African elephants, along with countless more that migrate annually to the green lush slopes of the mountain in the drier seasons, using the Mt Kenya Elephant Corridor. Numbers within the elephant populations in the Mountain Conservation Area consist of the Mt Kenya sub-population, estimated at 2,500 elephants by Vanleeuwe, in 2020, the Aberdares sub-population estimated at approx. 3,570 elephants by Vanleeuwe 2017 and a total of 8,021 elephants in the Laikipia-Samburu-Meru-Marsabit ecosystem.

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