Going through the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Website, I am bemused. I’m not quite sure that I’ve seen a website that’s more utopian and full of fantasies. Among their achievements are ‘reduced incidents of wildlife poaching throughout the country, improved Kenya’s image as a tourist destination through provision of adequate security in protected areas, well developed and maintained surveillance and intelligence network and maintenance of an updated and efficient security database.’
For the past few weeks, I’ve been accosted by a blitzkrieg of articles and features on poaching in the media. There have been varying accounts of the actual number of rhinos and elephants killed with the blame game taking centre stage on who’s actually responsible for the issue. The acting director of the KWS, William Kiprono recently broke from his silence and accused the media and the NGO’S of exaggerating figures. He further added that that poaching was a challenge and not a crisis as was being portrayed but who exactly do we believe in all this?
A new ‘magic’ law was passed which would solve all of our problems but alas and behold, I can still smell the blood and hear the war cries. Laws like a democracy are for, by and of the people. I do, however, laud the government for that step which increased the fines to twenty million and the jail time to life imprisonment. Loose wording and laughable fines are not on the table this time as we try and find the cause behind the brazen killing of rhinos and elephants within secure sanctuaries like Lewa Conservancy and guarded parks like The Tsavo National Park.
The law brought with it an unexpected consequence, though. Under the previous law, the conviction rate of poaching-related charges was around 78% but mostly due to admission of guilt. Admitting guilt enabled the accused to pay the fine which was on average, twenty thousand shillings, get out of jail free and go back to business as usual. With the current price of ivory at $3000 (approximately Kshs. 261,000) per kilo and an average elephant’s tusks weighing more than 125 kilograms, the cost-benefit analysis is a no-brainer for anyone with a business mind(doing the math with 125 kilos and the price of ivory at $3000, one kill would get you 32.6 million!). The tides have, however, changed and with the chance of life in prison or an impossible to pay fine of twenty million.
A recent study by Wildlife Direct, a Kenyan conservation group, showed that only 4% of convictions actually led to jail time. Poachers would now rather take the not-guilty plea with the hope of changing the mind of the judge along the way because there is no lenient punishment for pleading guilty. The more stringent regulation will only work if convictions can be achieved and harsh sentences/fines given. This means that the chain of evidence must be strictly followed, procedures must be adhered to before, during and after the arrest of suspects, the prosecutors should be learned fellows and not just law enforcers and the evidence must be airtight. We should get past the era of technicalities shaming our legal system.
Revered conservationist and former head of the KWS, Richard Leakey came out to warn the country of the increasing trend and he also called it a national disiaster. Leakey pointed to an elephant census in the vast Tsavo national park last month, which discovered 800 carcasses, and found the number of animals had slumped by 1,500 in the past four years alone. Citing an Interpol report showing that 13 tonnes of ivory had been seized last year, he reiterated that Kenya had become the worst country for ivory trafficking. He added that in order for them to operate with such impunity and on such a large scale, they had large international backing and support from local law enforcement. He also said that the numbers of animals killed were far higher than officially reported. The KWS figures have for the past few years varied significantly from independent observer’s figure which brings into question the accuracy of their figures.
Since 2009, 17 wildlife service employees have been fired and some prosecuted, three had been demoted and five others fined. 26 were investigated but no evidence found, said Kiprono. “We don’t condone or engage in this kind of thing (poaching),”Outgoing KWS Central Rift Conservation Director Jonathan Kirui and other senior officials based at Lake Nakuru, the wildlife sanctuary where more than seven rhinos have been killed this year, were recently transferred instead of investigations being done and the Environment Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhung was hard pressed to explain that situation instead choosing to say that transfers were normal and that they hadn’t been found guilty. That would only happen and be valid, if an investigation were to be done, Madam Cabinet Secretary.
According to the official figures from the KWS, 59 rhinos were killed in 2013,twice the number from 2012,with the rhino population standing at 1,041. 302 elephants were killed in 2013 which is a 21% reduction from 2012 with the elephant population standing at 38,000. An average figure drawn from findings from Wildlife direct and other NGO’s puts the number of rhinos and elephants at 600 and 35,000 respectively. Using the average growth rate at 4% of the population and the numbers of animals felled each year doubling from the previous year, extinction isn’t a wild guess anymore. It is real.
When there is a problem, there are two ways to solve the problem; change the system or change the people operating the system. It might be a day late and a dollar short for the animals already gone but redemption can be sought. KWS prides itself with having with having, among other departments, departments on Wildlife Protection, Intelligence and Investigation. Anything and everything can be said in their defence but the truth of the matter remains that the proof of the pudding is in the tasting and this pudding is terrible. If the heads of the KWS are leading an institution that is under-performing we should treat it just like any other institution; audit it and do away with those that need to be done away with and change what needs to be changed. There is either utter incompetence or compliance or both.
Another issue that needs addressing is the equipment and funding that is awarded to the KWS. The government has committed 300 million this financial year for hiring of new rangers but this is not enough. Rangers usually find themselves overwhelmed by the gun wielding bandits who are usually better armed and equipped. The rangers work under strenuous and sometimes pitiful conditions and all necessary efforts must be made to ensure that they are adequately remunerated and that their dignity is upheld in the work that they do through the provision of a favourable business environment, to the extent possible.Wildlife service rangers need better equipment to allow them to tackle poaching effectively, said the service’s species expert Patrick Omondi. The rangers need night vision equipment to see poachers, who use night vision binoculars to hunt elephant and rhino in the dark. Poachers also use satellite phones to communicate in remote areas where normal radio frequencies cannot reach, said Omondi. Such equipment is expensive and the wildlife service needs help in purchasing it, he said.
Away with tough talk, we want action.