Our pioneering wildlife justice department mentors prosecutors, supports magistrates, and helps draft laws. It’s also helped sharpen approaches to the very first steps of a wildlife crime investigations. By Joan Nthiga.
In a simple wooden building on the slopes of Kenya’s Aberdares mountains – home to 3,000-odd elephants roaming high-altitude bamboo and cedar forests – Patrick Mugo is showing a group of his fellow wildlife rangers how to complete a charge sheet.
Mugo leads the regional investigations team for the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). He is talking his colleagues through a series of example charges for people arrested on suspicion of wildlife crimes.
Using sample charges allows rangers to grasp what information they must include when they book wildlife criminals. Properly completing the paperwork means that when the case comes to court, trial prosecutors have a higher chance of securing a conviction.
This is part of a raft of activities Space for Giants has been working on with the KWS to train frontline teams how to effectively process wildlife crime scenes and collect evidence, to increase successful conviction rates.
The whole process included training and mentoring of KWS recruits; supporting KWS prosecutors to operate to the same high standards as Kenya’s regular prosecutors; training KWS criminal investigators and scenes-of-crime specialists; and helping to develop a frontline human rights protection policy.
It’s important to understand that across Africa, rangers and frontline law enforcement play a vital role in the successful conviction of wildlife criminals. Space for Giants aims to run these trainings and associated mentoring and follow-up for law enforcement units in all the countries where it works.
It’s now been almost two years since Space for Giants ran its first training with the KWS. Now, the trainees have become the trainers, with KWS staff like Mugo tutoring their colleagues. Already, Mugo has trained 22 rangers on effectively handling crime scenes, with more sessions planned.
At Mugo’s Aberdares training, Regina Videdi is one of the 12 trainees. She and her colleagues regularly put their lives on the line to protect the 766 sq km/300 sq mile Aberdare National Park, which stretches for 100km/60 miles two hour’s drive north of Nairobi, the capital.
They know all too well what is at stake, always on guard to deal with the threats and challenges that intrinsically come with the job, as poaching gangs continue to put great pressure on conservation areas protecting Africa’s endangered wildlife, forests and other natural resources.
These rangers are almost always the first on the scene whenever criminal activities have been reported in the areas that they protect. The evidence they collect at the crime scene often forms the backbone of the prosecution case in court. And so, if they don’t get things right at the outset, then chances that the case doesn’t hold water in court are pretty high.
“This is my last week at the Aberdares before my big transfer to Nairobi National Park,” Videdi says. “With this training I know I will settle in faster and I can’t wait to put into practice what I have learnt.”
Mugo, leading the training, says KWS and Kenya’s Government have made deliberate moves away from logging a high number of arrests with low conviction rates, towards arrests that are more impactful and that result in high penalties.
“The number of arrests just doesn’t cut it any more,” he says. “If rangers mess the crime scene as the first responders, then cases fall away and cannot be prosecuted: they are simply thrown out of court. Or even though the case gets to the judge, if we have weak evidence the case gets thrown out.”
Kenya’s Wildlife Conservation and Management Act (2013) puts into force maximum fines reaching $20,000 and/or life imprisonment, compared to previous maximum fines of $400. It also gives rangers the power to ask to see identification and relevant permits from people found acting suspiciously in conservation areas. Previously rangers would need a police officer present, another factor sited for unsuccessful convictions.
So it’s easy to understand KWS’s obligation to ensure that rangers have the capacity to process crime scenes that will lead to successfully prosecuting criminals.
“With the hefty fines that Kenya’s Wildlife Conservation and Management Act (2013) carries comes the undeniable duty to present strong evidence against wildlife criminals, which can be charged under the Act,” Mugo adds. “There is a need for high evidence threshold with this Act and that attract higher fines.”
Space for Giants would like to acknowledge the support of the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund at the British Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which partly supported our work in these trainings.
We continue to expand our wildlife justice programme across Africa. Learn more about it here.