Driving on a Friday night from the idyllic campsite to a local farm for an after-dark game count, Action for Cheetahs (ACK) lead researcher Cosmas Wambua navigates a treacherous highway. The notorious Mombassa Road is a twisting, turning, death-ridden mess of an international highway. Bitterly joking we’re on a ‘lorry safari’, sightings include burned-out overturned petrol tankers in ditches with their crews lighting camp fires to set up sleeping by the side of the road for the next few nights. Cargo trucks lay on their sides with smashed windshields, looking comically peaceful, like a pet who has decided to nap during playtime, its wheels in the air. However this is no joke, the dreaded Mombassa Road (A109) is overloaded with cargo traveling across countries. And it is deadly for the cheetah.
The nightmare traffic we experience on the Mombassa Road, a few hours south of Nairobi, is symbolic. Kenya’s rapid expansion is seen as reckless in conservation circles and ACK is a firsthand witness. The cheetah is disappearing from this study region where just three years ago it was known to have a solid foothold.
Boomtowns have sprouted in anticipation of the Malili ICT Park that at present is a five thousand acre fenced-off empty field. New residents are moving to subdivided farmland. In the night, poachers steal sand by the truckload and chop down every tree in sight to make the cheap fuel that is charcoal. This is development at the cost of the cat. The Kenyan government’s lack of regard for their wildlife and land outside of the touristed parks is shocking. So many trees have been chopped down that the team has trouble finding their bearings at various parts of a study farm that was visited just weeks prior. What was once forested is fast becoming a field of stumps.
Beyond the boomtowns, the Malili ICT fencing, the farm subdivisions and newcomers, the highway wrecks and charcoal and sand poachers, there is a vibrant rural community.
Following a pre-dawn game count (they barely sleep) on another farm, the team grabs a quick chai and heads back out, turning off into a peaceful landscape of backroads. We pass small farmsteads, livestock herders, and lush greenery.
Over the years, ACK has made strong connections with the Salama area, assisting the Ngaamba community with the creation of four cattle dips. Some have walked their herds through the night to reach this particular dip, which can mean the difference between life and death for their livestock.
By helping out with this valuable disease prevention resource, the team also conducts regular interviews and spreads information about wildlife conflict and how to identify which animals are the cause of predation. Often the cheetah was blamed when, after some research it was discovered that cattle and goat were falling prey to jackals, hyena and leopard; very rarely the cheetah.
They also host ‘Boma Day’ gatherings where information is shared on how to best protect livestock from a variety of predators. A slim attendance at first, locals start texting friends and soon a gathering of about fifty people are intently listening and asking questions of the conservationists.
Mary Wykstra, Director of ACK, says :
“Every year since the subdivision of Malili and Aimi in 2007 the human footprint in the Salama area has increased and essentially we have been monitoring a cheetah population to extinction.
We have seen the adaptations that cheetahs have made to the influx of people—they move at night, they hunt the smaller game (hare, springhare, hyrax) rather than mid-size prey (dikdik, duiker, gazelle, impala), they learned to run behind people who were chasing them rather than remain in front (we saw this with our radio tracking). … The number of cheetahs in this area has declined from a high of 29 in 2007 to a current low of 0-5 through 2013. Although we are still running the statistics, we have essentially monitored a population of cheetahs to extinction. Not for lack of support from the community but because of unsustainable development allowed by poor management of the land use plan in Kenya. The saddest thing is that this land cannot support the agriculture and the people of this area are one of the highest food aid recipients in the country. Where there was once extremely productive commercial cattle ranching and wildlife could range with the livestock, there is now a drought prone, eroded wasteland of human rural poverty.”
The ACK team has worked diligently, on a shoe-string budget, for over six years with a community only to witness the decline of the wildlife. What is next? They are pulling out of Salama but extending the research into the surrounding areas to monitor the movements of the remaining cheetahs along the buffer zones.
She adds, “the push at the government level for the development of the area is a fact we must face. If this is the new face of Kenya, then there is little hope for the survival of cheetahs.”
Salama’s sad truth is the cheetah’s rapid decline and a sadder case-study that without the cooperation of government agencies, there is only so much outreach an NGO can handle to make a positive difference for the wildlife, and the people who’ve lived in the area for generations.
Award winning artist and conservationist, Guy Combes grew up in Kenya and goes back every year as a safari guide. He had this to say:
“What I saw having only been away a year stunned me. Massive residential and industrial development spreading out in every direction from Nairobi. And not just Nairobi. It’s happening all over the country with a population rise that is already showing itself to be unsustainable. More terrifying is development reaching the heartlands of wild places we thought would be protected in perpetuity. Power lines, roads, pipelines and railways gouging their way across Kenya and Tanzania in all directions. Where a road is built, a kiosk appears. Next to the kiosk comes a gas station, a small village, and then a town. This can happen in the space of three years. I remember when driving the trans-Africa highway to Mombasa as a kid was like going through a national park. Now it’s all built up, and those towns depend on one thing: the endless traffic of trucks freighting goods, contraband and AIDS to and from Central Africa. This is what will happen with all the new roads being built, and already is. Meanwhile the profiteers of all this greed languish in bloated mansions in the suburbs of Nairobi.
I hope that the growing educated middle class sector in urban parts of Kenya prevail and turn the tide of corruption that will ultimately result in the country self detonating if allowed to continue. They are a growing force and an optimistic one. I continually remind myself of the sheer numbers of people fighting to save lands, wildlife and lifestyle and of the fact that they would not continue to do this if there wasn’t hope that things can turn around. Kenya has had a growth spurt before and survived. This one is exponentially larger, so much more needs to be done to prevent irreversible damage.”
It’s the passion and perseverance of this growing force for conservation that must pressure the government to turn the tide for the cheetah and for the future of Kenya.