Surveying Kenya’s climate of change

Heavily armed park ranger Samson looks for poachers in Lake Nakuru National Park. Photo: Susan Schulman

We move slowly and carefully, ducking under the low bushes in Kenya’s Lake Nakuru National Park. The brush is crisp from drought and each step crackles underfoot like a firecracker. Samson, the towering park ranger who is guiding us on a rhino patrol, motions to us to stay behind. Touching his finger to his lips, he cautions us to be silent. Samson is dressed for war: he is wearing military camouflage, and carries a semi-automatic weapon.

We step into a clearing. Two rhinos are basking in the sun under a cloudless sky; they turn and watch us warily. Lifting his binoculars to his eyes, Samson identifies the pair for the daily count, then scans 
the horizon intently, his brow furrowed, paying particular attention to the areas of brush where people could hide.

He is concerned about a dangerous new development. Poison darts fired soundlessly using crossbows have felled two rhinos in less than a month. Poachers can now operate brazenly during the day, without the risk of being given away by the sound of a gunshot. It leaves both rhinos and rangers far more vulnerable. Fifteen years ago, when Samson became a ranger, poaching was an amateur affair. Twenty-five rangers armed only with shotguns looked after the whole park, defending animals against poachers hunting bush meat with spears.

Not any more. Now, poaching is a lucrative international business and poachers use AK-47s, night vision and drones. Rangers have had to adapt and militarise. They are now a trained paramilitary force: 70 heavily armed rangers patrol 24/7. They are not, however, equipped to deal with skilled archers with access to poison. ‘‘These guys who come, they have one eye on the Olympics while looking for my rhinos,” remarks Samson’s fellow security officer Jacob ruefully.

The rhinos guarded by Samson and his colleagues are highly sought after by poachers for their horns.  Photo: Susan Schulman

In 2008, 100 rhinos were slaughtered for their horns in Africa. By 2016, that number had ballooned to an estimated 1,300 per year. According to a survey by wildlife monitoring agency Traffic, the bulk of rhino horn is smuggled by criminal networks into Vietnam, where it has long been believed to be a cure for everything from cancer to hangovers. At up to $100,000 a kilo, rhino horn is the most valuable appendage on earth and worth as much as twice its weight in gold. It is so sought after that in the small hours of Tuesday 7th March 2017, poachers broke into the zoo in Thoiry, west of Paris, shot a white rhino called Vince dead and cut off his horn with a chainsaw.

Demand seems unlikely to abate any time soon. On 30th December 2016, China announced that it was banning all commerce in ivory. Shutting down the world’s largest market was hailed as a game changer for the future of the elephants of Africa, and a blow to the poachers who had savagely and rapidly depleted their populations. As the US had also banned domestic sales of ivory earlier in 2016, 2017 began with fresh hope among conservationists.

Climate change has made our job more difficult, and the poachers’ job easier” — Jacob, Lake Nakuru National Park ranger 

But the rangers of Nakuru were not celebrating. They believe that elephant poachers will just turn their attentions elsewhere. “The ivory ban will only make demand for the rhino go up,” one tells me in exasperation.

The rangers’ problems are being further compounded by a major shift in the local climate, which is destroying local industries and creating a ready supply of desperate locals, ready to try 
their luck against Samson and his colleages. The 
stakes are high: at the Kenya Wildlife Services headquarters in Nairobi stands a monument to rangers killed while attempting to protect wildlife against poachers. Its sides are lined with dozens upon dozens of names.

 

The pink heart of Kenya

Lake Nakuru National Park is situated deep in Kenya’s Rift Valley, two-and-a-half hours north of Nairobi in Nakuru county. With historically predictable weather and fertile soil, the area was traditionally one of the breadbaskets of the country. The park itself is 
the jewel in the crown, and one of Kenya’s true national treasures.

A rhino conservation area since 1987, it is one of the few places in Kenya where a visitor is guaranteed to see a white rhino and, if lucky, the notoriously shy black rhino too. It is also home to plentiful lions, leopards, hippos, giraffes, baboons and dozens of other species. But the visitors who flocked here for decades – and who formed the backbone of the area’s economy – also came for the unique spectacle which earned the park its affectionate nickname as ‘The Pink Heart of Kenya’. They came to see up to two million pink flamingos – one-third of the world’s flamingo population – carpeting the lake as they fed on the its uniquely copious algae.

Photo: Susan Schulman

Then, in 2013, the area was hit with torrential rains that washed away crops, flooded Lake Nakuru, drowned trees and submerged roads up to the park’s main gate, necessitating its relocation. The flooding of the lake altered the alkalinity level of the water, killing off the once abundant algae and precipitating the departure of the flamingos who flew off to 
more auspicious waters. They have not yet returned.

After the flooding came a powerful drought which by the end of 2014 was affecting 1.6 million people. By 2016 the production of maize – a dietary staple – had plunged, while its cost had increased 30 percent in two years; by May 2017, severe food insecurity was affecting more than 2.6 million people and dried-up reservoirs had left an estimated three million with no access to clean water. Drought destroyed harvests, ruined rural livelihoods and according to Unicef, led to 175,000 children being forced to leave school.

Tourists are now staying away from Lake Nakuru National Park. Its animals are beginning to die as the prolonged drought dries up sources of food and water. Rhinos frequenting the rapidly decreasing number of water pools are adopting patterns that make them predictable targets and easy prey for poachers. “Climate change has made our job more difficult,” says Jacob “and the poachers’ job easier.” With no harvest and no money, ever more people are turning to the resources of the the park for firewood and food.

Drowned trees in Kenya’s Lake Nakuru National Park. Photo: Susan Schulman

In 2007 and 2008, the local area was racked by post-election violence and fear of a repeat provoked locals to arm themselves with assault rifles. “They might have armed themselves for defence,” says Jacob. “But they are tempted by money and will use the weapons for poaching.”

But the news is not all bad. The challenges brought by climate change have also precipitated a small revolution in women’s rights.

 

The village without men

In Nganoi Kilo village on the edge of Lake Nakuru National Park chickens dart underfoot, veering sharply to avoid energetic small children. A cow tethered in the cluster of mud-earth homes licks the edge of a hot-pink plastic plate set on the ground in front of her before dipping her nose to drink from a pot.

Veronica Muthoni, 60, is standing outside her home on the edge of the village. “Harvests here used to be good. We had enough food, full stomachs, good clothes. I could even send the children to boarding school,” she says. Like everyone here, Veronica is a farmer who is dependent on her crops. “But we can’t farm here 
any more,” she says with a sigh, looking over at the parched fields spreading out 
as far as the eye can see. “You just can’t do it, crops won’t grow.”


Harvests here used to be good. We had enough food, full stomachs, good clothes. But we can’t farm here any more” — Veronica Muthoni

It all started in the 1990s. First, the rains started becoming unpredictable, sabotaging planting times which were dependent on predictable seasonal rhythms. Then there would be deluges of rain which caused flooding and came in bursts too short and too strong for crops which need regular water over a longer time. Finally, the rain just stopped coming. Harvests started bringing in a fraction of their former yield – if, that is, there was any harvest at all. Previously comfortable families started struggling. Children were taken out of school.

The scarcity of the crops on which they were solely reliant increased their poverty. But it also triggered a social transformation as men left to find work in the city and women, compelled to find new ways to put bread on the table, took control. “When the drought began, men started looking for work elsewhere and many disappeared – especially those with a lot of children!” Veronica says with a laugh. “Now the village belongs to women and children!”

As men have moved away, the women have opened their minds” — Mary Wanjiku

Mary Wanjiku, 54, is a community organiser and founding member of the first women’s group in 
the area. She used to be a housewife, and if the 
climate hadn’t changed, she would probably still be one today.

“As men have moved away, the women have opened their minds,” Mary explains. “We said, ‘we need an idea what to do now the husbands are gone and the harvest doesn’t work’, we put our heads together.” The women’s group was created.

Together, the women began organising, pooling resources to get water tanks, cows and poultry and using what they had to the benefit of all. It grew from there: projects multiplied, and as economic pressure increased, the community employed a system called “table banking”, 
in which a group of women team 
up and each puts 1,000 shillings (£7.39) on the table – money is then doled out to whoever needs it, to be returned to the table with one percent interest.

“The less we had, the more we used it collectively and correctly,” says Mary. Women, traditionally dependent on their husbands, have changed. “Women are free now. More enlightened. More independent.”

