Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala has sparked debate after he appointed former Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) director David Western to chair a task force to research on hunting and selling of wildlife products and trophies.
Dr Western’s appointment to chair the task force “to review policy and laws on direct commercial exploitation of game” comes just weeks before the term of KWS Board of Trustees chairman, Dr Richard Leakey, expires.
The appointment has raised questions whether Mr Balala is shopping for Dr Leakey’s replacement.
Dr Western’s appointment is also likely to fly into a debate before the Senate and the National Assembly about failure by the government to gazette regulations and guidelines for the 2013 Wildlife Conservation and Management Act.
This raises questions about the legality of actions taken in the absence of the same, including Western’s appointment and mandate to review such a fundamental aspect of wildlife conservation, and apparently circumventing KWS, the legal mandate holder over game.
KWS is the custodian of the 2013 Wildlife Conservation and Management Act, and the appointment of an outsider to spearhead a review of direct commercial exploitation of game, was seen by some as an indicator of more changes to come.
Sources indicated the KWS board held its last meeting last Wednesday ahead of the expiry of Dr Leakey’s term on April 17.
KWS currently has no substantive director-general, and many senior officers are in office in acting capacity since the departure of the last boss, Mr Kitili Mbathi, in 2017.
Former KWS head, Mr Nehemiah Rotich, was appointed chief operating officer in charge of administration, finance and human resources, reporting to the board, as is the head of security, parks and intelligence, Mr Julius Kimani, and former senior warden at Meru National Park, Mr Mark Jenkins, as adviser to both Mr Rotich and Mr Kimani.
The three-year term in office for four KWS board members also expire on April 17.
Dr Leakey’s departure is expected to herald a new era in wildlife conservation policies, and perhaps fields like sport hunting, which he has vehemently opposed.
“Consumptive utilisation” covers a long list of species and has traditionally stoked fears of re-introduction of sport hunting due the fact that its proponents have been former big game hunters who retain large scale ranches that host wildlife.
However, concerns about corruption, poor equipment, and a lawless neighbourhood that supplies illegal firearms to Kenya from Somalia and Sudan has made re-introduction of sport hunting a touchy issue for decades.
Retired President Mwai Kibaki’s administration banned cropping of wildlife (culling of select species based on quotas allocated after a count) after a study found widespread abuse in regions where it had been allowed.
The damning 2003 report, commissioned by KWS, revealed culling of unauthorised species, killing more than the allocated quotas, tampering and exaggeration of wildlife numbers to justify higher culling quotas, and a growing demand for wildlife meat undermining the overall objectives of sustainable commercial exploitation of game products.
That is the ban Dr Western is expected to revisit, together with the sport hunting embargo imposed in 1977, review and probably make new recommendations.
Mr Balala said other task force members would be announced soon through a gazette notice.
“The task force will take cognizance of the impacts, successes and failures of the previous wildlife cropping programmes,” he said.
However, there is a petition lodged in the Senate and the National Assembly by the County Wildlife Conservation and Compensation Committees secretary-general Ali Shebwana.
The committees are a creation of the Wildlife Act and were gazetted in 2015, but have now petitioned Parliament, accusing the government of undermining the spirit of devolution by frustrating county wildlife conservation teams by denying them operational budget allocations.
On Thursday last week, Mr Shebwana and his team appeared before the Senate committee on Environment to stop an amendment to the law.