From Banking to Conservation: Kitili Mbathi, Director General, Kenya Wildlife Service, explains the transition to Swara’s Editorial Board Chair, William Pike, in an interview:
William: If someone met you first they’ll think that you are African American, you’ve got an American accent, and they wouldn’t realize that you are Kenyan. So how come you’ve got an American accent?
Kitili: Well I spent some time in the US, I went to university there and worked for a few years after university. I studied economics and political science and I worked for what was then a very large financial services organization, Merrill Lynch.
William: And then you came back and went into banking here but in the late 90s you joined the ‘dream team’ with Richard Leakey.
Kitili: I had been in banking for a number of years. I had just moved from Citibank to Stanbic. The dream team had been in operation for just a year. It started in 1999. Richard Leakey was asked to become the Head of Public Service and put together an economic recovery team to bring about a rapprochement with the donors. Kenya was in the donors’ bad books at the time, so he put together a team of about six individuals, one of whom as PS Treasury was a former colleague of mine at Barclays, Martin Oduor. He quickly realized that one of the issues that needed to be tackled was privatization, so he proposed me as the Investment Secretary in charge of Privatization. So that’s how I joined the team
William: So you didn’t know Richard Leakey ( now chairman of KWS) at that stage?
Kitili: I didn’t know Richard Leakey at all. I interviewed with him for the job and I was appointed
William: After the dream team collapsed, you went back to Stanbic.
Kitili: So I went back and by that time the job that I had had been taken on by somebody else, a successor had been recruited. I was on secondment from Stanbic so they took me back and were about to send me to Tanzania. Paperwork took a while and then the MD in Uganda resigned so they sent me to Uganda.
William: And then you came back and became Regional Director for Stanbic. How come you’ve been recruited back into KWS? Was that Richard Leakey trying to build his dream team in KWS?
Kitili: Richard and I had kept in touch after the dream team was fired. After he had been reappointed chairman of KWS, he had been in for about 6 months and he asked me if I knew of anybody suitable to fill in the role of Director General. He called me 10 days later and asked if I had thought of anyone. I said I hadn’t given it a thought and he said ‘actually I think you would be an excellent candidate.’ I told him I didn’t think so but said that I would give it some thought. I did, I applied, had to go through an interview process, and here I am.
William: Why did he say that he thought you would be a good candidate for the job?
Kitili: I think given where the challenges of the Service was. One of the big ones was financial and with my financial background. Also we had worked together in the civil service so he knows my thoughts on governance, on zero tolerance for corruption and my reputation of not being involved in any financial mischief. So I think he thought somebody with my financial and corporate governance background would be what KWS needs.
William: Now you’ve arrived here, how have you found it? When we interviewed Richard Leakey, he was quite critical of the financial state of KWS.
Kitili: Extremely tough. There are a number of reasons for this. Ever since we had the terrorist Al-Shabaab attacks, Ebola in West Africa, our primary form of income which is tourism has been going down, and so as tourism has gone down we have been directly affected. So we’ve had reduced receipts from tourism and also reduced receipts from government as the government’s priorities have shifted to other areas. We have been in a dire financial situation. My challenge has been to try and manage within the budgetary constraints that we’ve had, which have been painful and it’s taken a lot of adjustment from people. It’s never fun to put in cost cutting measures.
We are going to be reviewing our structure based on our new strategic plan which we are about to start the process of putting together and we will have to make sure that we are adequately structured to deliver on the new strategic plan.
William: There has been grumblings in KWS. Do you think the majority accept the need for change.
Kitili: On the whole, most people are reluctant to change, especially when it involves financial prudence. We have centralized all our banking, we had a very decentralized banking set up. Any requests for payments, any creditors we need to pay, are now handled centrally. This has been a way of us keeping a tighter control over the cash that we have in the institution and it means that we have much better liquidity management than in the past. What this has means is less flexibility for people in the field. The idea is that we will reduce the leakage and I can say that our liquidity has improved drastically. So there has been some grumbling about that and some of the allowances that have traditionally been paid which are not in line with government policies so we have had to reduce them. For instance, when an individual is travelling on business and all the accommodation is paid for, there was an additional night out allowance which was paid. And that isn’t payable for local travel under government regulation.
William: Recently in Mombasa where the president was looking into tourism issues and you were present. Did you get any sense or increased confidence that tourism is on the road to recovery?
Kitili: Two things: The first is that already the efforts that have been put in place on security and marketing finance has started to bear fruit. We are seeing higher numbers this year so I think there is already an uptick in tourism. The president wasn’t able to attend but the CS laid out the issues, we had an opportunity to debate them and I think the focus on rehabilitating tourism, looking at other markets and increased marketing will certainly increase tourism to Kenya and KWS will benefit as a result.
William: Is it within sight that KWS will become properly solvent and profitable?
Kitili: It is going to be a challenge but that is the objective – to make it less vulnerable to the vagaries of tourism and budget cuts from the government.
