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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

We must also protect our environment at this time

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

By Irũngũ Houghton and Dr. Paula Kahumbu

One of the most beautiful poems of the COVID-19 era starts with the words “we fell asleep in one world and woke up in another”. In the face of this dreaded bug, we must face the fact that human beings are not really that powerful against other living species, water, the earth and the sky.

Scientists argue that 70 per cent of the pathogens in infectious human diseases like COVID-19, Ebola and SARS leapt from wildlife microbes to humans. We must accept the inescapable conclusion that our very existence as human beings depends on how we treat animals in our homesteads and the savannahs going forward.

If animal and human interaction may have been at the source of this pandemic, how is wildlife doing during this time. Actually, quite well. Greatly reduced air and land travel has dramatically cut carbon emissions. The earth has had a chance to breathe, the air and rivers are cleaner. For the lions, leopards and cheetahs, there has been a two-week window of relief from over eager tourists in noisy vans and clicking cameras. The silence is also ominous.

Highly dependent on revenues and the vigilant eyes of Kenyan and foreign tourists and conservationists, COVID-19 also spells danger for wildlife protection and conservation. Flight bans effected have led to cancelled bookings and the cessation of movement in our parks long before the President spoke last week. Reduced Kenyan and tourist traffic means no gate revenues and no income for parks, reserves and conservancies.

Our conservancies depend on monthly lease payments financed from tourism. Most lease agreements will falter from April. For the communities that own these magnificent properties, it will be difficult to return to the negotiation table.

Reduced revenues also mean no salaries for rangers. Field patrols, roads maintenance and reconnaissance flights could go down by at least 50 per cent. When rangers go home and our Police Service is pre-occupied with enforcing the human curfew, anything can happen. There’s no one to watch. No one to respond.

Left unattended, poaching for rhino horns, elephant tusks and bushmeat may increase. So too, will encroachment driven by logging and pasture needs. However, the danger to our national heritage is not just from commercial and subsistence-based poaching. Kenya Wildlife Service has declared publicly its plans to put up a multi-million shilling eco-lodge and restaurant in the Nairobi National Park. The public and conservationists have less than seven days to give their views. Public participation and an environmental impact assessment are legal requirements. However, it is possible that we may all miss giving our views as we observe the stay at home order.

The Government of Kenya has been creatively finding tax relief and other fiscal solutions for some sectors. They could also consider tax breaks to encourage individual and corporate bodies to make donations. They could declare a six-month moratorium on large-scale investments in our parks, offer emergency funds or soft loans to tourism operators and conservancies to secure them for the next six months. Perhaps they could also invest in satellites, drones, camera traps and other remote tracking tools to assess changes in vegetation and the movement of animals.

This COVID-19 moment offers us an important opportunity to also rethink the relationship of people to the planet. Climate change denialism, greed for power and money and a disrespect for our environment remains an existential threat to billions of people. This hasn’t disappeared with the virus. Indeed, Indonesia could lose the battle against COVID-19 because of it. Rather than imposing tough travel restrictions to protect his people, President Joko Widodo offered 30 per cent discounts to attract foreign tourists and allocated US$8 million on social media promotion to reach them.

As that beautiful anonymous COVID-19 poem reminds us, “it is during a time such as this, you suddenly realise that power, beauty and money are worthless.” It won’t get you the oxygen you desperately need. The world is sending us a message that you and I are not necessary. The air, earth, water and animals without us are fine. When COVID-19 is over, “remember that you are the earth’s guests, not it’s master”.

We must find solutions to protect and repair our environment in this time also. We must tread lightly as we develop our infrastructure and commerce as a country. If we do not protect and conserve the natural heritage loaned to us, there will be no future to bank on. Happy Easter weekend all.

Writing in their personal capacity, this article was first published in the Saturday Standard, April 11, 2020


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