Booming Bushmeat Trade Hits Kenya Wildlife
VOI, Kenya - Joseph Munyao is worried. Weekly takings are falling steadily at the two butcher shops he owns near Tsavo National Park, Kenya's largest wildlife reserve.
It could be simple economics keeping his customers away.
Drought has cut cattle stocks, forcing up beef prices in this country, East Africa's largest economy, where more than half the population lives on less than a dollar a day.
Or it could be something else. Since 1999, conservationists have found 48,900 wire snares strung across game trails criss-crossing Kenya, famed for its abundant wildlife.
The poachers who set these traps were once after elephant and rhino ivory, but controversial trade bans have shut down those sales.
Now a new kind of illegal game poaching has sprung up in its place. This time the hunters are trapping the animals not for their horn or their hide, but for their meat.
"Kenyans are poor. They do not have the money to buy this beef and goat, but every man wants to eat meat," said Munyao, a smartly dressed father of four sons, at his butchery in Sofia, 220 miles (354 km) southeast of Kenya's capital, Nairobi.
"Now they are eating wild animals from the land and not coming to my shops."
Farm-reared beef sells for 140 Kenyan shillings ($1.80) a kilo (2.2 lb). Poached impala costs a third of that.
A minority of Kenya's 72 tribes have always killed wild animals for food, but recently these small-scale culls have proliferated.
The scope of the problem is not yet fully known, but conservationists say it could endanger Africa's wildlife as much the great herd massacres of the 1970s and 1980s.
HUGE COMMERCIAL TRADE
"Bushmeat hunting has evolved from a low-level subsistence activity to a huge commercial trade," said Winnie Kiiru of the London-based Born Free Foundation, a conservation group.
"It was thought to be predominantly a West African issue, but it's becoming apparent that the illegal sale of bushmeat is an emerging industry in East Africa.
"It is now supplying urban and even international markets, posing what some scientists believe to be the biggest threat facing wildlife populations in many African countries."
Privately Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) staff say as many as one million animals are dying in the snares each year. If each animal yields five kilos of meat, the industry could be worth $5 million to $9 million a year.
Fearing a slump in tourism, KWS does not provide official statistics on how many animals are killed. Tourism employs 500,000 in Kenya and is its second-biggest foreign exchange earner, worth $338 million a year.
"It is difficult to get an accurate figure, but an estimate of a million animals a year is plausible," said David Manoa at The Born Free Foundation.
Back on a game trail near Tsavo National Park, Isaac Maina paused on his morning patrol, his eyes fixed just ahead to a gap between two thorn bushes.
He squatted and used a stick to hook a circle of wire the size of a CD from where it was fixed to a low branch.
This simple noose fashioned from stolen telephone wire, which tightens each time an animal struggles to get free, was the eighth his team had found in less than 90 minutes.
Thousands like it lie in wait across Kenya, designed for every animal from the foot-high dik dik antelope to the towering giraffe.
Maina and his colleagues from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust clear only a fraction on their daily patrols, but they still found more than 8,000 in 2004.
"We can only pick up the ones we see, and we could be missing a lot of them," he said, looping the snare around his arm and setting off again through the thick bush.
Moses Musya (not his real name) says he is a hunter. To the KWS, he is a criminal, a poacher.
Twice a month he heads into the bush and comes out a week later carrying up to 40kg of fresh meat killed illegally with a bow and arrow.
He says the meat, usually impala, is to feed his family, wife Virginia and their two sons ages six and 14. Any left over is bartered for flour or sugar.
"I used to be a chef at a safari lodge, but then the bombings (in 1998, of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania) came and there were no tourists, and I lost my job," said 39-year-old Musya through the smoky haze in his windowless mud-and-thatch hut a mile from Tsavo's electric fence.
"I have to find food and pay for my sons' education so they do not end like me," he said. "How else can I do this? My heart does not like me to kill these animals, I know it is against the law, but we are poor, we have no choice."
If caught, he faces 10 years in jail.
The Born Free Foundation wants more anti-snaring teams to be deployed and a sharp increase in prosecutions. In 2004, 16 people were arrested, although none has yet gone to trial.
The key problem is poverty. Until Kenyans have more money in their pockets to pay for beef or goat, they will feed their hungry families with the cheapest option on offer.
Story by Mike Pflanz