William: If you were flush with money, or better off than you are right now, what would you like to do?
Kitili: A lot of our facilities need restoration works. Our vehicles are able to operate and we have had tremendous success in reducing poaching. However our maintenance of vehicles is very high, our fleet is much older than it ought to be for the sort of terrain that we operate in. We need to renew our vehicle fleet. Our accommodation for our rangers in some places is far below what we would like to have. Then some of our remuneration is not where we would like to have it. So the morale generally is good, the core function is being carried out but we would do better in a better financial situation.
William: What is the long-term future of the parks is? Leakey mentioned in his interview that he had a deep belief that parks should be fenced. What’s your position?
Kitili: The parks will be able to survive. My bigger concern is the wildlife dispersal areas outside the park, that’s where we as conservationists are going to be under incredible pressure to somehow map out and secure corridors for animals. I have to agree with the Chairman that we will inevitably have to fence most of our parks. The reason is that the biggest challenge facing KWS right now is human-wildlife conflict. Two sides to it: in times such as drought, herders invade our parks for grass and water, we have a constant battle to kick them out. We also have situations where some animals like the elephant, which is incredible at detecting water, are attacking water sources, water tanks, boreholes, so they will stray out of the park to find water. We are inevitably going to have to keep them away from people who are cultivating very close to the park.
William: There have been complaints that KWS has a compensation scheme but the compensation is inadequate or is never paid.
Kitili: The government has compensation schemes, KWS is the secretariat of the compensation scheme. In each county we have set up, or the government has set up with our assistance, County Wildlife Conservation and Compensation Committees so any time there is an attack, an individual is injured, maimed or crops destroyed, a claim is filed, and the committee reviews the claim. If they find it valid, they forward it to KWS who then review the claim and pass it on to the National Compensation Committee which then directs the Ministry to release the compensation funding. It is true that, so far, there has been inadequate funding for compensation.
William: And it sounds like a slow bureaucratic process
Kitili: It is slow, it is bureaucratic, it is underfunded. The Members of Parliament put in a very generous compensation scheme but they haven’t allocated the funding to make it viable. KWS is the face of it so we get blamed but it is actually out of our hands.
William: How would you like to fix that?
Kitili: They need to review what qualifies for compensation and the amounts, or make the budgetary allocation available. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t give people the expectations and then not meet those expectations. If they feel that the country can afford this generous compensation scheme, then the politicians will need to fund it.
William: Poaching has gone down greatly. Why?
Kitili: It has not just gone down, poaching of our key species, rhino and elephant, has fallen off a precipice. The decline has been dramatic whereas you look at the number for Africa as a whole, they’ve been stable to slightly declining. So what has worked for Kenya is that the government has provided resources, enabled KWS to hire more rangers, put boots on the ground, resource them with weapons and invested in the KWS intelligence system. This is what has worked for KWS and the government as a whole.
William: Is it sustainable?
Kitili: We cannot sit on our hands and rest. We need to be out there every day, we need our people listening in, we have incursions into some of the sanctuaries and we need to be on our toes because the minute we slacken, they are going to be on to us. Poachers are becoming more sophisticated. In South Africa, for instance, they shoot rhinos from choppers. Eventually that technique may come here so we must continue to be vigilant. We must invest in the right technology and the right training for our people and upgraded intelligence capability.
William: Has the crackdown by the judiciary helped in reducing poaching?
Kitili: It has. The Wildlife Conservation and Management Act has put in place very stiff penalties for people involved in wildlife crime. It has been very effective.
William: One of the issues to be discussed in the upcoming CITES meeting is whether ivory should be tradable in the world market. Will Kenya maintain its tough stand on the ivory trade?
Kitili: Kenya and the other 29 African elephant range states have proposed that all ivory be under Appendix 1 so there will be no trade in ivory internationally at all. That is what we are pushing for. We would also like to see a closure of domestic ivory markets. In the past when flexible one-off sales have been allowed for the Southern African ivory stock piles, it has stimulated demand for ivory, especially in the newly affluent South-Eastern Asian countries. It has resulted in increased poaching. Legitimate sales drive poaching. The increased appetite leads to increased poaching.
William: Kenya’s ivory stockpile was burned in Nairobi Park a few months ago. You could have kept it locked somewhere. And you used diesel fuel for the burn in the park. Was the symbolic gesture worth it?
Kitili: It was more than just a symbolic gesture. It was a phenomenal decision by the government to burn all our stockpile of ivory. The event demonstrated that Kenya doesn’t place any value on ivory that is off elephants, or on rhino horn that is not on the rhino. By destroying it, we are saying there is no future economic value from the ivory. If we locked it up in a stock pile, it could be argued that one day in the future we would expect to get an economic value from it.
Was it worth it? Absolutely because it put Kenya at the top of the conservation ladder. With ubsequent meetings we’ve had in Kenya, Kenya is now known as being in the forefront of conservation. When we go to CITES our voice will be heard and we will have some credibility behind our arguments.
