Kenya: Inside the Raging Bushfires of Tsavo – Arson or Accident?

07 September 2020

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KENYA – Tsavo, Kenya’s biggest park, is no stranger to bushfires. But this season, a significant increase has been reported with immense loss in biodiversity especially vegetation.

Huge bushfires have erupted in the park and its environs over the past two months with more than 800 square kilometres of vegetation destroyed. Covering an area of 21,000 square kilometres, and split into Tsavo East and West, the conservancy is home to hundreds of animals.

A spot check by the Nation around the affected areas revealed untold devastation on wildlife with habitat and biodiversity lost.

Government officials and environmental experts say the fires are the work of arsonists or may be unintentionally caused by people neighbouring the park, with a group of herders highly suspected to be behind it.

Pastoralists have for years used the park as grazing grounds. Recently, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) drove out livestock from the park a move that is believed could have triggered a retaliation by the herders.

Tsavo Conservancy Area (TCA) Assistant Director Robert Njue said the incidents started immediately after the livestock were impounded by KWS officers.

“We suspect that this is one of the causes but we guarantee that we will stop this unlawfulness,” he said. At Lumo conservancy, a source told the Nation that herders are forcing to graze their livestock near Lions Bluff Lodge despite having no agreement between them. The pastoralists however have an agreement with neighbouring Mramba ranch.

Ravaged by fire

“The contested area was recently ravaged by fire. We suspect that the herders might have had a hand in this,” said the source who sought anonymity for fear of being attacked by the herders.

The Nation established that a number of ranches have clashed with herders for illegally grazing in their rangelands.

“The herders use all means and attack those who prevent their animals from grazing. They will do anything to have their way,” the source revealed.

Traditional methods used by farmers to clear their land for agriculture has also been linked to the increased incidents. Coast regional commissioner John Elungata said the government is hot in pursuit of suspected arsonists.

“Detectives are on the ground and are pursuing suspects. They will soon be brought to book,” he said, adding that the government will flush out all illegal herders from the area. He instructed local chiefs to identify all livestock owners in the ranches. Other experts say Tsavo fires are seasonal starting in May and ending in October every year.

The conservationists are now pointing to a connection between the increasing risk of wildfires with dry vegetation and strong winds.

Tsavo Heritage director Jacob Kipong’oso said the number of fires and their sizes vary from year to year.

“We had good rains in the last season and so the lush grasslands are perfect fuel for the flames,” he said.

He predicted that, by the end of the season, the fires could spread to other untouched areas, wiping out the vegetation and threatening the survival of wildlife. He noted that most of the fires were lit in conservancies which are constantly under threat by illegal herders, charcoal burners and honey harvesters.

Mr Kipong’oso said the illegal activities and tendency of farmers to use slash-and-burn farming methods to clear their land are the main cause of the incidents.

In a recent fire that erupted in Jipe in Tsavo West and destroyed thousands of acres of vegetation, a combination of firefighters from the military, KWS, Kenya Forest Service (KFS), National Youth Service (NYS), wildlife conservation partners and local volunteers was deployed to help in containing it. For a long time, KWS has been relying on volunteer firefighters from wildlife partners to bring the fires under control.

The conservation groups led by Team Tsavo are now mobilising resources to train communities on firefighting skills.

Fire beaters

Mr Kipong’oso said the groups will be equipped with fire beaters and reflector jackets that will enable them to quickly contain an inferno before KWS and other stakeholders come on board. The training will target communities in Jipe, Salaita, Mwaktau, Alia, Maungu, and Voi. The communities will also be educated on protecting the conservation area. He said creating community awareness and educating them on fire safety is crucial in ensuring that they are involved in protecting the environment.

Taita Taveta Wildlife Conservancy Association (TTWCA) chairperson Mcharo Bong’osa said this is the worst wildfire in the region for many years.

Speaking in Mwatate, Mr Bong’osa said ranchers are concerned that illegal herders are invading their conservancies yet no action has been taken by KWS. A Mwaktau resident, Mwakulila Ngati, said locals hold back their support towards conservation because the KWS and the government have failed to plough back its benefits to the community.

The residents have also been facing frequent human-wildlife conflicts with no compensation coming forth.

“How can we support KWS when all they care for is wildlife? Protecting our rights is another important route towards protecting wildlife,” he said.

Another resident Fredrick Mshimba blamed KWS for failing to create a cohesive relationship with the community hence the cold response towards the fires.

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