The conservation fraternity in Kenya witnessed history in the making, with the inauguration of the Wildlife Research and Training Institute (WRTI) Board of Directors by the Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, Hon. Najib Balala, August 10, 2020, at the Kenya Wildlife Service Training Institute (KWSTI) in Naivasha.
The new WRTI will be headed by KWS’ immediate former Director of Biodiversity, Research and Planning, Dr. Patrick Omondi, as Director in an acting capacity. WRTI Board of directors comprises of several distinguished conservation pioneers, including Dr. Winnie Kiiru, founder of ConservationKenya; Dickson Kaelo, CEO Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association; Tom Lalampaa, CEO Northern Rangelands Trust; Gladys Mwaka, Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute; Dr. Livingstone Talei, Researcher at Kabarak University; Dr. Mbarak A. Suleiman and Prof. Joshua Kwonyike.
The CS said that the inauguration marked a milestone in the wildlife sector, adding that it was being operationalized following the enactment of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act (WCMA), 2013. He said that research data must be protected in a database, stating that strict adherence to data-sharing protocols must be respected. He stressed the need for transparency and accountability in dealing with research data.
Balala said that the institution will house a pool of scientists and wildlife researchers, who, in collaboration with other scientists worldwide, will develop a knowledge base to mitigate current threats facing wildlife. He expects the institution to establish a better and efficient system of monitoring all wildlife-related research activities undertaken in the country.
The CS said WRTI should, as a matter of urgency, collaborate with other national and international research institutions to develop innovative fund-raising methodologies. Balala explained that he had issued a policy directive to KWS, in consultation with the BoT, to facilitate the transfer of the current research and wildlife training function and assets held by it, to WRTI, even as he cautioned against in-fighting and competition between KWS and WRTI. He directed the legal officers from the State Department of Wildlife and KWS to ensure all policies and procedures are in conformity with government, so that the new institute becomes fully operationalized in the shortest time possible.
The CS directed DG to release KWSTI to serve as the headquarters of the new institute, in addition to deploying on secondment relevant core staff from Biodiversity, Research & Planning Directorate, and those stationed at KWSTI.
The Principal Secretary in the State Department of Wildlife Prof. Fred Segor said that WCMA 2013 envisaged the formation of WRTI, noting that in other Ministries, sub-sectors such as forests, fisheries and marine have well-established research institutions. Similarly, it is important to employ Science to inform wildlife conservation management.
He challenged the new Board to develop an appropriate organization structure and work with the relevant regulators pertaining to research. He also advised them to develop innovative ways of fund-raising because over-reliance on an already burdened Exchequer is not sustainable.
Vice Chair of the KWS Board of Trustees Betty Maitoyo congratulated the newly inaugurated BoD, eliciting laughter when she likened the coming into existence of WRTI to a long and painful labour. She stated that the BoT would give its unwavering support to ‘the new-born baby.’
KWS Director General Brig. (Rtd) John Waweru thanked the CS for the monumental step of actualizing the implementation of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act, 2013, by establishing and operationalizing the WRTI. He said that wildlife conservation and management faces myriad challenges, including habitat loss and degradation as well as unsustainable exploitation and poaching. As such, WRTI is therefore very instrumental in generating the required scientific information on wildlife resources to influence decisions on appropriate wildlife uses.
“Research activities at KWS have been under-resourced due to competing priorities such as wildlife protection against limited funding. Thus, only a few threatened species e.g. rhino and elephant have been monitored consistently over time,” he said. The institute is expected to generate information on the status of Kenya’s wildlife populations, as well as customized information dissemination tools. He said that KWS would facilitate transfer of the wildlife research and training functions and associated resources to WRTI.
Dr. Omondi said that his new appointment amongst the top leadership in the wildlife sector was a humbling recognition of his nearly 30 years in active conservation. He lauded the KWS DG Brig. (Rtd) John Waweru, for his immense understanding of, and support for wildlife research. It was during his tenure that four national strategies on endangered species were launched: Mountain bongo, lion and spotted hyena, Hirola and Roan antelopes, with several others in the offing, even in the midst of a crippling pandemic.
“You cannot research what you do not have. All wildlife species must first be protected before any research is undertaken into what kills them,” he said, reiterating his commitment to the new responsibilities. WRTI was now in a position to access national budgetary allocations such as the National Research Fund, as well as raise its profile internationally in wildlife research agenda at international forums such as CITES, CMS and Ramsar.
“WRTI has only 16 lecturers catering to a student population of 1,000 , and there is an urgent need to build the technical staff capacity to guide wildlife research and organize the industry,” he said.