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Poaching in Kenya. Are We Losing the War?

Whenever I see a slain elephant, my heart crinkles. This is not the first time. I have been here before. Am I the only one seeing this? Am I the only one feeling this sense of attachment to the wild? Of course not. But if there are millions of like-minded individuals out there who feel the same way I do, why is the ivory trade still thriving? Is it my obligation to help protect the creatures in the wild?  What is my obligation? Might it be beyond me?

Kenya is endowed with a resource that is fast becoming a rare spectacle in the world:  wildlife. The value of Kenya’s wildlife is evident from the millions of people who visit. According to the Kenya Bureau of Statistics, in 2011 Kenya received 1.8 million tourists and earned 97.9 billion shillings. But why would preserving Kenya’s greatest resource be important to me specifically?

Kenya’s ecosystem has interdependent components that include genetic resources, biological resources and wild resources. Every living thing owes its existence to every other living thing and it is by this fact that proves thatour existence should not pose a threat to any other component in the ecosystem. However, I’m afraid this is not the case. Haphazard development, overgrazing and poaching, are just some of the things that have led to the wanton destruction and reduction of the very resources that we owe our existence to.

Statistically speaking

According to research conducted by theKenya Wildlife Service, Kenya lost 384 elephants and 19 rhinos to poachers in 2012 compared to 289 elephants and 29 rhinos in 2011. Between the months of January and June in 2013, Kenya lost 137 elephants and 24 rhinos.

5,842 kg: that is the amount of ivory and rhino horns recovered since June of this year. One hundred and twenty-three suspects have been arrested in connection to poaching; however, it is not clear what happens to these suspects after they are caught or even if they are held accountable for their actions.

Reasons for poaching

Economic gain is the main driving force behind the ivory trade. Elephants are mainly targeted for their ivory tusks, which are in high demand in places like China, where ivory is thought to increase virility and cure cancer. (I am not best suited to confirm or deny the accuracy of this belief.) Ivory is also used by craftsmen to carve accessories such as bracelets and necklaces. Rhinos are hunted for their keratin-containing horns, which are quite pricy on the black market. In China, rhino horn is ground into powder and used to cure ailments such as arthritis, headaches and fever. Did you know that keratin is also found in human nails and hair? You should try biting your nails when you have a headache and see if it works. Of course it won’t.

Since 1990, the Kenya Wildlife Service has been charged with the management and protection of our vast wildlife resource. During the Ninth Annual Warden & Scientists Meeting, Kenya Wildlife Service Director William Kiprono highlighted the organization’s elaborate strategy to curb poaching. The theme of their action plan included:

  • Legislation and regulation
  • Enforcement actions, investigations and national inter-agency collaboration and coordination
  • International and regional wildlife enforcement collaboration
  • Outreach, public awareness and education
  • National reporting to CITES Secretariat and Standing Committee

Despite the prevailing challenges, the Kenya Wildlife Service is trying its best to implement the above listed areas and inhibit poaching. The results? We will have to wait and see but in the mean-time it is essential that we as global citizens take action. In my opinion, the best way to do that is to support organizations like the KWS in their endeavors. With the passage of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Bill 2013 and more local and international support there shall be light at the end of the tunnel. The bill proposes stiffer penalties for wildlife offenders, better incentives and benefit sharing with local communities and easily accessible information on the conservation status of the country.

Prevention is better than a cure

Over the years there have been calls for the introduction of tougher penalties for poachers. In my opinion we don’t have the time to wait for these penalties to take effect because human greed cannot be deterred by rules and regulations. Kenya has had laws since its independence, but crimes are still being committed. Poachers are not just people who wake up, decide to wield powerful guns by the roadside, invade our protected areas, and hunt animals. There exists a complex and intelligent network that trains and enables poachers; otherwise the Kenya Wildlife Service would have killed all of them like houseflies.

In most cases, arrested smugglers have been found to be of Asian descent. While they do not directly kill the animals or harvest the ivory or rhino horn, they hire locals who act as poachers and dealers. Smugglers easily pay the court fines and fly back to their respective countries. In my opinion, this punishment is considered collateral damage for smugglers and it’s only a matter of time before the same guy returns to the bush for another run, this time with experience.

I propose a preventive approach. No matter how much a poacher is fined in a court of law it cannot replace the value of the slain animal to the ecosystem. Yes, the government will rake in more revenue from the fines, but the ecosystem’s biodiversity will continue to degrade since elephants are considered to be keystone species and their existence directly affects the well-being of other living organisms. It is also not guaranteed that the fines charged will be channeled toward funding anti-poaching efforts.  If the East African wildlife service organizations liaise with the East African Intelligence Service organizations, they could more easily foil poaching plots and eventually eliminate poaching once and for all.

Surveillance of water points in national parks and poaching hotspots is a brilliant idea, but lack of rapid response to poaching incidents completely negates the solution. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania need to set up a regional anti-poaching unit to stop the illegal killing of wildlife. Animals that reside in protected areas, located adjacent to the national borders such as Maasai Mara National Reserve and Amboseli National Park, often move outside these boundaries. This makes wildlife vulnerable to poaching since anti-poaching measures in the different countries aren’t coordinated. The East African nations need to join hands and adopt a coordinated anti-poaching model to stop poaching in East Africa. This anti-poaching unit will serve three major purposes.

1. Intelligence Gathering: this involves dispatching undercover operatives to gather useful information before poaching is committed so as to thwart illegal expeditions.

2. Monitoring, Surveillance and Rapid Response: this involves monitoring of wildlife and their habitat for any suspicious activity. Surveillance can either be remote, using drones or satellites, or carried out physically through patrols.

3. Investigations and Forensics: this entails collecting forensic evidence at crime sites and submitting them as evidence to the appropriate authorities as further proof to poaching cases. These aspects will ensure strong cases for prosecutors in court and also be able to prove conspiracies.

The implementation of this idea could prove to be very costly, but that cost can be split among the involved countries and donors. This is a small price to pay if you ask me. If poaching in Kenya continues unabated the value of wildlife that will be lost will not be comparable to the cost of implementing regional anti-poaching units. The implementation of this proposal might not be a piece of cake but a change of tact is necessary in order to win the war against poaching.  

November 26, 2013

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