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Sitatunga: On the road to extinction

Monday November 27 2017

A female Sitatunga, a rare semi-aquatic

A female Sitatunga, a rare semi-aquatic antelope at Saiwa Swamp National Park in Trans-Nzoia County on June 21, 2016. PHOTO| JARED NYATAYA 

By TOM MATOKE
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The country stands to lose billions of shillings from tourists who visit the country every year to? see the semi-aquatic sitatunga. The animal, which is found in Trans-Nzoia, Nandi and Uasin Gishu counties, is threatened by both poachers — who believe its meat has medicinal and mystical powers — and encroachment on its habitat.

As a result, the numbers of the shy antelope, which feeds only when it is dark, has dwindled over the years.? The Kenya Wildlife Service says there are only 250 of the animals remaining: Uasin-Gishu County has 40 at the Kesses scheme; Saiwa National Park in Trans-nzoia has 60, while Nandi County’s King’wal Swamp has 150.

Mr Joel Kanda, a senior KWS official who served as the North Rift’s Chief Warden for 10 years, says efforts to protect the antelopes are fraught with challenges, notably encroachment on the animals’ habitat.

“Greedy farmers have illegally expanded their land to these animals’ habitats, leading to human-wildlife conflict,” he says. ---As a result, the animals sometimes eat the farmers crops, and get killed for it.

Last year, for instance, thousands of acres of King’wal Swamp in Nandi County, were set ablaze during the dry season by farmers who are determined? to convert the animals’ swampy habitat into farmland.?

As a result, the sitatunga’s habitat in the swamp? has been reduced almost by half, making it difficult for the antelopes to breed or feed. Besides, the locals have set up large-scale brick making

ment on its habitat.

As a result, the numbers of the shy antelope, which feeds only when it is dark, has dwindled over the years.? The Kenya Wildlife Service says there are only 250 of the animals remaining: Uasin-Gishu County has 40 at the Kesses scheme; Saiwa National Park in Trans-nzoia has 60, while Nandi County’s King’wal Swamp has 150.

Mr Joel Kanda, a senior KWS official who served as the North Rift’s Chief Warden for 10 years, says efforts to protect the antelopes are fraught with challenges, notably encroachment on the animals’ habitat.

GREEDY FARMERS

“Greedy farmers have illegally expanded their land to these animals’ habitats, leading to human-wildlife conflict,” he says. ---As a result, the animals sometimes eat the farmers crops, and get killed for it.

Last year, for instance, thousands of acres of King’wal Swamp in Nandi County, were set ablaze during the dry season by farmers who are determined? to convert the animals’ swampy habitat into farmland.?

As a result, the sitatunga’s habitat in the swamp? has been reduced almost by half, making it difficult for the antelopes to breed or feed. Besides, the locals have set up large-scale brick making ventures next to the shrinking wetlands and planted eucalyptus trees in parts of the swamp.

KWS says that these activities have displaced the animals and exposed them to poachers, making them extremely vulnerable.

Besides, these destructive activities are frustrating the growth of tourism in the North Rift, whose administrators are pressuring the central government to take decisive? action to preserve the sitatunga, which wildlife experts refer to? as “natural gold”.

KWS says that Kenya is the only East African country that? boasts the species and has called on the government to find more creative ways of? preserving? the animals.

The Mwai Kibaki regime is recognised for taking action to preserve the sitatunga. Then KWS Director Wilson Kiprono led a high-powered team to parts of the North Rift and western Kenya to educate the local communities on the benefits of preserving the animals. Mr Kiprono told DN2 that neglect had seen the antelopes’ population? drop? to just about a quarter of what it was 10 years ago.

“In Trans-Nzoia County alone, the sitatunga population has reduced from an initial 300 in 2007 to just 50 today,” he said.?

The former wildlife director further suggested that local communities venture into tourism-related businesses instead of relying on framing.? “Agriculture, which has been the main income-earner in the Rift Valley, is no longer as profitable as it used to be. Venturing into sectors like tourism can create jobs for the numerous jobless youth,”? he said.

He added the areas neighbouring sitatunga habitats were also home to hundreds of other creatures such as unique birds, which make them tourist attractions.

SLOW GROWTH

Government records indicate that the North Rift counties have experienced slow economic and infrastructural growth because of rigid attitudes and the reluctance to venture into areas other than farming.?

Meanwhile, environmentalist John Chumo says the sitatunga’s survival depends on clear legislation and efforts by the government and wildlife conservation units to find creative ways to protect the animals’ habitats

“The survival and protection of sitatunga will complement the survival the more than 300 species of birds that also live in the swamps,” he adds

He notes? that an estimated 10,000 hectares of sitaunga habitat is already under threat of human encroachment and illegal farming, adding that? that part of the King\wal Swamp has been classified as Important Bird Area (IBA) by the KWS to encourage its conservation.

Successive ministries of land and the environment have warned that continued encroachment on animals’ habitat not only? endangers them, but will dry up their swampy habitat.

Sitatungas have features similar to those of a goat but tend to be is slightly bigger.? They have a lifespan of about 15 years.

KWS officials say the animals come out to graze between? 4am? and? 5am, which they say is the? best time to watch them? and also take photographs.

In the King’wal Swamp, a watching bay has been strategically built to enable visitors to watch and photograph the animals without scaring them away.KWS and other conservationists have been pushing the government to educate the local communities on the benefits of saving the? antelopes.

Conservation enthusiasts and experts in tourism say that communities living around densely populated forests such as Kakamega and Nandi, as well as those around the expansive King’wal Swamp, could benefit directly from wildlife conservancy centres.


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