In most of the African continent, governments have been helpless to curb the poaching of elephants and rhinos.
Kenya is a rare conservation success story, and one wildlife advocate says other countries can learn from their example. In an article for The Guardian, Paula Kahumbu, the CEO of nonprofit WildlifeDirect, writes that in recent years, poaching losses in Kenya have been nearly eliminated. Elephant deaths in Kenya from illegal hunters are down 80 percent, while rhino deaths have dropped by 90 percent.
Before then, Kenya had the same environmental issues as many other African countries: corruption and ignorance within the government and the state wildlife service combined with an overall unwillingness or inability to respond to poaching. In February 2013, Kenya finally folded to the repeated requests of conservationists and held a special session to discuss the growing problem. With dozens of government officials, law enforcement agencies, and academics in attendance, conservationists argued that poaching represented a threat not only to the country’s natural heritage, but its tourism industry and economy as well.
That meeting led to the launch of the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign five months later. The campaign took an all-inclusive approach to anti-poaching, seeking to eliminate weaknesses in the justice system and law enforcement.
Looking back, Kahumbu notes that a few key actions allowed Kenya to successfully halt its poaching and wildlife trafficking epidemic.
1. Media Attention
With a free press and a civil society, Kenya was able to gets its message to a wide audience. Using international media coverage, conservationists brought the news about poaching to the world’s attention, increasing the government’s obligation to take action.
2. Friends in High Places
Kenya was fortunate in that President Uhuru Kenyatta, who took up office in April 2013, was very sympathetic to conservation. The First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta, has also been a prominent advocate of protecting elephants, even serving as Patron of the campaign. Kenya’s push for conservation also had support from Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhungu of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and US and British ambassadors Bob Godec and Christian Turner.
3. Previous Success
According to Kahumbu, Kenya had its own history as a model. The country had kept out poachers in the 1990s, due to the leadership of the KWS by Richard Leakey and a strong anti-poaching stance by President Daniel Arap Moi, who was known for burning ivory stockpiles.
4. Evidence of Problems
Evidence presented by conservationists showed the poachers often escaped punishment, while separate studies proved the elephant and rhino population was declining, weakening the ability of the government to deny there was a problem to begin with.
5. Pubic Support
The government could only do so much. Conservationists were able to rally the citizens to their cause, including prominent celebrities. Kahumbu says driven by the support of stars in music, sports, and even comic books, conservation support in Kenya has never been higher.
6. Boots on the Ground
Policies meant nothing without enforcement, so President Kenyatta announced a boost in funding to anti-poaching activates, including recruiting over 570 more rangers. Kenyatta also created a anti-poaching unit that allowed several law-enforcement agencies to coordinate efforts. As a result, Kahumbu says poachers are “more likely to be caught than ever before”
7. Criminal Justice Reform
Kahumbu says catching poachers would be meaningless if they could easily escape punishment. Poaching before 2013 was treated as a petty offense, but a new Wildlife Act that came into force in January 2013 equated poaching to gun running and drug trafficking. Conservationists also helped improve record keeping and evidence collection and created a specialized wildlife crime prosecution unit, leading to more poachers being imprisoned. Penalties in Kenya are now among the harshest in the world, and can even include life imprisonment.
The decline of poaching shows that the comprehensive approach by Kenya appears to be working, leading more poachers to either abandon their trade or be put away for their crimes and allowing the country’s wildlife to work towards recovery.
Sustaining its own successful programs are vital going forward, Kahumbu says. Kenya must be vigilant in stamping out corruption within its own government and ensure criminal cases are handled appropriately. Kahumbu says many high-level traffickers still escape justice, and the government must push to try them in criminal courts rather than deport them.
With their own mission nearly complete, conservationists in Kenya are now looking outside their borders to replica the success of Hands off Our Elephants in other countries. Neighboring Tanzania presents a polar opposite to Kenya, its elephant population having been reduced by 60 percent in just 5 years, while South Africa continues to struggle to prevent rhino deaths at the hands of poachers.
But Kahumbu says Kenya proves that the poaching problem can be stopped anywhere with enough motivation by the government and its citizens. In time, she and her fellow conservationists are hopeful that all of Africa, not just Kenya, can one day be a safe place for elephants and rhinos, and a very unsafe place for the poachers who hunt them.