Kenya: Stiffer Sentences Will Help Save the Elephant

by May 1, 2012Conservation Threats, Elephants, Ivory

Two months ago ivory poachers caught in West Laikipia in the act of hacking out the tusks of a newly killed elephant were found guilty and fined Sh15,000. This happened in the same court that sentenced a livestock thief to seven years imprisonment for the crime of stealing one sheep. And it happened all on the same day.

Wild animals in Kenya are under significant and increasing threat, with some credible organizations estimating national wildlife losses of more than 70% over the last 30 years. Yet current laws permit such light sentencing for wildlife crime that they provide little or no deterrent to increasingly sophisticated poaching rings. This is despite of the fact that wildlife underpins the Kenyan tourist industry. A weak legal system is literally permitting the ‘goose that lays the golden egg’ to be slowly killed.

In particular the threat to rhinos and elephants has now reached unprecedented levels. Fuelled by demand from the Far East, particularly China, for ivory and horn, conservationists across the country, from the Masai Mara to Marsabit, are struggling to stem the tide.

In response to major rhino losses during 2011, the Kenya Wildlife Services, senior government and the private sector collaborated effectively to deal with this threat. Killing rhinos quickly became a very risky activity for poachers, with a good number shot dead in the act. Consequently known poaching rings shifted their attention to elephants and their ivory.

In contrast to rhinos elephants are much more numerous, range over wide unprotected areas and are therefore much more difficult to protect. Nevertheless in some areas of northern Kenya where known populations have been monitored closely for many years, the proportion of illegally killed elephants (as a percentage of all recorded elephant deaths) has now reached over 70%, way beyond the point of ‘sustainable off-take’. Their ivory is being purchased by brokers, for as much as Sh20,000 per kilogram in places such as Isiolo, and shifted across the border to countries such as Somalia before export to the Far East.

Perhaps not surprisingly many of the perpetrators are known, especially those operating within the close knit community conservancies of northern Kenya.

However, despite the best efforts of the KWS and local community scouts, the local police forces appear apathetic and unwilling to become involved. This may be because they know that apprehending poachers is a waste of their time, unlikely to be treated seriously by the courts and certainly not taken seriously by the laws of the land. Alternatively, given the large amounts of money now involved in the illegal ivory trade, perhaps they are being induced to turn a blind eye? Thus the killing continues.

So how are we to stop this onslaught? Like many things in life, success will be dependent upon the successful implementation of many different actions. Clearly Kenya must do all that it can to deal with the supply side, including the urgent introduction of much stiffer penalties for wildlife crime. We must support our over-stretched enforcement officers, ensure that magistrates treat wildlife crime with the seriousness it deserves and act to interdict known criminal syndicates dealing in illegally harvested wildlife products.

We must also start to address the demand side, although herein there lies a major problem. At least for ivory it is known that the primary source of demand is China, a country with huge economic power that is playing an increasingly significant role in Kenya and across Africa. Possibly fearful of upsetting or embarrassing the Chinese, it would appear that the Kenyan government may be reluctant to make an issue out of the ivory trade and the damage this is doing to Kenya’s elephant populations and ultimately the national tourism industry. However this is an approach that makes little sense.

Unbeknown to many, China has some of the strictest wildlife legislation in the world. For example killing one of the few remaining elephants in China currently carries a penalty of life imprisonment. So the Chinese clearly do take wildlife crime pretty seriously! Perhaps more importantly, we should realize that China needs Kenya every bit as much as Kenya needs China. Look no further than the recent discoveries of oil in Turkana and the recent commissioning of the so called LAPSSET corridor. Thus it should be possible for the Kenya government to deal with the Chinese on an equal footing, something that needs to start happening soon if our elephant populations are to be saved from annihilation in the next few years.

Of course dealing with demand for ivory from China doesn’t address demand from the Vietnamese elite for ground rhino horn as a cure for hangovers. So perhaps it would interest our Vietnamese readers to know that recent scientific evidence appears to show a link between rhino horn consumption and autism, and that at least 90% of the “rhino horn” that is sold in Vietnam is in fact fake, being made primarily from the horns of water buffaloes.

Richard Vigne is CEO of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy