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Elephant poachers go hi-tech to stay ahead of rangers

Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) rangers display elephant tusks and rhino horns intercepted at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi in July 2009. Regional efforts have been stepped up to fight illegal hunters, but the challenge is becoming bigger every day as poaching becomes more sophisticated. Photo/ REUTERS
Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) rangers display elephant tusks and rhino horns intercepted at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi in July 2009. Regional efforts have been stepped up to fight illegal hunters, but the challenge is becoming bigger every day as poaching becomes more sophisticated. Photo/ REUTERS 

The trends of poaching in Kenya over the last three years are illustrated by a steep graph that defies gravity.

The number of elephant deaths in that period has grown five times.

The seizure of ivory and rhino horns coming from Kenya and eastern Africa region is at a record high, even before the year ends.

Data from various sources show that while 47 elephants died in 2007 due to poaching, the number rose to 145 in 2008 and to 216 in 2009.

This year, 28,000 tonnes of ivory have been seized.

The irony is that the slaughter of elephant is increasing at a time when technological advancement can make it easier to track and deter poachers.

Training of game rangers has also become more sophisticated just as the weapons and equipment they use.

Sophisticated weapons

Mr Bonaventure Ebayi, the director of the Lusaka Agreement Task Force (LATF), a regional anti-poaching initiative, said poachers and traffickers of illicit game trophies were keeping pace with technology and were using more sophisticated weapons than the game rangers.

“Ivory and rhino horn poachers and traders have become so sophisticated that the training of our wildlife rangers in combat, intelligence gathering and analysis and the use of modern equipment must also be improved,” said Mr Ebayi in an interview.

The Lusaka Agreement Task Force (LATF) came into being after the Lusaka Agreement on Co-operative Enforcement Operations directed at illegal trade in wild fauna and flora was signed by eight eastern and southern African countries meeting in Lusaka, Zambia in December 1992.

Since then, regional efforts have been deepened to defeat poachers but it appears the challenge is becoming bigger every day.

Crime in Africa has become sophisticated and more vicious and it appears the same has filtered to wildlife crime.

“We require improved capacity building in intelligence collection, investigations and in making follow-ups to defeat the trade because the consequences on animals, tourism and the environment are too high,” said Mr Ebayi.

The Lusaka Agreement Task Force Operates from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) headquarters in Nairobi.

Mr Ebay said the task force is focusing on four countries where the 28 tonnes of animal parts seized this year have been traced to. But he declined to name them.

“It is not about one or two countries. All African countries are affected,” he said. For example, in South Africa which has a technically -advanced law enforcement system, poachers use helicopters.

South Africa has lost 210 rhinos to poaching since January, compared to 122 for all of last year, authorities there said.

Black-market demand for rhino horns and ivory has risen because of a growing middle-class in east and south-east Asia, where they are believed to have medicinal properties.

A rhino horn for example costs approximately Sh4.8 million per kilogramme. Each horn weighs 2.9 to 3.7 kilogrammes. The attractive pricing is a major incentive to the poachers.

The poaching of rhinos in South Africa has become such a problem that a local charity has appealed to American musician, 50 Cent, to become a godfather of rhino in order to create global awareness against the vice.

The head of South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority’s organised crime unit, Mr Johan Kruger, said all rhino poaching will in future be classified as organised crime.

The challenge of poaching and illegal wildlife meat in eastern Africa is made worse by insecure patches ,especially along the shared borders.

Several border points featuring wildlife in DR Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, South Sudan, Kenya, and Ethiopia are controlled by insurgents.

It is in such areas where lack of state presence means illicit small arms like guns are available to criminals and can easily be used to kill wildlife.

In the Great Lakes region, rebel groups often attack protected game parks and reserves to kill wildlife for food or trophies.

In the last two weeks for example, a consignment of ivory coming from Kenya was seized in al Shaabab-controlled areas in Somalia.

The insurgents are thought to be selling the game trophies to the ready Far East market a to finance their warfare.

The challenge of under-trained wildlife rangers is seen as one of the main hurdles facing anti-poaching efforts in the region today.

Mr Peter Younger, the head of International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) assistance programme for Africa said focus now is to equip such officers with the next level of intelligence gathering, analysis and investigation skills.

He spoke in Nairobi during a training for regional wildlife law enforcement officers supported by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)

“We need officers with forensic computer skills to be able to trace buyers of wildlife parts. Officers should be able to extract mobile telephone information of those suspected to be engaged in this illicit trade. We need to keep pace with technological advancement.”

Interpol said the international dimension of wildlife crime is a major challenge to ending it as poachers seek to supply the market in Far East.

The battle to end the trade should also be waged from the buyers side to ease demand.

According to Mr Younger, wildlife rangers in most African countries are not seen as playing a policing role and are therefore not given special law enforcement and criminal investigation skills.

In Kenya ,for instance, KWS has 1,500 rangers responsible for enforcing security in the agency’s territory that is equal to about eight per cent of the total landmass of the country.

National parks

The territory contains 22 national parks, 28 national reserves and five national sanctuaries.

Also under KWS management are four marine national parks and six marine national reserves at the Coast. In addition, KWS manages 125 field stations outside protected areas.

Kenya Wildlife Service Director Julius Kipng’etich said in earlier interview that the immediate plan is to improve the anti-poaching skills of his force and also adopt best training practices from some global elitist forces like the US Marines and the Israeli Navy.

“The intention is to make our rangers among the best paramilitary trained forces in the world because they require such skills to protect wildlife from poachers. We have identified two forces and we are going to borrow their best practices,” he said.

Also on the cards is the setting up of a forensic laboratory to improve the quality of evidence when prosecuting poaching and illegal game meat cases.

Top Interpol official confirmed KWS has made a proposal for the laboratory and expressed willingness to assist in its financing.

The primary function of the laboratory will be to identify species, parts or products of an animal to determine cause of death of an animal, to help wildlife officers determine if a violation of law has occurred and to identify and compare physical evidence in an attempt to link suspect, victim and crime scene.

The laboratory will make it possible to profile the DNA of animal parts to know where they came from and the time of their death, an exercise that currently costs about Sh40,000 for every DNA test.

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