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Trump's Proposed USAID Budget Cuts Worry Kenyan Conservationists

Overall, nations in the developing world are in limbo over the cuts, and worried they'll lose vital USAID funds.
A female elephant feeds her cub in the early morning hours in Kenya's Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.

A female elephant feeds her cub in the early morning hours in Kenya's Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.

President Donald Trump's "skinny budget," made public in March, has not yet been approved, and still awaits a response by a Congress highly skeptical of the administration's proposed draconian foreign aid reductions.

But environmentalists in Kenya are already feeling the heat, with some concerned that successful wildlife protection efforts could be at risk due to potential aid cuts.

Paul Gathitu, spokesperson for the government's Kenya Wildlife Service says that a lot of gains would be reversed if the funding disappears: "The United States has been giving Kenya money for many years to help decrease poaching—mostly of elephants. And yes, the numbers of elephants has been increasing over time. A recent census we conducted found that elephant numbers have grown by 8 percent over a four-year period to 27,000."

Gathitu emphasizes the stability provided by a cordial long-term relationship between the two nations: "Kenya has been receiving U.S funding for many decades. The relationship between the two countries has [been strong, with the] signing of bilateral agreements to extradite wildlife smugglers, drug traffickers, and other criminals."

While Trump has proposed slashing the U.S. Agency for International Development by up to 40 percent, Kenya looks like it would face only a 10 percent aid cut, if Congress allows it. Most of that reduction—from $711 million to $639 million—would come from ending the USAID Food for Peace Program, with those dollars diverted to other aid. In August, the U.S. announced more than $169 million in additional humanitarian assistance to support Ethiopians and Kenyans suffering from the effects of prolonged severe drought in the region.

Despite this current budgetary situation, fears remain strong in Kenya that environmental assistance could get axed.

The Value of Partnership

According to Joseph Boinet, the current Kenyan inspector general of police, USAID is making a major contribution to the fight against all kinds of trafficking. Kenya has extradited more than 128 drug traffickers and poachers to the U.S. since 2014, he says, noting that the illicit profits that such criminals earn from the illegal wildlife trade are believed to be funding regional and international terrorism activities.

"In return, the U.S. has also extradited to Kenya around 50 people involved with poaching," Boinet says. "Any strained relations [between our nations] could reverse not just the financial [benefits] but partnerships in both countries in reducing international crime."

U.S. aid flowing to Kenya helps finance conservation law enforcement and research; boosts agricultural productivity; and increases resilience to climate shocks. Under President Barack Obama, Kenya received financial support for resources, technical expertise, and equipment to combat wildlife trafficking, to improve communication, enhance natural resource management, and aid efforts to promote biodiversity conservation via sustainable economic activities.

Most USAID goes to the health sector, according to information provided by the Kenyan treasury department. Since 2005, the U.S. has provided funds for the President's Emergency Plan for Africa, supporting free antiretroviral treatment for people living with HIV. The program had treated over 7.7 million HIV-infected people across Africa, in resource-limited settings and supported HIV testing and counseling for 56.7 million people as of 2014.

Such health programs also indirectly aid conservation efforts, experts say, because healthy people are able to work and so are less likely to rely on poaching and other illegal activities for income. The HIV program also builds stronger communities with better law enforcement, which helps curb trafficking.

What's at Stake

While the exact scope and impact of Trump's proposed budget cuts remains unsure, and won't be known until October when Congress approves a 2018 budget, many Kenyans continue expressing concern. They say that USAID, maintained at current levels, is urgently needed for environmental conservation and health programs over the next two years.

One key project: USAID funding allowed for the opening in 2015 of the Kenyan Wildlife Service forensic laboratory, the first of its kind in East Africa. According to a USAID annual report, the lab is "developing a genetic database to identify seized animals and wildlife products to support the prosecution of crimes. In 2015, five Kenyan scientists received research awards to work with their American counterparts to develop innovative responses to reduce wildlife poaching and trafficking. The awards support research on ecosystem management, wildlife law enforcement and innovations such as barcoding DNA."

Gathitu reports that Kenya's lab, though relatively new, has already helped put poachers behind bars: "Since the lab was commissioned in May of 2015, it has tested more than 310 bushmeat samples submitted by investigating officers. It has also tested other samples for disease diagnostics and population genetics." Gathitu notes that, since becoming operational two years ago, more than 250 cases involving forensic evidence have been referred to the courts. Out of those, 30 cases have led to convictions, while the rest are ongoing.

"The United States government through Abbot Laboratories, not only provided funding for [our lab's] construction, but also for the training of personnel both locally and internationally. USAID has funded a project on elephant genetics that is ongoing," Gathitu says. Thanks to the U.S., the facility had sufficient funds to procure a sophisticated DNA sequencer and analyzer.

"Budget cuts by the Trump administration could result in the DNA lab being closed," Gathitu says. "Conducting forensic work is very expensive. To pay the workers their continued salary [and] to purchase equipment regularly, such as chemicals, requires big money." To date, the Trump administration has not signaled any cuts to this program.

Other USAID backed conservation activities in Kenya in recent years include an increase of grass and vegetation cover on 1.5 million hectares; a reduction of illegally traded ivory and rhino horn; and the moving of 20 black rhinos by the Kenya Wildlife Service, Northern Rangelands Trust, and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy into the new USAID-supported Sera Rhino Sanctuary in Samburu County, Kenya.

Rumors of Drastic Reductions Breed Despair

Clifford Njoroge, a community wildlife ranger, urged the U.S. government not to act rashly regarding the budget: "If you want to solve a problem, you do not solve it by making quick unwise decisions. You actually make the problem worse," he says. "You need to consult people and get good expert advice."

Njoroge says that, if Trump cuts USAID environmental programs, then, "yes, the gains we have made in reducing poaching will revert back, as our jobs [as rangers] will no longer exist. Poaching will increase and that is not only my fear, but that of many of my colleagues. Already many are slowly losing motivation to do their work."

He says that, before U.S. funded rangers were hired a few years ago, poaching was rampant: "They prevailed everywhere. There was no one to watch their actions, and it is our fear that with budget cuts, not only the same will return, but worse [criminal] scenarios of poaching." The U.S has provided funds for community rangers to acquire uniforms, as well as for sophisticated firearms so that the rangers can keep pace with heavily armed poachers.

Potential U.S. aid cuts also worry Risky Agwanda, a mammalogist at the National Museums of Kenya: "The U.S is the biggest funder of conservation globally. If cuts happen, for instance, a research project on how to improve breeding habits of elephants to increase their numbers could be at stake. So if poaching increases once again, and elephants breed less, then there is a problem."

Conserving Wildlife, Preserving the Economy

John Kaittany, a tourism consultant with Kenlove, an environmental non-governmental organization, emphasizes what could be at risk economically if USAID is disempowered. "Conservation is vital, especially for elephants. They attract millions of tourists to Kenya every year. They bring a few billions of dollars into the economy. So a lot stands to be lost."

"The conservation of wildlife is vital," agrees Kamau Mathenge, a resident of Laikipia County in Central Kenya. "The current U.S. president has been raised in a well-to-do family. So he does not understand the needs of poor countries or people. We hope he does not stay true to his word" regarding foreign aid cuts.

As poor as Kenya is, it remains one of five countries in Africa with high concentrations of elephant populations. And even though it could have made a good deal of money by selling its confiscated ivory stockpiles, Kenyan conservationists point out, the nation chose instead to burn most of that ivory. Under the United Nations Convention for International Trade of Endangered Species, Kenya has pledged to burn the rest of those stockpiles too.

Continued Uncertainty

While much of the global media is reporting that Kenya will be spared the worst of Trump's aid reductions, an employee at the American embassy in Nairobi confirmed to Mongabay that the administration is serious about its proposed cuts, and already doing harm. The employee, who asked to remain anonymous, says that visas have already been limited to Kenyan scientists, and that this should be seen as worrying.

"Lack of diplomatic experience in the new administration will cause more harm than good," says the embassy official. "We have already denied more than 34 Kenyan scientists visas to travel to the United States. We give visas out based on instructions from above." In April, Trump signed an executive order for a review of the H-1B visa program, intended for better educated foreign nationals including computer programmers, engineers, and scientists.

Dr. Germano Mwabu, a World Bank economist and an economics professor at the University of Nairobi said that the budget decreases—should they go forward—represent a serious U.S. policy shift. "If you cancel the funds and make the threats true, not only will it affect the economies involved, but also the U.S. It means that countries may also cut trade ties with the United States. So such an action is grave as countries rely on each other," the professor said.

Mwabu will be presenting a paper on the matter at an upcoming African Development Bank conference in Tunis. "Such [aid reductions] may [even] lead to a major global economic recession," he warned, suggesting that there is an urgent need for increased international funding for environmental conservation, not less.

"Nature will make us suffer if we mistreat it," Mwabu says. "What will our children eat if we play around with nature"

This story originally appeared at the website of global conservation news service Get updates on their stories delivered to your inbox, or follow @Mongabay on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.