NAIROBI – African countries are often criticized for failing to meet their environmental challenges. Observers often cite loss of habitat in the face of population growth, land degradation, and industrialization. And then there is the most frequent charge of all: that an increase in poaching is endangering species such as elephants and rhinos.
In Kenya, however, an innovative and extensive conservation project is underway. Begun in the Aberdare mountains in central Kenya, “Rhino Ark,” originally conceived to protect the highly endangered black rhino from the ravages of poachers, is supported by the very people who might have resisted it: the local communities in some of the country’s most productive farming areas.
In 1988, conservationists decided to finance and build an electrified fence to protect an area of the Aberdare National Park bordering smallholder farms. The fence was designed to prevent intrusion from the human population and degradation of the park’s habitat. But it also protected the farmers, whose crops were regularly being destroyed by marauding elephant and other wildlife. Local farmers welcomed the initiative, which influenced the decision to expand the fence to surround the perimeter of the entire Aberdare range.
The Aberdare Mountains, encompassing 2,000 square kilometers of indigenous forest and vital water catchment areas, as well as a national park, are vital to Kenya. Four of the country’s largest rivers, flowing north, west, east and south, begin there, providing water and power to seven major towns, including the capital, Nairobi. On the mountains’ lower slopes, four million farmers benefit from rich soil and plentiful rainfall. In the foothills and high slopes, 30% of Kenya’s tea and 70% of its coffee are produced.
For 21 years, the fence around the Aberdares was painstakingly built, supported mainly by Kenya’s corporate sector, individual donors, and innovative fundraising exercises such as the Rhino Charge, an off-road motor event that has captured the Kenyan public’s imagination and annually raises more than $1 million. But, by the time the fully electrified fence was completed, in 2009, the government, under then-President Mwai Kibaki, had become an essential partner, with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) deeply involved in the project.
With Kenyan government backing, Rhino Ark has been able to turn its attention to other forested but degraded areas – such as Mount Eburu in the Mau Forests Complex, overlooking Lake Naivasha, and Mount Kenya, a World Heritage Site that has been heavily affected by human-wildlife conflicts. The 45-kilometer Mount Eburu fence was completed last year. The Mount Kenya fence, at 450 kilometers, will be longer than the Aberdares’ project and is now making rapid progress, with 80 kilometers completed.
Of course, building a fence is just the beginning. Fences must be managed and maintained (some of the original fence posts in the Aberdares, for example, have had to be replaced), wildlife corridors must be developed, and local communities require support. All areas are kept under surveillance by air and foot patrols along the fence line – a constant monitoring process with considerable cost implications.
The benefits, however, are significant. The fences keep the authorities fully alert to any incidents of poaching – particularly of elephant, rhino, and exceptionally rare species such as the Mountain Bongo antelope, which now exist only in the Aberdares, Mount Kenya, and the Mau Forests Complex, including Mount Eburu.
Local communities are involved in all areas of fence and forest maintenance. In effect, they are the guardians of the fences, keeping them clear of vegetation and repairing damage caused by wildlife and other factors – and learning new skills in the process.
The longer-term goal is the protection of these critical forests in perpetuity. To achieve this, endowment funds are being established as public-private partnerships, bringing together the Rhino Ark, the KWS and the KFS, and representatives from local communities. So-called trust deeds, set up locally, will manage these funds, which will eventually pay for the fences’ maintenance. The Aberdare Trust Deed became effective last October.
The region’s hard-working farmers can now see added value in co-existing with the fence. Since the completion of the Aberdares fence, the value of local farmers’ land has quadrupled. They can work their fields in peace for the first time in more than a century, their children can walk to and from school without fear of being attacked by wild animals, and conservation is now part of the curriculum. The main lesson is straightforward: Good fences are good for everyone.