How Kenya turned the tide against ivory poachers

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Twelve park rangers in olive green fatigues put down their rifles as they listen to a training session about the latest version of a smartphone app. They are sitting beneath a tree in a conservation area that covers almost 50,000 acres in central west Kenya, which is home to elephants, giraffes, lions, zebras and hippos.

One of the app’s main functions is to measure and improve the effectiveness of law enforcement, by recording possible threats to the animals in the region. “This has totally changed the way we patrol,” says Eric Irere, who for two decades has been a park ranger at Mpala, a research centre within a conservation ranch that supports wildlife.

“This reduces the need for the rifle,” he says, as he holds his phone with one hand and points with the other to his AK-47 on the ground.

Called Smart — the spatial monitoring and reporting tool — the app has been designed by nine global conservation organisations, including the Zoological Society of London. It has a geolocator for rangers to record the whereabouts of every wild animal they see on patrol — alive or dead — as well as sightings of people who should not be in a particular area. If rangers such as Irere see an animal with a fresh bullet wound, they can start to prepare a crime scene investigation before passing the information to the police, forensic scientists, prosecutors and judges who have recently been trained to fight wildlife crime.

Rangers use the Smart app while on patrol © RJ Walter/Space for Giants

Mpala is in the Laikipia area of Kenya, which is rich in wildlife. Dino Martins arrived as its executive director six years ago. At that time, he was still seeing elephants being poached. Today, he is able to say: “We have had zero poaching, at least here, and I’d say for all the conservancies around us, for three or four years now”.

Kenya cracks down

The use of tracking alongside forensic science — and, crucially, improved prosecutions — has underpinned Kenya’s dramatic drop in elephant poaching. Cases have fallen from a peak of 449 killed illegally in the country in 2012 to 93 in 2018, the last year for which official figures are available. In the case of elephants, this downward trend is believed to have continued. And, in the case of rhinos, not a single animal was poached in Kenya in 2020, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

These data, experts say, highlight how important it has been to bridge the gap between rangers, forensics and prosecutors in a country that was a hotspot for the killing of elephants and rhinos. Criminal gangs operated there to meet demand from Asia, where ivory is prized and horn is used in traditional medicines.

After the 2012 figures for elephant deaths, the Kenyan government introduced stiffer penalties for convicted poachers — including $200,000 fines and long prison sentences — which acted as a deterrent.

But what made the biggest difference was having more and better-trained personnel, says Katto Wambua, the senior criminal justice adviser at Space for Giants, a conservation charity. Kenya’s conviction rate for wildlife crimes shot up to more than 90 per cent in 2020 from about 20 per cent in 2013.

“There was a need to link up protection with capacity to investigate and capacity to prosecute,” says Wambua. “Essentially, having judicial officers who appreciate the full-scale nature of wildlife crime as a transnational organised economic crime, and building institutional capacity that can have long-term benefits for the country — beyond just putting more people with rifles to do on-the-ground protection.”

In the past six years, Space for Giants, together with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Kenya’s Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP), and KWS, have trained hundreds of magistrates, prosecutors and investigators. Before that, Kenya had just two prosecutors dedicated to wildlife crime. These days, the east African country boasts more than 200 prosecutors, says Gikui Gichuhi, head of the wildlife division at the ODPP.

Faith Maina, a court monitor for conservation charity Space for Giants, updates a list of wildlife cases
Faith Maina, a court monitor for conservation charity Space for Giants, updates a list of wildlife cases © Space for Giants

“We basically said, ‘the poaching needs to stop’,” she says. “For me, it has improved significantly, we are doing much better collaboration and co-ordination. The way that cases are being handled is more professional. And, also, the understanding that this crime is not just killing an elephant. It actually has bigger impacts on our economy and on our security.”

Wildlife crime, according to Gichuhi, is orchestrated by illicit networks that span continents, with many transactions carried out online. Combating it requires painstaking investigation and robust prosecutions. “This is organised crime, and organised crime is interrelated,” she notes. “You have to constantly think how to catch and charge these people,.” But she admits: “In most cases, we . . . get the people on the ground, or the guys who are just organising the transport of the items, not the real people who benefit.”

New hotspots

In a courtroom in Isiolo, a town 50 miles from Mpala, one of those “men on the ground” — a wiry man in a faded pink sports jacket and worn-out shoes — faces charges for possession of two pieces of elephant tusk weighing 12kg. Evanson Ngigi, the principal magistrate, feels that now “there is enhanced professionalism, there is efficiency in prosecuting these wildlife crimes.” The number of cases in his court has dropped from two dozen in 2016, when he started, to five now — but most of the big fish have still not been caught.

Although Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast means that it remains a transit point — and prosecutors say it is a challenge to trace ivory hidden in containers at the port of Mombasa — criminal networks have shifted their activities from east and southern Africa to the west and central part of the continent.

Data from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) show that, between 1998 and 2014, the top two African countries associated with ivory seizures were Tanzania and Kenya, at 87.1 and 59.4 tonnes respectively. However, the centre of gravity shifted between 2015 and 2019, after Kenya tightened its approach to poaching, with Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo topping the list, at 30.5 and 21 tonnes. According to the EIA, “Improvements in law enforcement efforts in countries such as Kenya have almost certainly played a role in the displacement of ivory trafficking networks to west and central Africa.”

Chart showing the illegal ivory trade

But while poaching for ivory and other illicit wildlife goods has gone down in Kenya, the coronavirus pandemic has brought a new challenge. In 2018 and 2019, the country was able to attract more than 2m tourists a year, most of them visiting the national parks and private conservancies. Last year tourism slumped, depriving many communities of income and, according to Wambua, prompting a 50 per cent increase in poaching for “bushmeat”.

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Florence Magoma, senior prosecutor with the KWS, says: “We are seeing a shift now: from poaching of none of the major endangered species, to bushmeat, which is creating the bulk of our cases. Killing of zebras and giraffes has actually grown from, basically, subsistence to now a real business by being sold as boneless meat.”

The KWS has a dedicated forensics lab, which has been busy with DNA testing to identify each type of meat and matching body parts with carcasses left behind.

In Mpala, Martins is not complacent about the progress that has been made. “There’s a lot of forensic work being done,” he says. The centre’s laboratory is analysing dung samples to measure elephants’ stress levels in response to disturbance by humans, while gearing up for tests that will examine the ratio of chemical isotopes in ivory to enable investigators to pinpoint its origin.

That could be crucial in the future, Martins says. “The big worry among the conservationists here is, as the central African elephant populations are depleted, will poachers start turning to the east African ones again?”

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