Good fences make safe species

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

African coun­tries are of­ten crit­i­cised for fail­ing to meet their en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges. Observers of­ten cite loss of habi­tat in the face of pop­u­la­tion growth, land degra­da­tion, and in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion. And then there is the most fre­quent charge of all: that an in­crease in poach­ing is en­dan­ger­ing species such as ele­phants and rhi­nos.

In Kenya, how­ever, an in­no­va­tive and ex­ten­sive con­ser­va­tion pro­ject is un­der­way. Be­gun in the Aber­dare moun­tains in cen­tral Kenya, “Rhino Ark,” orig­i­nally con­ceived to pro­tect the highly en­dan­gered black rhino from the rav­ages of poach­ers, is sup­ported by the very peo­ple who might have re­sisted it: the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties in some of the coun­try’s most pro­duc­tive farm­ing ar­eas.

In 1988, con­ser­va­tion­ists de­cided to fi­nance and build an elec­tri­fied fence to pro­tect an area of the Aber­dare Na­tional Park bor­der­ing small­holder farms. The fence was de­signed to pre­vent in­tru­sion from the hu­man pop­u­la­tion and degra­da­tion of the park’s habi­tat. But it also pro­tected the farm­ers, whose crops were regularly be­ing de­stroyed by ma­raud­ing ele­phant and other wildlife. Lo­cal farm­ers wel­comed the ini­tia­tive, which in­flu­enced the de­ci­sion to ex­pand the fence to sur­round the perime­ter of the en­tire Aber­dare range.

The Aber­dare Moun­tains, en­com­pass­ing 2,000 square kilo­me­tres of in­dige­nous for­est and vi­tal wa­ter catch­ment ar­eas, as well as a na­tional park, are vi­tal to Kenya. Four of the coun­try’s largest rivers, flow­ing north, west, east and south, be­gin there, pro­vid­ing wa­ter and power to seven ma­jor towns, in­clud­ing the cap­i­tal, Nairobi. On the moun­tains’ lower slopes, four mil­lion farm­ers ben­e­fit from rich soil and plen­ti­ful rain­fall. In the foothills and high slopes, 30% of Kenya’s tea and 70% of its cof­fee are pro­duced.

For 21 years, the fence around the Aber­dares was painstak­ingly built, sup­ported mainly by Kenya’s cor­po­rate sec­tor, in­di­vid­ual donors, and in­no­va­tive fundrais­ing ex­er­cises such as the Rhino Charge, an off-road mo­tor event that has cap­tured the Kenyan public’s imag­i­na­tion and an­nu­ally raises more than $1 mil­lion. But, by the time the fully elec­tri­fied fence was com­pleted, in 2009, the gov­ern­ment, un­der then-Pres­i­dent Mwai Kibaki, had be­come an es­sen­tial part­ner, with the Kenya Wildlife Ser­vice (KWS) and the Kenya For­est Ser­vice (KFS) deeply in­volved in the pro­ject.

With Kenyan gov­ern­ment back­ing, Rhino Ark has been able to turn its at­ten­tion to other forested but de­graded ar­eas – such as Mount Eburu in the Mau Forests Com­plex, over­look­ing Lake Naivasha, and Mount Kenya, a World Her­itage Site that has been heav­ily af­fected by hu­man-wildlife con­flicts. The 45-km Mount Eburu fence was com­pleted last year. The Mount Kenya fence, at 450 kms, will be longer than the Aber­dares’ pro­ject and is now mak­ing rapid progress, with 80 kms com­pleted.

Of course, build­ing a fence is just the be­gin­ning. Fences must be man­aged and main­tained (some of the orig­i­nal fence posts in the Aber­dares, for ex­am­ple, have had to be re­placed), wildlife cor­ri­dors must be de­vel­oped, and lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties re­quire sup­port. All ar­eas are kept un­der sur­veil­lance by air and foot pa­trols along the fence line – a con­stant mon­i­tor­ing process with con­sid­er­able cost im­pli­ca­tions.

The ben­e­fits, how­ever, are sig­nif­i­cant. The fences keep the author­i­ties fully alert to any in­ci­dents of poach­ing – par­tic­u­larly of ele­phant, rhino, and ex­cep­tion­ally rare species such as the Moun­tain Bongo an­te­lope, which now ex­ist only in the Aber­dares, Mount Kenya, and the Mau Forests Com­plex, in­clud­ing Mount Eburu.

Lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties are in­volved in all ar­eas of fence and for­est main­te­nance. In ef­fect, they are the guardians of the fences, keep­ing them clear of veg­e­ta­tion and re­pair­ing dam­age caused by wildlife and other fac­tors – and learn­ing new skills in the process.

The longer-term goal is the pro­tec­tion of these crit­i­cal forests in per­pe­tu­ity. To achieve this, en­dow­ment funds are be­ing es­tab­lished as public-pri­vate part­ner­ships, bring­ing to­gether the Rhino Ark, the KWS and the KFS, and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. So-called trust deeds, set up lo­cally, will man­age these funds, which will even­tu­ally pay for the fences’ main­te­nance. The Aber­dare Trust Deed be­came ef­fec­tive last Oc­to­ber.

The re­gion’s hard-work­ing farm­ers can now see added value in co-ex­ist­ing with the fence. Since the com­ple­tion of the Aber­dares fence, the value of lo­cal farm­ers’ land has quadru­pled. They can work their fields in peace for the first time in more than a cen­tury, their chil­dren can walk to and from school with­out fear of be­ing at­tacked by wild an­i­mals, and con­ser­va­tion is now part of the cur­ricu­lum. The main les­son is straight­for­ward: Good fences are good for ev­ery­one.

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