29 National Wildlife Census
For generating hard data to save Kenya's animals—and its tourism sector
The rhinos, lions, wildebeest, elephants and leopards wandering the plains of Kenya aren't just majestic—they're a revenue stream that can deliver powerful economic benefits. Tourism fuels 8 percent of Kenya's GDP. But poaching, climate change and a human population explosion are putting many of the country's most well-known animals—and economic growth—at risk. So three government agencies launched the country's first systematic census this year, a three-month, US$2.3 million project to better track where Kenya's most threatened species live and to glean conservation insights and strategies for some of its 25,000 species.
By establishing a national wildlife database and creating a repeatable framework for future animal counts, the team not only aims to bolster tourism, but establish guidelines for redeveloping parts of the country. Kenya's human population has grown nearly sixfold in recent decades, leading to a surge in demand for land to meet residential, infrastructure and agricultural needs.
"Kenya had done wildlife censuses before but just for key species like elephants and rhino that have been affected by illegal trade and poaching for ivory and rhino horn, but we'd never undertaken a nationally coordinated census for all our wildlife resources," said Patrick Omondi, PhD, director of the Wildlife Research and Training Institute.
COVID-19 helped spur the government to action. Although pandemic-related border closures slowed trafficking of wildlife products like ivory and rhino horn, they also blocked tourists from paying to see elephants, giraffe and other wildlife roam the wild. The resulting economic hardships sparked an increase in poaching for bush meat, particularly plains species like Thomson's gazelle and dik-diks, and the poaching was evolving toward commercialization, Omondi said. In addition, humans were farming and settling in areas that wildlife had ranged.
Launching a census was the only way to truly measure the impact. Working with the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife and the Kenya Wildlife Service as well as some private conservation organizations, Omondi's team sought to establish a baseline count for key land, marine and freshwater wildlife species in the country, particularly under-the-radar species that are just as threatened as big-game rhinos. For instance, the pangolin is a highly trafficked species, while others, including some species of antelope, are critically endangered and thought to number fewer than 100.
Daunting doesn't fully capture the scope of the undertaking. The team of about 100 people used camera traps, light aircraft, helicopters, boats and four-wheel-drive vehicles to navigate approximately 360,000 square kilometers (138,997 square miles), or nearly 60 percent of the nation. The survey area included the country's 58 national parks and reserves in addition to private and community conservation lands.
For areas surveyed by light aircraft, project leaders divided the study area into transects as big as 600 square kilometers (232 square miles). Pilots flew for up to six hours a day at low altitudes so on-board census data recorders could spot the wildlife, log it into their records, and document the GPS coordinates for each sighted animal. In the larger ecosystems like Tsavo, there were as many as 15 planes in the sky at once, which required intense on-the-ground coordination so pilots didn't overlap and animals weren't double-counted.
"It was like having an air control center in the bush," said Omondi.
Project leaders also managed safety risks in the air. At one point, he said, coastal winds were so strong that the team had to use data collected using boats to provide an estimate of marine wildlife species populations and distribution.
Results of the first census, in August, revealed 14 species are nationally endangered, including five, such as the black rhino, that are critically endangered. This data will help wildlife officials develop conservation policies to enhance conservation and management of Kenya's wildlife resources, study how climate change is affecting their habitats and migration patterns, and help the central government and local authorities plan infrastructure projects in ways that mitigate damage to wildlife.
Now Kenya's government plans to conduct a wildlife census every three years. Going forward, Omondi said the team needs to invest in technology such as drones and artificial intelligence, which are better suited for surveying smaller areas like the rhino sanctuaries, and thermal imaging cameras, which could be used from the air to identify animals in heavily vegetated areas.
"You can only manage better what you know," said Omondi. "Now that we know where the animals are and how many we have, we anticipate that we will plan better for ensuring that the wildlife conservation is enhanced in Kenya."