By Caroline Chebet, Giants Club African Conservation Fellow, The Standard.
Published 22 December 2018.
Kenya’s war against poaching is hampered by ill-equipped forensic laboratories to investigate wildlife crimes.
A report analysing the country’s law enforcement response to wildlife crimes indicates that the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) forensic laboratories lack the capacity to analyse ivory and rhino horn samples.
The report titled “Eyes in the Courtroom” released by renowned wildlife conservation group, Wildlife Direct, on December 18 reveals that although scientific examination and identification of wildlife species is key in prosecution of wildlife crimes, KWSforensic labs still lack the capacity and often rely on the National Museums of Kenya.
“There is a need to build the capacity of the KWS forensic laboratory to apply DNA sequencing in elephant and rhino horn cases,” the report says.
The use of DNA sequencing, the report notes, is crucial in enhancing and enriching investigations that can link poachers and traffickers by matching trafficked products with poached wildlife in protected areas.
Kenya is listed as a country of primary concern by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
The country is still viewed as a source or transit point in the trafficking of ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales. But lack of capacity stalls cases in courts while others are thrown out due to weak evidence.
“Despite the high profile of this issue, most cases relating to elephant ivory and rhino horn, trials were frequently delayed attributed to judicial backlogs, procurement of expert evidence, tactical delays by defense counsel coupled with the protracted nature of cases bearing heavy penalties,” states the report.
The report states that although Kenya has one of the world’s most punitive wildlife legislation providing for life imprisonment and up to Sh20 million fine for wildlife crime offenses, much has to be done to improve capacity of wildlife crime forensic laboratories.
The study that was conducted between 2016 and 2017 indicates that wildlife crime evidence in Kenya was stored in various locations including police stations, KWS storage rooms and court stations.
This created challenges in producing it before courts.“We documented several cases in which poor preservation of wildlife meat was the primary cause of acquittals in bush-meat related cases. By the time bush-meat samples arrive at the forensic laboratory they could not be properly analyzed and examined due to rotting,” states the report.
From the report, there is an urgent need to improve evidence collection, preservation and sampling guidelines to support front line officers who ordinarily have first contact with a wildlife crime scene.
In the two-year period, the report reveals that 957 wildlife crime court cases relating to 1,958 persons arrested for various wildlife crime offences were accessed.The prosecution concluded 1,371 offences, out of which 72 were acquitted.
“Very few (5%, 72 offences) of concluded offences resulted in acquittals attributed to unsuccessful prosecution of charges. The prosecution failed to discharge this burden of proof due to challenges ranging from poor evidence and to poor trial advocacy concerns,” states the report.
Crimes against elephants attracted the most charges with most trafficking cases related to raw elephant tusks and worked ivory.
The report notes that one trafficking suspect, Feisal Mohamed Ali, who was convicted in 2016 and sentenced to twenty years and a fine of Sh20 million for trafficking 2,152 kilograms of elephant ivory in 2014 appealed and won back his freedom.
“The conviction of Ali was overturned on appeal in by the High Court of Kenya at Mombasa although the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions is now appealing the case,” the report notes.
The case, the report noted, was challenged from the start with the magistrate acquitting four of the five accused persons.
A number of arrests were made in counties that have protected parks, reserves and sanctuaries.Arrests were reported in Tsavo, Mount Kenya, Amboseli, Meru national parks.
Other arrests were reported in Laikipia and South Kitui National Reserves; Maasai Mara Game, Arabuko Sokoke and Kakamega forest reserves.Taita Taveta, Makueni, Kakamega, Laikipia, Narok, Meru,Kitui, Nairobi ,Kajiado and Kilifi Counties led in seizures of wildlife products and arrests.
Some 237 suspects were arrested. Of these, 223 were arrested for possessing and dealing in elephant ivory, rhino horn (10) and pangolin (4).
Read the full story here. This story is reproduced here as part of the Giants Club African Conservation Journalism Fellowships, a Space for Giants programme to expand the reach of conservation and environmental journalism in the four countries where we work.