Sophisticated poachers could undercut bold Kenyan fight against wildlife crime
Nevertheless, the country is highlighted as a key source and transit point for wildlife commodities exiting Africa while the firm actions taken to stem wildlife crime are at risk of being undermined by weaknesses in laws governing wildlife trafficking, corruption, weak capacity and high demand in Asian markets, according to a USAID-funded report launched on May 9th by TRAFFIC, the leading non-governmental organization working globally on trade in wild animals and plants, and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).
Dr Richard Leakey, Chairman of KWS said: “TRAFFIC’s report highlights the considerable progress made by the authorities in addressing wildlife poaching and trafficking in Kenya but does not shy away from acknowledging the considerable challenges that lie ahead: it is a blueprint for taking action against the organized criminal syndicates who undermine our society and rob us of our wildlife.”
Among other findings, the report highlights Kilindini Port in Mombasa and Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi as important exit points from Africa for illegally traded wildlife products from countries, including Tanzania, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Zambia and South Sudan. Since 2009, more ivory has been shipped through Mombasa than any other trade route out of Africa.
“Corruption among government and private sector officials is a key enabling factor of the illegal wildlife trade,” states the report. “The fact that wildlife contraband, especially rhino horn and elephant ivory, has been exported from Kenya only to be seized in transit or in destination countries means that wildlife traffickers are able to exploit security loopholes in the country’s law enforcement network.”
The lack of regional and international co-operation in East Africa to address wildlife crime is also identified as a critical weakness, hindering efforts that would enable more emphasis to be placed on intelligence-based operations, making them more effective in targeting criminals higher up the trade chain.
“Future enforcement interventions in Kenya and elsewhere in the region need to be internationally co-ordinated and focus on targeting the middlemen and kingpins of large-scale trafficking, rather than easily replaceable low-level poachers and transport mules,” said Steven Broad, Executive Director of TRAFFIC.
Kenya’s wildlife has suffered at the hands of poachers. According to the report, after years of recovery, Kenya’s elephant population is undergoing a marginal decline, with around 32,500 animals left in the wild — still well below the estimated population of 167,000 in 1973. Similarly, since 1970, Kenya’s rhinoceros population has fallen from around 20,000 to just 650 Black and 381 White Rhinos in 2014, although this is still the third largest rhino population in Africa after South Africa and Namibia
In recent years, despite the valiant efforts of KWS and others, increasingly sophisticated poaching networks linked to organized crime have emerged, posing ever greater challenges to the security of wildlife and the people that manage and protect it. Corrupt security agents, porous borders, and endemic conflict among communities in northern Kenya facilitate the illicit flow of weapons used by local poachers.
In spite of these challenges and limited resources, Kenya has achieved tremendous improvements in tackling wildlife crime. Under the new Constitution of 2010, the country has taken significant steps toward codifying conservation and wildlife protection into a wildlife policy and legal framework. The Wildlife Conservation and Management Act of 2013 (WCMA) provides very high minimum penalties of KES20 million (more than USD200,000) and/or life imprisonment for the killing of threatened species. Prior to the enactment of the WCMA, a study of wildlife crime cases prosecuted between 2008 and 2013 revealed only 4% of those convicted of wildlife crimes went to jail, and in relation to ivory and rhino horn cases, only 7% of offenders were incarcerated after conviction.
Recent landmark rulings signal a clear departure from Kenya’s poor sentencing record: in January 2014, a Chinese ivory smuggler arrested in transit from Mozambique through Kenya with 3.4 kg of raw ivory received the minimum fine of KES20 million, while in May 2015 a magistrate in a rural town gave a woman found guilty of possessing five pieces of elephant tusks the choice of a KES40 million (USD412,056) fine or a four-year jail term.
Nevertheless, despite such rulings and legislative improvements, prosecuting wildlife crime in Kenya is still greatly hampered by an inadequate number of wildlife crime prosecutors as well as unclear laws, says the report, while the inclusion of high minimum penalties within the WCMA has resulted in an increase in “not guilty” pleas and a consequent rise in the number of trials in a system already suffering from a significant backlog of cases.
The report concludes that Kenya needs to mobilize human and financial resources to prevent the illegal killing of wildlife in addition to partnering with conservation NGOs, relevant international bodies and diplomatic missions in a targeted and continuous dialogue, aiming to reduce the appetites of wildlife consumers, particularly in Asia. Since the majority of Kenya’s wildlife lives outside formal protected areas, incentives for community-led conservation are also critical to the future of the nation’s natural heritage.
Failure to take timely conservation action will spell doom to Kenya’s iconic species. As U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Robert Godec said during his remarks at the Wildlife Trafficking Response, Assessment, and Priority Setting (Wildlife TRAPS) Stakeholder Workshop which forms the basis of the report: “Put bluntly, we need to do more, do it better, and do it faster.”
“The US is firmly behind the international drive to curtail the poaching crisis that is decimating elephants, rhinos and other wildlife in Africa and its associated criminal activities that impact on broader issues, including rule of law, national security, rural livelihoods and economic development,” said USAID/Kenya and East Africa Mission Director, Karen Freeman. “USAID’s support for the production and writing of this TRAFFIC report is a small but essential component of our overall response to this ongoing crisis.”