Counting Giraffes in the Age of Extinction

Our fellow Tobias Müller (L) with Maasai community leader Daniel Suyianka (R) © Tobias Müller


Counting Giraffes in the Age of Extinction

Tobias Müller talks to activists in Malawi and Kenya.

Let’s show the government that they are wrong.

Our fellow Tobias Müller is in Kenya to meet grassroot activists working on the frontline of climate change. During one of his fieldwork activities, he accompanied members of the Maasai community on a mission to count wildlife around the Nairobi National Park – a protected area under threat from industrial encroachments, water pollution, human settlement and corrupt government officials selling off land. This is his first dispatch, chronicling an early morning survey of the area.

“Rick, you take Block 1. Sirtash, you are going to Block 7, to Pipe Road, you have to see this; Tobias and Thandeka, you go with Dan, the tall Dan, to Block 2”.

It is still dark at the southern edge of Nairobi National Park when Nkamunu Patita, a Maasai community leader allocates us our tasks. It is 5am. Around 15 people stand under a thatched roof. They hastily drink up their coffee before rushing towards the four-wheel drive Jeeps parked in the lush gardens. “Let’s show the government that they are wrong”.

Mud flies from their wheels as the group of rangers, staff and volunteers set out into a damp Kenyan morning. The group has one simple objective: to count and register as much wildlife as they can find in the territories lying along the unfenced southern border of Nairobi National Park.

We stop right outside the entrance of the camp. Daniel, a tall Maasai man who has lived here all his life, points towards a hill on our right. In the dusky light, we see the long neck of a young giraffe appearing, walking past the fences of a nearby homestead. “She probably lost her family,” Daniel comments. A minute later, we see a jackal prowling towards a fence where a rooster has just shouted out into the dawn. “It seems to be hungry,” Daniel observes.

Nairobi National Park is fenced off on three sides, north, east and west, with the northern side being only a couple of streets away from Nairobi’s pulsating central business district. The southern side, however, opens up to the wide Kitengela plains. Depending on where the rain falls, animals move in and out of the park, mingling in an ecosystem that is around 20 times the size of the actual park. The government wants to close off and fence the southern border, which would radically diminish the space where the animals can move, feed and breed. Confronted with outrage by the Maasai community and conservationists, the responsible minister claimed: there is not much wildlife, and you have no data.

That is when the community came up with the idea of conducting a game count – counting animals in one of the main migration areas, the Nature Conservancy Naretunoi. It is located on the southern end of Nairobi National Park, which is one of the only national parks in the world that directly borders a major city. When Nairobi was founded by British colonists as a halfway station between Uganda and the coast in 1899, its inhabitants carried guns to defend themselves against wild animals. Today the metropolitan area of Nairobi includes around 10 million inhabitants, making it the biggest metropolis in East Africa.

What once was the area where herds of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle migrated between Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya in a movement of millions of animals, like the one still existing in the Serengeti, is today a hotly contested zone of what is commonly referred to as “human-wildlife conflict”.

Today the metropolitan area of Nairobi includes around 10 million inhabitants, making it the biggest metropolis in East Africa

Daniel stops the car for our first major sighting: a ‘confusion’ of 29 wildebeest is crossing the dirt road right in front of our Suzuki. The collective noun “confusion”, one of the bizarre and delightful frivolities of the English language, seems to betray the ordered way in which they cross in front of us. “They go over to the park to work for the government,” Daniel says grinning. While the national park is run by the government and costs a stately sum of 43 USD entry fee for non-residents, the southern planes are open for anyone to come and go. “Many herbivores such as giraffes, zebras, Grant’s gazelles and wildebeests come here to spend the night. Because humans live here, with lights and dogs, the lions usually don’t come here, so they [herbivores] are safe here,” Daniel explains.

As we drive on, we find zebras trapped in one of the many areas that are now fenced off. “There are now more and more fences because people sell their land. People from outside the area move in, build walls around their properties and fence off large sections of land”. We stand on a hill overseeing a cement factory and other heavy industry right at the edge of the park and the wide fenced areas. Daniel’s face remains calm, but there seems to be a sense of pain in his voice when he says, “All this wasn’t here when I grew up”.

This area belongs to the Maasai, who have traditionally been pastoralists, moving their cattle across the Kenyan highlands. For them, conservation, especially when done by Europeans, has always been ambiguous at best. When the British colonial administration established Nairobi National Park in 1946, Maasai people were expelled from their land without compensation. Their way of life becomes increasingly difficult with more and more settlement and industry rapidly shrinking the spaces available for grazing.

Maasai people were expelled from their land without compensation

“The Maasai are natural conversationists,” Daniel explains. The indigenous Maasai community is in favor of keeping the southern border of the park unfenced, and most of them also suffer from increasing enclosure of land. Even though sometimes lions come over in search for prey, he is not afraid to walk alone at night through the savannah. His people have lived with wild animals for centuries and their cattle mix with zebras and warthogs in Disneyesque harmony.

But instead of rewarding their conservation efforts, the government is not sharing any revenue generated through the park with them. “Many people now have to sell their land; otherwise they cannot pay the school fees for their children”. To make things worse, a large part of Maasai land that was once “borrowed” by the government are now used by the Kenyan Defence Forces to herd enormous trips of goats, competing with cattle and wildlife for the rapidly vanishing patches of fresh grass.

As if the pressures of land degradation and pressure from human settlement wasn’t enough, Maasai families are strongly affected by climate change. They experience more droughts and the rains come less regularly and at the wrong time of the year. Daniel explains that if the rain comes late, his cows might die; which means that he can no longer sell them to pay for school fees. This means that more and more people turn away from pastoralism, leaving their old ways of life behind, which leads to people moving away and intermarriages with people from other ethno-linguistic groups. “Maasai language and culture is dying out. There is a lot that hides behind ‘climate change’,” Daniel tells us.

The reflection-round back in the camp takes place on the grass under leafy acacia trees.

Our game count in Block 2 is celebrated as a success. The sightings of 63 zebras, 38 wildebeests, 13 giraffes, around 50 gazelles and more than 200 Marabou storks feasting on a field of caterpillars clearly demonstrate that the Maasai lands of the Naretunoi are a vital part of the overall ecosystem. For Block 7 and 8, the counting was devastating. In those parts, further south, the corridors for animals to cross are almost completely gone. The ones officially established by the government disappear within weeks of being set up—space is too precious, and people are void of alternatives at the edge of this sprawling metropolis.

The Maasai community are the least responsible for colonialism, capitalist landgrab and climate change – and yet are among those most affected.

The Maasai residents, The Wildlife Foundation and its community rangers fight an uphill battle, against the encroachments of industry, water pollution, human settlement and corrupt government officials selling off land to fill their own pockets. They are the least responsible for colonialism, capitalist landgrab and climate change and yet are among those most affected. They have shown enormous resilience in their survival; they have tested this vital collective capacity in the face of climate change.

Before we leave, Nkamunu Patita invites us to the next game count in two months. She and her team of community rangers will be there to witness and fight against the further decline of biodiversity, counting the remaining animals one at a time. They are the record keepers of the age of extinction.

Tobias Müller is an affiliated lecturer at the University of Cambridge. At THE NEW INSTITUTE, he is part of the program "The Future of Democracy".

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