Kenya launches first wildlife forensic laboratory in East and Central Africa

Posted on May, 12 2015

Kenya Wildlife Service has launched Eastern and Central Africa’s first Wildlife forensic and genetics laboratory.
Kenya Wildlife Service has launched Eastern and Central Africa’s first Wildlife forensic and genetics laboratory. The lab, situated at KWS’ headquarters in Nairobi was launched by Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources Prof. Judi Wakhungu. The lab has come to existence with the help of partners including WWF, the US Embassy in Kenya, Canada and Regional East Africa Community member states amongst others.
Illegal wildlife poaching and trafficking has not spared Kenyan wildlife. A steady increase in poaching has been recorded since 2007 when Kenya lost 47 elephants and 5 rhinos to poaching. The scourge increased in 2012 to 384 elephants and 30 rhinos and continued to escalate in 2013 when 302 elephants and 59 rhinos were slaughtered by poachers. However, in 2014 the Kenyan Government instituted anti-poaching measures and with support from other conservation partners including WWF reduced poaching menace by 47% and 40.7%; an equivalent of 164 elephants and 35 rhinos poached.
In 2014, a total of 1,430 suspects were arrested and prosecuted for various wildlife law offences; and in the same year the highest penalty awarded to a wildlife criminal was 9 years imprisonment with an option of a fine of Ksh. 20 million. Despite the rise of wildlife crimes in Kenya a mere 503 cases prosecuted in 2014 in the 32 courts in Kenya, only 238 were concluded. Of the total cases prosecuted, only 229 were related to elephant and 5 to rhino poaching. This shows a gap in the enforcement of legislation that has been often attributed to lack of or inadequate evidence to prosecute the crimes.
The Forensic Laboratory will contribute towards conservation and management of endangered and threatened priority species like the Black Rhino through DNA profiling among other key functionalities. Development of a genetic database for rhino and other key wildlife populations in Kenya will enable determination of random match probabilities between carcasses and confiscated wildlife products traceability to the scene of the crime; and therefore aid prosecutions in a court of law. It will also establish a spatial genetic structure of the Kenyan rhino population for determination of Kenyan rhino horns provenance and rhino horn trafficking within the East African region.
WWF has so far invested millions of US dollars in the conservation of Elephant and Rhino in Kenya since it started its operations in Kenya over 50 years ago. In 2013 to 2016 alone, WWF invested over USD 5 million for Black rhino and elephant conservation in Kenya. Speaking at the launch event, Dr. Jared Bosire – Conservation Manager at WWF Kenya emphasized WWF’s commitment to wildlife conservation. “Over time, the lab will develop the molecular forensic expertise of KWS in combating wildlife crime with specific reference to rhinos. It will also create linkages between East African scientists working on wildlife forensics and trafficking’ he said.

The Laboratory forms part of a chain of global labs contributing towards building up a global rhino database. Rhinoceros poaching has been on the increase in the recent past for its horn thus threatening populations across Africa. Currently, linking confiscated rhinoceros product to the specific crime scenes for successful prosecution and conviction is difficult.

KWS and University of Pretoria Veterinary genetics laboratory is currently in partnership with WWF in developing the RhoDIS database that will increase rhino products traceability and therefore provide valuable additional information that can be used in wildlife crime prosecution. The lab will also support biological management of rhinos across the region to all for maximization of growth rate.

The illegal trafficking of wildlife products such as bush meat and ivory is a pervasive conservation challenge that creates ecological havoc in habitats and drives many species to near-extinction. Some products such as bush meat and traditional medicine is a serious health hazard. KWS has through its intelligence identified, arrested and prosecuted many bush meat dealers. However, in recent years, dealers have learnt to slaughter the animal quickly and “cleanly”, de-bone it and deal only in wildlife red meat. It therefore becomes difficult for enforcement officers to prove their cases beyond reasonable doubt. The creation of this laboratory will therefore provide scientific evidence required by prosecuting officers to avail court admissible evidence that will incriminate these bush meat dealers and secure convictions.

The national and regional significance of the wildlife forensic and genetics laboratory as a centre that supports law enforcement and wildlife management efforts – that is investigations and prosecutions of wildlife crimes is of paramount importance as it comes at a time when Africa is facing the worst ever decimation of its Elephant and Rhino populations. 

For more information contact Nashipae Orumoy – Communications Manager WWF Kenya Country Office  
Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources Prof. Judi Wakhungu unveils a plaque to officially open East and Central Africa's first forensic and genetic lab for wildlife.
© Edwin Shivo