How Swiss bank accounts are killing off Africa’s lions

Saturday June 23 2012

 

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

Last Wednesday and Thursday, two seemingly unrelated stories broke.

First, came news that Kenyan “Masaai morans” had killed six lions in Kitengela. They had drawn the attention of wildlife authorities to the lions that had strayed into the area and were eating their goats and sheep, but action was slow in coming.

When the Kenya-Uganda Railway was being built, lions nearly derailed the project. They dined on dozens of rail workers.

Kenya — like Tanzania and Uganda — was once teeming with lions, and they contributed in no small measure to the lucrative tourism business.

Today, there are about 2,000 left and some estimates have it that at the rate they are being killed and their habitats denuded, by 2020 there will be no lions left in Kenya.

The reason why the lions were killed boils down to poverty. To a man with four goats, a lion eating two of them is like an arsonist burning down 20 mansions in a housing tycoon’s estate. The tycoon, however, has insurance.

The Maasai man has no insurance. If tourism dollars were trickling back to him and went into a social safety net from which he could be compensated for his goats and sheep, he would think twice about killing the lions.

That doesn’t happen because the big men and women in most of Africa pocket the tourism dollars that come into the Treasury.

Perhaps because they think their countries are too risky to keep their loot in, they stash it in Swiss bank accounts.

Last Thursday came news that Kenyans have stashed away a staggering $857 million in Swiss banks. Tanzania was next with $178 million, followed by Uganda at $159 million, Rwanda at $29.7 million and lastly Burundi at $16.7 million.

The morans and lions may see each other as enemies. However, in the bigger scheme of things, they are both losers and have a lot more in common than they imagine.

Stories of irate villagers killing lions that ate their goats; elephants that trampled their crops; and monkeys that stole their maize are legion.

One of the most poignant is from Zimbabwe, told to me by a friend who works with a big financial institution and was in a delegation visiting with “Uncle” Bob Mugabe to see how they can help rescue a once-thriving economy that he has turned into a basket case.

One morning my friend got a driver and went off into the countryside. They arrived at a small town where the driver had relatives.

There was a huge gathering in the chief’s grounds. It wasn’t a political rally. There was an elephant tormenting the area, and the government was sending a ranger to shoot it.

Times were so hard, the town and surrounding villages were all looking forward to the kill so they could finally get some meat.

To avoid a civil war, the local chief had called a meeting and the people were voting on which households would get how much meat.

Apparently, more people turned up to democratically allocate the elephant meat, than to vote in the area in 2008! The best economic measure in Africa might be how many lions people kill, and how long the queues for pachyderm meat are.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @cobbo3