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Kenya conducts a wildlife census mid-pandemic

(CNN) – The wildlife researcher is busy marking his notepad when the elephants come into view so as not to miss a single one in his count.

Meanwhile, the pilot, who flies high above Amboseli Park in Kenya in a helicopter, circles around the herd to provide a clearer view of the pack – and an extremely rare group of twin babies among them.

“The last time Kenya recorded twin elephants was 40 years ago,” said Najib Balala, Kenya’s tourism minister, over the crackling headphones.

During the pandemic, Kenya experienced a baby boom of over 200 elephants, or “Covid gifts,” as Balala calls them.

Kenya experienced a baby elephant boom during Covid.

Saskya Vandoorne

But although some animals have thrived in the less crowded parks during the pandemic, Covid-19 is having a devastating impact on conservation across the African continent and the millions of livelihoods that depend on ecotourism.

In March 2020, Kenya abruptly closed its border to contain the spread of the virus. The country’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry screeched to a halt and lost over 80% of its revenue. It isn’t expected to recover until 2024, says Balala.

“Can tourism survive until 2024? We need to rethink and reshape our approach so we can survive until tourism picks up again, ”he told CNN.

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Conservationists try to count every single animal in Kenya.

Saskya Vandoorne

This question has sparked Kenya’s most ambitious conservation efforts to date: For the first time, every single animal and marine life was counted in all 58 national parks across the country.

The large wildlife census will be critical to understanding and protecting the more than 1,000 species native to Kenya, some of which have seen an alarming population decline in recent decades, according to scientists.

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Conservationists use GPS trackers, planes, camera traps, and workers to track animals.

Bethlehem Feleke

With GPS trackers, airplanes, camera traps and a considerable workforce, the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) counts everything from the royal giraffe to the lovable cat-sized dik-dik over three months.

You will focus on rare species including the pangolin – often traded illegally – the sitatunga antelope, aardvark and hedgehog, which have never been counted before.

Shrinking habitats

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The Masaai have been hit hard by the decline in tourism.

Saskya Vandoorne

This volume of unprecedented data will help Kenya better understand its wildlife and the various threats it faces today – such as climate change, human-wildlife conflicts, and shrinking habitats amid growing competition for land use.

For decades the Maasai have given up land for some of Kenya’s most famous parks. Noah Lemaiyan – a shepherd in a red and blue scarf – lives on the outskirts of Amboseli. Since the tourists stopped coming, he says, the income for his village has dried up.

“Women used to make bracelets and necklaces,” he says. “But now we have to sell a cow to buy food.”

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The natural habitat for many animals in Kenya is dwindling.

Saskya Vandoorne

Lemaiyan also struggles with water shortages – vital to keeping his herd alive.

Dr. Patrick Omondi, the acting director of biodiversity, research and planning at KWS, hopes the census will give them a better understanding of how irregular weather patterns affect animals and have forced habitats to change.

“We’ll see where these wildlife are in time and space,” he says – which will allow them to create a more robust management plan.

“We saw wildlife enter spaces that they haven’t been in for 50 years,” he adds.

By the end of July, Omondi and his team of 100 will have combed every hilly landscape in Kenya by air and land and measured all lakes and marine parks by boat and underwater.

And when the census is over, work can begin.

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