Dr. Mike Chase peered out the window of the small Cessna, flying low of the south-western Tsavo National Park in Kenya. In the distance he could see the large plumes of smoke rising from hundreds of home-built kilns in the bush.
Mike was in the midst of the Kenya leg of The Great Elephant Census, a Paul Allen initiative, a massive research project that will survey elephant and wildlife populations within the elephant ranges of 22 African countries. But what started out as an exercise in counting wildlife is now revealing a shocking emergence of illegal coal production in the south-western Tsavo region.
The clay kilns themselves are marvels of African architectural ingenuity and labour. I looked down at them and thought about their impact on the environment I was flying over. I could see the influence of ‘their’ work quite clearly from my vantage point – massive areas of acacia woodland have been denuded– but I gazed down on them and their work with respect and empathy. The hard working people I saw below me must be turning a good profit to struggle like this. But vast tracts of acacia woodland have been deforested. I was disturbed by this destruction, and the silence from my observers who should be yelling out wildlife observations.
It was only until Mike and the Elephants Without Borders team landed that they learned more about the practice of coal production in Kenya. Officials informed them that many of these coal producers are illegal immigrants from Somalia, cashing in on what has become a lucrative industry in Kenya and Somalia.
Just recently, reports have emerged that Islamist terrorist group Al Shabaab are fuelling the illegal charcoal industry in Kenya in order to fund their terrorist activities. Ivory poachers, feeling threatened by tougher security measures in Kenya, are now turning to illegal charcoal trade as a means of income. And this million-dollar industry is having a devastating effect on Kenya’s biodiversity.
The images below, taken by the Elephants Without Borders team, may or may not be connected to this trade, but remain stark proof of an emerging environmental and social issue that needs to be addressed in Kenya.