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Kenya launches new poaching crackdown to protect its wildlife

The Kenya Wildlife Service is launching a $1.25m (£700,000) scheme to bolster its wardens' fight against poachers in the savannah land of Tsavo, where lions, elephants, rhino and deer are still falling to hunters. Some killers are ivory traders, seeking a quick profit selling elephant tusks, but others are poor villagers, searching for meat to add to the cooking pot.

Under the new programme, wardens in Tsavo, who have long complained they lack the staff and resources adequately to patrol the park or remove all the traps set by villagers, will get trucks, walkie-talkies and better roads to keep poachers at bay. Some of the money will also be used to educate villagers about the importance of animal conservation.

Most of the money, provided by the US-based International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw), is to protect elephant and rhinos, whose populations have been cut by years of poaching. Through the 1970s and 1980s, hunters cut Kenya's elephant population from 168,000 to 16,000. A world ban on ivory trading in 1989 helped to reduce the killing, and elephant numbers rose to 27,000, but poachers still find a market for tusks in the Middle East and China.

Rhino horn is valued for its medicinal purposes and ivory is used for jewellery and ornamentation. Most of the ivory poached in Kenya is transported through Somalia to Yemen and sold around the world. This month, rangers arrested three Kenyans and seized 22 tusks, weighing a total of 130kg at a town in south-east Kenya.

Tsavo, a park the area of Wales, is among the most important ecosystems in East Africa. The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is moving 400 elephants to the park from the Shimba Hills reserve, 93 miles away. This will ease elephant overcrowding at Shimba Hills, but conservationists want to ensure the animals will be protected from poachers in Tsavo.

Wardens also plan to use their new trucks to get to the park's boundaries and dismantle traps set up by people from neighbouring villages. The villagers usually try to catch gazelles or dik-dik, a tiny deer, for meat.

A survey this year suggested that 25 per cent of the meat sold in Kenyan towns might be bushmeat. In the poorest villages, 80 per cent of households said bushmeat was their only source of meat. The KWS set up an education programme to discourage people from killing wild animals to supplement their diet but this has had little success so far.

The 8,320sq mile Tsavo national park is the oldest in Kenya and was once known for the lions that killed workers building the railway to Uganda. Its vast savannah has caught the imagination of countless British visitors, including Denys Finch Hatton, who was the lover of the Out of Africa author, Karen Blixen. He was the first to organise hunting safaris where guests could dine from silver cutlery and crystal wine glasses in the bush.

At the launch of the new programme, Kenya's Vice-President, Moody Awori, said the Tsavo ecosystem was unique in its diversity and size. He added: "Let us spare no effort, or resource, to maintain this area as a safe sanctuary for our wildlife."

Ifaw has already funded a similar, five-year project at Meru, the national park where the Born Free conservationists, Joy and George Adamson, released the lioness Elsa into the wild in 1959. The park became a no man's land in the 1980s, as bandits moved in to poach elephants and kill other animals for bushmeat.

Now, after a radical overhaul, security in the park has been improved and new animals are back.