William: Recently lions have strayed out of the park. Sone conspiracy theories say that KWS was behind the lions straying out.
Kitili: The truth is that some constructionwas going on with the Standard Gauge Railway in part of the south-eastern side of the park. People were working 24 hours a day, at night sometimes a fence would be knocked down and it wouldn’t be reported. The lions test the fences periodically to see if they are electrified and if they are not, they climb over the fence. There are Maasai bomas with cattle and sheep right at the other side and that is what they were going for. We also had an area where there were gaps in the fence. Warthogs go under the fence and the lions chase them and find themselves in Langata. We have since checked all our fences and made sure that our fence monitoring was upgraded. We do not have any more lions escaping.
William: Is there is a long-term future for lions at the Nairobi National Park?
Kitili: Absolutely. We have to monitor the number and we will continue to do so but there is certainly food for them, there is space for a certain number of them and we expect to always have them here.
William: Kenya Railways said that the Standard Gauge Railway was going to go through the middle of the Nairobi Park. When we interviewed Richard Leakey he said “over my dead body” but is the possibility seems to be still swirling around. What do you say to that?
Kitili: The original route which was going to go through the forest, not too far from here, which is a prime black rhino breeding area is certainly off the table. So he is right, that will not happen. There are other routes which have been reviewed and are being reviewed. Within the next couple of weeks we will be in a position to tell you exactly where the route is likely to be.
William: Do you think that the integrity of the park can be maintained?
Kitili: I do believe so. At the end of the day we must ensure that we keep this gem and any solution that is arrived at must ensure that it is as least disruptive as possible and it leaves the least possible footprint.
William: Two years ago there were stories in the newspapers that the SGR was going to run along the existing railway line and north side of the park until Alan Donovan went to court to block it and got his Heritage House designated as a national monument. That would have clipped a little bit off the edge of the park but it wouldn’t have been a massive intrusion. Is the Northern route still a possiblity?
Kitili: Not anymore. The investment that has been made in the Nairobi depot in Syokimau at this point is so huge that it’s unlikely that there will be any change in that part of the route. That route is very unobtrusive to the park. It is right at the edge and there is some land where a wayleave has been granted. It is phase 2 that is more challenging. Phase 2 being from Nairobi to Naivasha to Kisumu. Phase 1 is done and is literally unobtrusive.
William: If numbers are going up, will it ever be necessary to cull animals in the parks?
Kitili: Yes and we do cull animals from time to time when there is a problem. We have ducks and geese in Mwea which are destroying the rice crop so we’ve had to cull some of them. We have some buffaloes overrunning Lake Nakuru National Park so we may have to eventually translocate, or cull some there. But for lions, elephants, no we don’t anticipate that anytime soon.
William: What about the bush meat trade?
Kitili: This is a big problem. If we look at poaching, that’s the hottest spot – bush meat. For some people it is survival but there is also a market out there where they don’t necessarily inform the consumer is bush meat and sell it off as beef or mutton.
William: What do you do about that?
Kitili: We arrest the individuals and charge them in court. Under the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act penalties are pretty stiff.
William: If poaching of elephant and rhino has declined, have you seen any parallel decline in bush meat?
Kitili: Bush meat has gone the other way. Bush meat poaching is increasing. We need to have better intelligence so we can catch people and send the word out that it’s just not worth getting caught with antelope or zebra meat.
William: Have you started that process?
Kitili: Yes we have. We arrest people every week with bush meat.
William: All over the country or particular hot spots?
Kitili: The coast, the edges of Tsavo, its areas where people eat bush meat.
William: And when you arrest people, are they aware that handling or poaching for bush meat is a crime?
Kitili: They know it’s wrong because most of it isn’t for family dinners but for sale. So there are orders out there and people are filling orders.
William: How does working in conservation compare to working in banking for you personally?
Kitili: The end is much more fulfilling because if we are successful in improving the financial sustainability of KWS, that will help the conservation agenda way beyond my lifetime and into my grandkids’ lifetime. Even more inspiring is that it isn’t just for Kenyans but for the world. A lot of the species that we have are only found in Kenya. Just over the weekend we released the Grevy zebra’s census. 95% of Grevys are in Kenya. That is a really awesome task to manage and sustain and increase their numbers.
William: Finally, what would you like to achieve in KWS during your tenure?
Kitili: I would like us to continue what we are doing well, which is managing poaching, ensuring the sustainability of the wildlife but where I think I would like to leave my mark is improving the financial sustainability of KWS.
William: Your parting comment?
Kitili: Just that the key to sustainability of wildlife in Kenya is ensuring that Kenyans feel that they own the wildlife. If Kenyans feel that the wildlife is owned by anybody else then poaching is not a big deal but if they feel that intrinsically the wildlife belongs to them, then we have the hope of conserving wildlife.