A women’s group meeting in Nganoi Kilo. Women have banded together to create economic opportunity – and run for office. Photo: Susan Schulman

 

Taking a stand

There are 50 women gathered here today for the regular women’s group meeting. A trio are examining a ledger; others are engaged in animated conversation. Laundry flutters on a washing line and dusty fields, studded with stubs of stalks, stretch out to the horizon.

Today, the women’s neighbour, Elisabeth Mbungua, 44, is going to address the group. Elisabeth is braving unfamiliar waters and running for political office. She will be the sole woman in a field of 42 candidates running to become a member of the local County Assembly.

Historically, politics in Kenya has not been a female-friendly environment. The 2010 constitution made a stab at rectifying the situation, mandating that a minimum of one-third of the country’s 349 members of parliament should be women. Unfortunately the country’s male-dominated assembly has stymied the legislation that would enforce the quota. Forty-seven women-only seats have been created, but in the 2013 election only 16 seats were won in open competitions against men. There is still a long way to go.

Kenyan women are not taking this lying down. This year a record number have put themselves forward for office and have achieved unexpected successes in winning nominations over male counterparts in hard-fought national parliamentary contests. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in Nakuru county, where an unprecedented number of women were running for parliamentary seats on 8th August. On a local level, however, things have been slower to change and few women have ventured into the fray.


Many times in our politics women feel threatened… I want to make a change to the community” — Elisabeth Mbungua

Before Elisabeth makes her speech, she takes five minutes to explain to me what led her to brave the potentially violent political arena. “When I was growing up, I could see the vicious cycle of poverty. Over the years, I saw no change. I have seen women walk all day for water or spend the entire day just pumping water. When there is a drought, everyone thinks only of finding water. This community relies on farms but crops are failing. People need another source of income.”

She is not naïve about the risk of aggression she faces as a woman standing for elected office. “Many times in our politics women feel threatened,” she says. “But I have turned a blind eye to all those aspects that could affect me, because I want to make a change to the community.”

Dressed in a crisp orange suit and heels, Elisabeth steps up to address the gathered women. “I’d like to tell you I am fighting for change! I want a change!” she declares with passion. “We have never had a representative and we need one of our own!” ​The women applaud enthusiastically, before falling silent to hear Elisabeth detail her platform.

“​The first priority is water if you vote for me! The second priority is education for our brothers and sisters! Normally we rely on our crops but we know now they aren’t working and when the crops fail, what should our brothers and sisters do?”

Technology is giving us hope for the future” — Mary Wanjiku

The answer, Elisabeth believes, is not to continue to wait for the climate to cooperate but to move away from reliance on agriculture and learn new, marketable skills. To achieve this, she is fighting to have a vocational institution established in the area, a polytechnic which would teach technical skills such as plumbing, electrical engineering and computing to both men and women.

Elisabeth finishes her speech to loud applause. She beams as women approach her, offering their enthusiastic support.

She is not alone in her quest. For Mary Wanjiku, too, reliance on crops and tourists belongs in the past. She also sees the future in education and innovation. And where most see only parched fields, Mary sees unused resources and potential – and a way to use technology to exploit that potential. Pigs, she explains, could be grazed in the disused, unproductive areas of the district. All that needs to be done is to match people who need space for their animals with the local resources available – and the internet is the means to do it. Slowed but not defeated by limited access to the web, she is leading in the creation of a site to accomplish the goal. “​Technology is giving us hope for the future,” she declares.

As tourists have departed and agriculture dies away, the community is working together to mitigate the consequences of climate change. And no one is giving up. Not the rangers; not the women. Not faced with a lethal poison dart or the threat of political violence. All are fighting for their future.

Photo: Susan Schulman

 

Postscript

On 8th August Kenyans went to the polls in an election marked by tension and violence in Nairobi. Opposition parties made claims of ballot-rigging by incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta, and on 1st September his win was overturned by the supreme court. In Nakuru, meanwhile, they were voting to elect members of the local county assembly.

In a crowded field, Elisabeth Mbungua failed to break through, losing out to Philip Ndiritu of Kenyatta’s Jubilee Party. Elisabeth is unbowed by her defeat. “We have to forge ahead,” she says. “My passion to change the status quo of my community is unchanged. I am still ready to go the extra mile.”

 

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #27 of Delayed Gratification

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