Anyone who has ever been to Kenya's extraordinary game parks to see the elephants, or dreamed of doing so, will be fascinated by this story of how these parks came to be the refuges they are and not the corrals for government-sanctioned poaching that they were. When paleontologist Richard Leakey took over the Department of Wildlife and Conservation in 1989, rampant corruption, theft, absenteeism, and a don't-care attitude were hallmarks within the department.
The Kenyan government lacked a real commitment to conservation, and the burgeoning population exerted pressure on national park borders, clearing land for farming and threatening wildlife, unimpeded. Poaching, patronage, a general ripoff mentality, and collusion between park rangers, politicians, blackmarketeers, and smugglers, were so interconnected and seemingly so ineradicable that the department resembled a many-headed hydra. Tribal rivalries within Kenya, a porous border through which Somalian thieves made forays, and a lack of agreement between Kenya and neighboring African countries about the best way to conserve animals made this one of the most daunting management challenges imaginable.
In prose that is as direct and to the point (and sometimes as self-congratulatory) as he is, Leakey tells how he managed a multimilliondollar corporation in a country in which everyone wants a piece of the pie, usually under the table. As Leakey tells of cleaning up the department and conserving the elephants, the reader also learns about the economics of the ivory trade, the tug-of-war between immediate political realities and long-term goals, the role of the World Bank in African development, and the politicking involved in deciding what is an endangered species under the U.N.'s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). It's a fascinating tale, equally intriguing to the lover of wildlife, the student of management, and the East African history buff. Mary Whipple
This book succeeds well both as a conservation and as an action story about leading change.
Dr. Richard Leakey, son of the famous Louis and Mary Leakey, is best known for his work in unearthing early human fossils in Kenya. While doing his paleontological work, he also headed up the National Kenya Museum. As a high profile Kenyan, his criticisms of the rampant slaughter of wild elephants had drawn the attention of Kenya's president, Mr. Daniel arap Moi. Without warning, Dr. Leakey was appointed head of the Kenya Department of Wildlife and Conservation Management in 1989 and given encouragement to solve the problem.
Dr. Leakey found many serious problems. Corruption was rampant (rangers often were doing the poaching or helping the poachers). Less than 5 percent of the equipment worked. Little training was provided. Basics like gasoline were not available to maintain patrols. The poachers were using automatic weapons and had the rangers outgunned by a wide margin. Tourists were being robbed and killed, which potentially would dry up sources of income for Kenya.
What follows is a truly astonishing tale of how one man made a difference, but not quite enough of one. Reorganized as the Kenya Wildlife Service, the new organization became effective in fighting the poachers. Dr. Leakey fought untiringly to stop the international ivory trade and change consumer attitudes away from ivory products. To launch this effort, he publicly burned over three million dollars of seized ivory for the international television cameras. He also made many trips to economically advanced countries to raise funds, and obtained capital needed to establish a self-funding wildlife activity in Kenya.
But as the checks began to roll in, the political hands became outstretched. Dr. Leakey resigned in 1994 to protest the lost of autonomy for the KWS, and most of the money was diverted for non-wildlife spending. On the brink of bankruptcy, he was brought in to improve operations again in 1998 and had everything in the black within a year.
The book also recounts Dr. Leakey's serious health problems. His life was saved by a kidney transplant from his brother in 1979. A 1993 plane crash caused part of both legs to be amputated.
What you also may not know about Dr. Leakey is that his formal educational training stopped around high school. He actually started out a safari business as a young man. So even in his best known area, he learned on the job. The same thing happened with his work on behalf of elephants. You will probably agree with me that he was astonishingly effective in both areas.
The main flaw in his plan was that his new agency needed to be more independent of Kenyan politics, and the funding from the World Bank should not have flowed through the Kenyan treasury where it provided too much political temptation.
The end of the book briefly recounts his conversion into a parliamentary political opponent of the ruling party.
I came away very impressed with the courage of the Kenyan rangers in taking on the poachers. Until several years into the program, the rangers were very likely to be killed in each engagement. For a scientist like Dr. Leakey to envision how to build and motivate a military organization was quite remarkable.
If you ever have a chance to see an elephant in Kenya, be sure to remember to think kindly of the brave Kenyans who made it possible.
After you finish this book, think about rare wildlife near where you live. What can you do to help ensure that the wildlife will be there for future generations? Be sure to remember Dr. Leakey's observation, "There is surely no simple prescription."
Help create a better world for all the animals and people!
on 8 April 2014
Wildlife Wars is Richard Leakey's account of his time as the first director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, his battles with politicians and tribal rivalries to protect the county's diverse and valuable wildlife for future generations. This is a fascinating insight into the politics of a country that, even today, is still reliant upon its wildlife for the greater part of its economic wellbeing.