Kenya has opened a forensic wildlife crime lab, which authorities believe will help put more poachers behind bars.
The forensic and genetic laboratory at Kenya Wildlife Serve (KWS) in Nairobi, a $600,000 project which took three years to complete and was supported by foreign donations, aims to help the country prosecute more wildlife crime.
By convicting and locking up more poachers and smugglers threatening the country’s endangered species, law enforcement also hopes to deter other criminals threatening the country’s natural resources.
Using state-of-the-art scientific techniques and technology, technicians at the lab will able to take a closer look at seized wildlife parts like elephant ivory and rhino horns, using genetic data to link them to the criminal that possessed them.
For example, molecular biologists can analyze a animal part found with a suspect, and compare it with samples taken from where an animal was killed, proving, without a doubt, the source of the illegal goods.
With the help of these scientists, prosecutors will be armed with more compelling evidence at trial, plugging legal loopholes and giving the guilty less opportunity to escape justice.
The lab, the only one of its kind in East and Central Africa, is a milestone in Kenya’s continuing struggle to not only stop and apprehend poachers and smugglers, but to punish them. KWS has admitted that prosecutions and convictions in wildlife crime cases are rare, usually due to lack of evidence, and even if a defendant is sentenced, the consequences are a relative slap on the wrist.
According to a 2014 study by Wildlife Direct, wildlife criminal cases in Kenya only sent about four percent of those convicted of wildlife crimes to jail.
Kenya is a focal point in Africa’s battle to save its endangered species, as the port of Mombasa is a favored location for smugglers to transport illegal animal parts. The country’s difficulties with punishing wildlife crime are all the more evident with the ongoing trial of Feisal Mohhamad Ali, a suspected ivory tracking kingpin captured in Tanzania and extradited to Kenya. Conservationists are concerned on the lack of progress in the case, and worry it will be soon be dismissed.
However, with concrete, scientific evidence that the new forensic lab will provide, authorities are confident they will soon be able to nail down more poachers, preventing repeat offenders and sending a message to other criminals that when they land in court, they will find themselves under the microscope in more ways than one.