Karen Blixen, whose pen name was Isak Dinesen, managed a coffee plantation in southern Kenya for 17 years in the early part of the 20th century. In the vignettes and recollections that make up Out of Africa, the land and its wildlife are both a potent backdrop and a major player. The changing character of the Ngong Hills to the west and the Masai Reserve beyond it in all types of weather, the sightings of various animals and descriptions of their actions and movements, created a foundation and a context for her daily life that made everything large and significant, deeply connected to the great web of physicality that is Africa. Her frequent travels into the countryside seem to signify her own largeness of mind, and underscore her deep attachment to this land, and her vast sense of loss when she had to leave it.

A visitor to this same area today would be hard-pressed to witness the variety of wildlife Blixen did, let alone the sheer numbers. Populations of most of the legendary species have shrunken dramatically, thanks to the burgeoning human population, the greater frequency of drought, and the seemingly intractable problem of poaching.

Kenya was once known as a family planning success story. Between the late 1970s and the end of the century, the birth rate declined from an average of eight children per family to 4.7, with further declines expected. But a drop in international support for family planning resulted in a reversal of this trend. In 1999 there were 29 million Kenyans; in 2010 there were 39 million; and at current growth rates, there could be 51 million by 2020. This puts tremendous pressure on the remaining wildlife habitat, including that in the national parks where most of Kenya’s larger species live.

The best-known of the national parks, Amboseli, Tsavo, and the Masai Mara Reserve, are in the arid and semi-arid region of southern Kenya, where about one-third of the human population lives and where resources are already scarce. The sub-division of land for housing and the rapid expansion of agriculture to feed the burgeoning population has led to a decrease in both rangeland and wildlife habitat. The increased density of livestock has severely degraded the lands shared with wildlife, and has fragmented wildlife habitat and migration corridors.

Among the victims of this development are giraffes, whose numbers have plummeted 30% or more in the past decade, with some sub-species now extinct in the wild. Late 2009 also saw a massive loss of wildebeest, zebra, elephant, buffalo, and hippo due in large part to growth in the livestock population. And the lion, with its prey thus reduced, comes into far more conflict with humans when it resorts to pilfering livestock, and is killed in large numbers by farmers and herders. Kenya has lost an average of one hundred lions each year for the past several years. With only some 2000 remaining, at present rates this iconic creature of the Kenyan savannah could be extinct there by 2030.1

Drought also plays a role in the plight of much of Africa’s wildlife. Normal variation in rainfall has always produced periodic drought in Kenya. But thanks to climate change, drought has occurred more frequently and with greater intensity in recent years, with four severe droughts in the past decade alone. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change anticipates that Kenya’s drylands will become drier still in the 21st century.2

Among the most visible victims are elephants, especially the old and the young. The particular concern when the matriarchs are lost is that the knowledge of where to go for scarce water, acquired over a long life, may be lost along with them before they have passed it down to younger elephants. When this happens, entire herds may be decimated.

Other drought-vulnerable species include buffalo, warthogs, hippos, and antelope. Even crocodiles have been spotted migrating across the land in search of water. Only the scavengers do well. But while ordinarily carcasses are quickly devoured, during times of drought there are many left to rot in the sun.

Livestock suffers as well, and so, of course, do the people. “If the rains fail,” said one elderly woman, “we are all in trouble. It’s not just going to be the animals dying. We’ll die too, and it’s not going to take long.”3

Poaching too has experienced a resurgence in recent years. The value of ivory has skyrocketed, along with demand, especially in China; and the result has been all too evident. Elephants and rhinos have been killed in large numbers across the country, the tusks hacked brutally from their carcasses.

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The Kenya Wildlife Service, which operates the nation’s parks and preserves, has been at the forefront of efforts to address many of these problems and protect the nation’s wildlife. Among their recent projects is the creation of a National Giraffe Conservation Strategy, the first such program anywhere, spurred in part by the recent placement of one of Kenya’s giraffe subspecies on the IUCN Red List, the global record of endangered species.

Another project involves notching the ears of black rhinos and fitting them with transmitters to better understand their distribution and increase their security. The tips of their tusks are also removed, to discourage poaching. This program, begun at Tsavo East, will be expanded into additional areas. At Lewa National Reserve, the site of a great recent upsurge in poaching, there are now night patrols and air surveillance, along with efforts to develop networks of informants and the involvement of local communities. Penalties for poaching have been increased. The black rhino population has begun to recover, and more sanctuaries are planned to accommodate the growth.

The problem with human-lion conflict is being addressed by the Lion Guardians program operated by Panthera, the global big cat conservation organization, in which Masai warriors, once hunters of the lion, are trained to monitor and protect them, and to work with their countrymen to stop the killing. By informing herders of where lions are and helping them keep better track of their livestock, they can eliminate many of the conflict situations.

Efforts too are being made to control Kenya’s human population growth. The Ministry of Health, long committed to sustainable growth, has begun a program of integrating family planning with HIV testing to reach a far greater number of people. Organizations such as the United Nations Population Fund are working to introduce more socially acceptable methods of family planning, and as they are gradually adopted, the improvements in child health associated with them are beginning to persuade the doubtful. But much more funding is needed to expand these projects.

Vitally needed are legislative efforts to protect habitat. A recent dissertation at Wageningen University (Netherlands) documenting the massive decline in herbivores in the Masai Mara Reserve found the expansion of wheat farming into their habitat to be the foremost cause, and concluded that “current Kenyan legislation prohibits on one hand the killing of wildlife, while on the other hand leaving the option open for unlimited destruction of its habitat.”4 Blixen's estate itself was sold to a developer and subdivided for housing, as if to symbolize what was to come. If we wish to see again the wildlife-covered plains that Blixen knew and that persist for us in mythology, the correction of this contradiction in policy would be a good place to start.

1 Panthera. “State of the Lion.” http://www.panthera.org/sites/default/files/report_card_lion_071310a.pdf

2 World Agroforestry Centre. “Drought in Kenya: Climatic, Economic and Socio-Political Factors.” http://worldagroforestry.org/downloads/publications/PDFs/NL06291.pdf

3 Greste, Peter. “Kenya Hit by Killer Drought.” BBC News: 21 Sep 2009. Online. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8267165.stm

4 Ottichilo, Wilber Khasilwa. “Wildlife dynamics: an analysis of change in the Masai Mara ecosystem of Kenya.” PhD dissertation, Wageningen University. 2000. http://library.wur.nl/WebQuery/wda/lang?dissertatie/nummer=2766