KWS surrenders to State, NGOs its mandate to secure game

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Twenty five years ago wildlife conservationists swayed mandarins and senior politicians to raze ivory stockpiles – to rally the world round the Elephant and the Rhino. President Daniel arap Moi turned 60 tonnes of ivory into ash, in an exceptional move that attracted billions of shillings – a dazzling first for the conservation world.

The world, in an assembly now famously known as CITES, moved with dizzying speed to slap a ban on trans-border commerce in ivory. It funneled billions into Kenya. As a result, an armada of international lobbyists sprung up ostensibly to safeguard the last vestiges of Kenya’s key heritage. And they tapped into the philanthropic taps that had unlocked in Europe and America.

But, in hindsight, the battle for the Elephant and the Rhino was never won.  The two species – on whose shoulders lie Kenya’s Sh180 billion tourism industry – still face a vicious enemy; more sophisticated and complex than the poacher of the 1980/90s. Reason? Kenya’s wildlife conservation strategy has been ad hoc, clumsy, greed-driven, and off-target. It is the vice-like grip of particular individuals. It has failed to break away from the 1989 narrative – dependence on Western benevolence. 

The wildlife custodian, Kenya Wildlife Service KWS), is unable to give direction and order to the industry, and appears to succumb to its own inadequacies. Subsequently, selfish lobbyists as well as the government (via Ministry of Natural Resources) have easily seized KWS’s mandate. Local conservationists (so-called Naivasha and Laikipia gangs) hog international media glitz and raise billions of dollars ostensibly for conservation while the parent Ministry of Environment, Water and Natural Resources runs the show at KWS, including hiring and firing managers and wardens. 

KWS, the organization paleontologist Richard Leakey built in his own image and likeness, is unable to move out of his shadow. “A good number of the bosses in the parent Ministry worked under him and feel KWS should be run by his understudy,” says a former head of KWS. 

“These people are a major headache to (Acting director William Kibet) Kiprono. They have no faith in him.”

It is not clear whether Ministry’s top officials, Principal Secretary Richard Lesiyampe, Peter Leitoro (reforms and merger), Gideon Gathara (deputy PS, conservation), Stephen Manegene (Director of Wildlife), and Hewson Kibugi (Director of Forests), all who previously worked at KWS, are remotely influencing the organisation’s decisions and operations. But this writer attended a news conference at KWS  last March where Lesiyampe spelt a fleet of plans that, he said, were intended at streamlining operations at KWS. Among them was the establishment of an inter-agency elite anti-poaching squad, a task-force on wildlife security (so-called Nehemiah Rotich committee), the hiring of 600 wardens and the suspension of three deputy directors. 

For close to 27 months now, Kiprono has operated in an acting capacity without any indication as to when he will be confirmed. He is vulnerable, exposed. He is a lame duck, for, owing to his status, he can hardly make substantive decisions affecting the organisation. Almost all key decisions are made at the headquarters of the parent Ministry.

But for mandarins, the impasse is strategic. The Government and conservationists are in a tussle as with whom to replace Kiprono. Lobbyists, supported by of donors, appear to front Leakey’s protégé Paula Kahumbu but the State is jittery over the palaentologist’s (and by extension donors’) throttlehold on the industry.

That donors and international lobbyists have a soft spot for Leakey and Ms Kahumbu s hardly in dispute. Their outfit, Wildlife Direct, has been doing so well in Europe and America. It grabs global news headlines at will. Whereas it says on its website that it’s headquartered in Kenya, donations (cheques) go to its branch, WildlifeDirect Inc, in Washington, US. 

(WildlifeDirect is the brainchild of Leakey and Harold Wackman, former World Bank chief in Kenya. Other directors include TV anchor Julie Gichuru, Scott Asen, TV producer Katherine Carpenter, Patrick Walsh,  Ali Daud Mohamed, Jacqueline Russell, lawyer Philip Murgor, Bruce Ludwig, and Houghton Irungu (formerly of World Vision). Writer and filmmaker John Hemingway is the chair. First Lady Margaret Kenyatta is the patron)

Ms Kahumbu, awarded the Order of the Grand Warrior of Kenya in December 2013, met First Lady at State House not very long ago. Thus, her closeness to Ms Kenyatta further complicates the impasse at KWS Langata headquarters. Obviously a section of KWS staff is convinced that forces allied to Dr Leakey have placed in motion a series of events that will eventually see an official of WildlifeDirect take over the running of the organisation. 

The feeling is that either Leakey or his protégé is angling for the position of director general or chairperson of the body resulting from the proposed merger of KWS, Kenya Forest Services, Nyayo Tea Zone, and Water Towers Authority. “One of them (WildlifeDirect officials) will either be the chair or director general,” says a top lobbyist. (KWS, with its 4,200-member, will be the flagship agency)

That the Ministry has overrun KWS is hardly a secret. Parent Ministry sent home a number of KWS officials: Julius Kimani (deputy director, Security), William Waweru (deputy director, Administration), Tom Sipul (deputy director, Corporate Services), Wesley Isanda (Head, Finance), Christopher Oludhe (Acting, HSCM). A statement by Kiprono said “they proceeded” on leave and that the move followed “series of meetings between KWS management and parent ministry and a further Board meeting held today”. 

“There’s feeling that the Ministry “remote-controls” KWS,” according to a conservationist with an international organization that has been supporting KWS activities.

At one time 32 staff members were sent on leave by the Board but recalled following the interjection of a senior fellow in the Ministry, according to sources.

 

There are fears within KWS that the continued killing of elephants is orchestrated, to pass message that KWS leadership is hardly in a position to handle the spate of poaching. Perhaps it explains why the killings have been in the most secured parks (Nairobi and Nakuru) and private ranches.

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