From grey to green

How an almost dead landscape is transformed back into a wildlife paradise by livestock – by Christiane Flechtner

Kenya – Kunsang Ling looks through her binoculars. What the Canadian sees makes the corners of her mouth move upwards: “A cheetah with six young animals,” shouts the 38-year-old to her team in the 4×4 vehicle. Just a few years ago, this region of Kenya consisted of little more than barren earth. Dead, dusty land devoid of life. But little by little, the grey is changing into green – and with it zebras, wildebeests and antelopes are reclaiming their former territory.

Counting wildlife from the back of a 4×4 (c) C. Flechtner

The Canadian is one of twelve international citizen scientists on a wildlife conservation expedition to Kenya, conducted for the second time by the non-profit nature conservation organisation Biosphere Expeditions. The organisation is known for its successful involvement of lay helpers in species conservation projects worldwide and has been working hand in hand with people and biologists in various project areas since 1999 – including the Enonkishu Conservancy in southwest Kenya. “We want to help scientists to conduct their research projects successfully,” explains Malika Fettak, the NGO’s expedition Leader in Kenya. “To this end, we recruit motivated people who help collect data and help hands-on during their holidays.”

Widlife of Enonkishu, all photos (c) C. Flechtner

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Kenya is one of the countries with the highest population growth worldwide. From 1960 to 2017, the number of inhabitants rose from 8.1 million to 49.7 million – an increase of a full 513 percent. In the next 25 years, the number is expected to double again. The country is groaning under the burden of a overpopulation and the associated expanding infrastructure, which increasingly encroaches on animal habitats. In just three decades, the species-rich country has lost almost 70 percent of its wildlife – on the one hand through the destruction of its habitat, and on the other through the effects of climate change with extreme droughts.
The 1,700-hectare area of Enonkishu Conservancy, located around 240 kilometres south-west of the capital Nairobi, also since ceased to be a habitat for wild animals. It is a buffer zone between the famous Mara Serengeti ecosystem and civilisation.

The land belonged to 32 different landowners, who used it as farmland for corn or bean cultivation and cattle breeding – and overused it enormously. The excessive number of livestock led to extreme soil erosion. In order to counteract the devastation, the landowners joined together in 2009 to form a community and transformed the area into a conservancy, a protected area jointly managed by the local population.

The thousands of years old behavioural patterns of wild animals served as a model for rewilding of the area: “Here, the great migration of the wildebeest through the Serengeti has been imitated on a small scale,” explains the expedition leader. The wildebeest not only loosen the soil with their hooves, but also fertilise it with their dung. Then they move on, and the grazed green grass can grow again. “Here in Enonkishu, they leave this task to the cattle – they systematically let them graze in certain areas and then drive them on. Within just a few years, dead earth transformed into a green oasis, from which not only the landowners benefit, but also the wild animals,” says Fettak happily.

The job of the expedition participants is to collect data to provide figures to document the return of the wild animals. While Kunsang, together with Matthias Herold from Germany, Sirpa Lahtinen from Finland and Kathy Haan from the USA, observes the waterhole for several hours from a hide using binoculars, GPS devices and rangefinders, ranger Albert Ngetich, together with Canadian Brian Oikawa and Dutchman Paul Serail, set off on foot to the summit of Kileleoni Hill to observe the area from a bird’s eye view. The third group checks camera traps for pictures of nocturnal animals.

Waterhole obervation (c) C. Flechtner
Hill top obervation (c) C. Flechtner
On the way to a research activity (c) C. Flechtner
Checking and setting a camera trap (c) C. Flechtner
Checking and setting a camera trap (c) C. Flechtner
Checking and setting a camera trap (c) C. Flechtner

The results are quite impressive: The wildlife numbers have proliferated within a year. “The whole thing has developed a momentum of its own,” says the expedition leader. “The landscape has turned into a paradise where farm animals and wildlife can live peacefully side by side,” says Fettak. A positive side effect is that tourists are also discovering the area for themselves and supporting Enonkishu with their entrance fees to the protected area.

It may even be possible to find imitators of the sustainable concept elsewhere. It would be good for the densely populated country, and with the acceptance of wildlife and its benefits for people, this will be a chance to increase already scarce wildlife habitat bit by bit.

(c) Christiane Flechtner

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