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Why Saiwa and its threatened antelope deserve attention

Sunday October 20 2019

Saiwa Swamp National Park

A rare Sitatunga aquatic antelope feeds at Saiwa Swamp National Park in Trans-Nzoia County on June 21, 2016. Life is literally being squeezed out of the national park as those responsible watch! PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

TOM MSHINDI
By TOM MSHINDI
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Trans-Nzoia County is not endowed with too many natural resources, which is why the almost criminal neglect of the small gem called Saiwa Swamp National Park is unconscionable.

The Kenya Wildlife Service and the Patrick Khaemba-led county government must hang their heads in shame about this.

This small park — it is only about three square kilometres — is a swampy, marshy area that is home to the rare Sitatunga aquatic antelope.

It has 18km of nature trails perfect for leisurely walking, exercise and birdwatching.

The park near Kitale is one of the few places in the world with a concentration of the antelopes, and certainly the only place the antelopes are found in Kenya.

The fact that they are rare and endangered should have made the KWS and the county government wake up and rollout a robust programme to protect them and the habitat that the antelopes dwell in.

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ENCROACHMENT

But this is not happening. The antelopes are being hunted for meat.

The park has been encroached on from all sides by farmers, and the rivers from the Cherangany hills that drained into the swamp are drying up because the riparian lands have been taken over.

Life is literally being squeezed out of the national park as those responsible watch! This is not acceptable.

Because they do not have the pulling power of and the mysticism that surrounds some of the more celebrated kin — elephants, rhinos or even lions — the Sitatungas are unlikely to attract the international attention that usually attends information about species that are endangered.

And this is the more reason that efforts to save this antelope must be driven from the ground.

There are two reasons that should have compelled the governor to lead this effort, starting seven years ago when he became the first governor of the county.

One is that he has a department championing tourism and another responsible for the environment.

TOURISM

I can hardly think of anything more important to the tourism department than ensuring that the Saiwa Park is jealously protected and aggressively marketed locally and internationally for the revenues and the notoriety that could heighten awareness about this rare animal species that we may not have for long!

School parties should be swarming there and research activities should be commonplace.

The environment department should be at the centre of efforts to protect the swamp and ensure that farmers respect its boundaries. Those cultivating near rivers should be stopped and prosecuted.

The second reason is that it is the only national park in the county whose one claim to fame is maize cultivation, and even that has gone.

An internationally exposed leader like Mr Khaemba should fully appreciate the significance of the park and its place in the country’s heritage.

AWARENESS

After the Mt Elgon Park in Bungoma, the Saiwa is the only other key resource in the northern bit of the western tourism circuit.

That should accord it some respect. He has time to start making things right before he leaves office in 2022.

He should be encouraged by a local, professionals-led community initiative that is keen to restore the swamp and protect that ecosystem.

The Nyumbani Kwetu initiative that last December organised a walk to raise awareness about the sorry status of Saiwa and the threat facing the antelope are planning a similar activity this year.

They need seed resources to publicise the event and prepare some marketing collateral. They plan to rollout an educational campaign to prevent further encroachment into the park and need help to enforce the law on riparian land.

If the road leading up to the park can be upgraded — smoothen it, pour murram on it and compact it — it would be a great help.

This will encourage more traffic and may trigger the setting up of decent accommodation facilities close to the park.

UNFORTUNATE STATE

There isn’t much that the Trans Nzoia government can claim to have done to improve the lives of residents despite the many pictures of events that it has in the galleries posted on its website.

The once beautifully-planned and maintained town is decrepit, whether one is in Milimani or in Shauri Moyo or in Section 6 or Section 19.

The satellite shopping centres are planning disasters and the controversy-ridden referral hospital that is the government’s flagship project has never been completed. They should not bury the Saiwa National Park too!

Mr Mshindi is the former editor-in-chief of NMG and is now consulting. [email protected], @tmshindi

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