New Internationalist

Are corrupt politicians and park officials collaborating with Kenya’s poachers?

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Rhinos face extinction. But do they have friends or only enemies? wikipedia.org under a Creative Commons Licence

Wildlife conservationists in Kenya have strongly condemned the rise in cases of poaching across the country. Renowned conservationist and former Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) director Richard Leakey and Paul Kahumbu, Chief Executive Officer of WildlifeDirect, have called for an emergency response from President Uhuru Kenyatta.

‘Our wildlife is under threat;  it is our national heritage. The president should take stringent anti-poaching measures and declare elephants and rhinos national treasures. He should put them under state protection immediately,’ says Leakey.

The former KWS director claims that those behind poaching are known to the government and wildlife agencies, but that they are being protected by influential state officials who see no value in safeguarding the country’s heritage. ‘This government is highly corrupt and is operating with the highest level of impunity,’ one anonymous source said. ‘We want maximum intervention from international communities.’

WildlifeDirect’s Philip Murgor, a former Director of Public Prosecution, says that suspected poachers can only be charged in court if there is sufficient evidence linking them to the crimes. ‘Unless evidence is presented from the field, the cases will go nowhere. The major problem is that KWS officers lack proper training. You must arrest the right person and adduce evidence in court.’

Poachers belong to international crime rings, says Murgor. As such, they pose a major threat to Kenya’s economy and national security.

Paul Kahumbu refutes KWS’s statistics that poaching has declined over the past 3 years, saying they are wrong and misleading. He has revealed that since January, at least 16 rhinos have been killed, but no poachers have been convicted.

However, KWS Corporate Communication Manager Paul Udoto defends the agency, saying that they are doing their best with limited resources. They have only 2,700 rangers protecting wildlife across the country.

Investigative reporters from Standard Digital, the online arm of a leading news outlet in Kenya, have discovered that ‘poachers are working in cahoots with KWS personnel, from top-most to the rangers, to send signals to poachers on the location of a targeted rhino. And the process begins with the Management Staff Committee (MSC), which is based at the KWS headquarters in Nairobi, whose mandate is to promote, transfer and discipline staff.’

Despite the incrimination of the MSC, no action has been taken against senior wardens or assistant directors who preside over parks worst affected by poaching.

Standard Digital's investigation reveals a predictable pattern. ‘Senior wardens are transferred on promotion after a number of rhinos are killed. Then, a replacement is brought in – only to be removed as soon as the next killings have taken place,’ the news website reports.

At the click of a finger, top management can dismiss officers who do not obey orders, or make them disappear. This has been common at Lake Nakuru National Park, where senior wardens are transferred to other parks, mostly in the coastal region of Kenya.

There are well-organized poaching cartels within and outside Kenya’s borders, using locals and foreigners with links to serving and retired KWS officials. Some commentators have called for an overhaul of Kenya Wildlife Service. They suggest the appointment of a new director who would ‘enjoy political support’ from all quarters without fear or favours.

The call comes barely a week after criminals killed 2 more rhinos at Lake Nakuru National Park despite the deployment of heavily armed rangers.

‘If something is not done, we may not have any rhinos left in a few months,’ a park officer told Standard Digital. Lake Nakuru National Park was established as a rhino sanctuary in 1984 but there are now only 100 rhinos left there. It is estimated that there are just 1,000 rhinos remaining in the whole country, down from 24,000 three decades ago. This equates to Kenya losing some 800 rhinos every year.

A single rhino horn is worth 2 million Kenyan shillings (US$25,000). Despite international trade in ivory being illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, its growth is fuelled by legal domestic markets in countries such as Japan and China, where horns and tusks are prized for their medicinal value and for other purposes. 

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