The new forensic and genetics laboratory at Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has enhanced Kenya government’s ability to prosecute poaching cases as well as other wildlife crimes.
Through the use of DNA technology, the laboratory allows scientists to discover the real identity of wildlife products — especially rhino horns and elephant ivories that are highly sought after by poachers.
Dr. Shadrack Ngene, a conservation expert at KWS, says before the establishment of the lab, the institution had no way of proving beyond doubt (in court proceedings) that particular horns possessed by poachers were indeed from rhinos or whichever animal they originated from.
“This created a loophole in the legal process. And most of these people would not be punished appropriately due to the lack of sufficient evidence,” he says.
With the aim of getting ‘easy’ money from the black market, he says, unscrupulous people can shape cow horns to make them resemble rhino horns then proceed to sell them to unsuspecting individuals. Fake rhino horns can also come in the form of monuments.
“So if poachers were arraigned in court for trading in rhino horns, they could easily say they had cow horns to dilute such cases. And we had no way of proving otherwise.”
Dr Ngene says the lab has facilitated the effective implementation of the new Wildlife Conservation and Management Act which introduced stringent penalties for wildlife crimes such as a high fine of Sh20 million and long jail-terms — including life imprisonment — for killing threatened or endangered species such as rhinos or elephants.
This is a major improvement from the previous Wildlife Act that treated wildlife crime as a minor offence with penalties as low as Sh10, 000 for possession of ivory. Yet, a kilo of the trophy sells at a wholesale price of about Sh75, 000 in the illegal market.
“Thanks to the forensic lab, the courts can now easily give offenders the tough penalties as we are able to offer the foolproof evidence required,” he says.
Last year, a Mombasa law court sentenced Feisal Mohamed — a renowned ivory kingpin — to 20 years in jail for the illegal possession of ivory worth Sh44 million.
The court also imposed the Sh20 million fine in what was considered a landmark ruling against poaching in Africa.
“With such successful convictions, we’re sending a strong message that those found guilty of wildlife crimes will not evade the law,” says Dr Ngene.
Kenya is the second country in Africa (after South Africa) to set up a wildlife forensic lab.
The facility is also being used to establish a genetic database of rhino and other key wildlife population. This will enable prosecutors to identify the scene of a crime or know the geographical location where wildlife products sold by poachers originate from.
To prevent illegal trafficking of wildlife products, Dr. Martin Mulama, Rhino conservation expert at the World Wildlife Fund says Custom officials manning Kenya’s key border points should be continuously trained on proper identification of the products so they can effectively apprehend rhino horn or ivory traffickers.
“We also need to boost their morale and offer good working conditions to prevent them from being compromised in their job.” he says