April 16, 2013
With a spike in the number of elephants killed for their tusks since the beginning of the year, Kenyan conservation advocates are calling on politicians to make laws much stricter to deter poaching.
Without enforcement of such laws, illegal trade in ivory and other animal parts could harm the environment, as well as ruin the country's economically vital tourism industry, they say.
Kenya lost 74 elephants to poaching from January to March this year, according to Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) spokesperson Paul Mbugua. In all of 2012, poachers killed 384 elephants, up from 289 in 2011.
High prices for wildlife products on the black market are encouraging even more people to engage in poaching, said director of the National Environment and Management Authority Geoffrey Wahungu.
Elephant tusks and teeth are used for making jewellery, carvings, sculptures, piano keys, enamel plates and billiard balls.
"Apart from just being used to show affluence and exoticism, people crave those wildlife products, for instance rhino horns, to cure health conditions associated with reproductive [health] and others use it as an aphrodisiac," he told Sabahi.
If Kenya does not find long term solutions to stop poaching, the country's ecological system will be compromised, he said.
"The animals being killed, such as the elephants and rhinos, are large mammals and they clear bushes to maintain Savannah landscapes where other animals stay," he said.
He urged all Kenyans to take responsibility and report to the authorities any activity related to poaching.
Earlier this month, KWS announced it was mobilising an additional 1,000 park rangers to combat poaching and protect the country's dwindling population of 35,000 elephants.
Nonetheless, poachers continue their illegal activities unchecked because fines and prison sentences for convicted poachers are lenient under the current laws, Mbugua said.
As a result, even when KWS officers arrest ivory smugglers and big game poachers, lax penalties under the Wildlife (Conservation and Management) Act of 1976 make it easy for violators to drift back into criminal activity, he said.
"Sentences and fines provided for by the Act are now very low considering the current value of money," Mbugua told Sabahi. "The highest fine for wildlife crime under the Act is 65,000 shillings ($775). Most offenders get away with fines as low as 2,000 shillings ($24)."
"This explains why we have, time and time again, arrested people who are out on bond and who have gone back to commit the same offences," he said.
Under the Wildlife Act of 1976, ivory smuggling and poaching are considered petty offences or misdemeanours. However, because these illicit activities are so lucrative, they should be treated as economic crimes, which carry heftier penalties, Mbunga said.
A bill pending in parliament proposes that violators face fines of more than 50 million shillings ($596,000) and sentences of more than 20 years in prison.
"We want wildlife crimes to be regarded as economic crimes just like corruption, fraud and bribery," he said. "Poachers are people stealing from the public, as wildlife is a national resource. They deserve to be dealt with just like the corrupt."
The threat posed by poachers to the country's wild elephant and rhinoceros herds has become part of the political platform of President Uhuru Kenyatta.
"Poaching and destruction of our environment has no future in this country," he said during his inaugural speech April 9th. "The responsibility to protect our environment belongs not just to the government but to each and every one of us."
Kenyatta's words give Kenya's anti-poaching movement a much-needed political boost, according to Mombasa and Coast Tourism Association chairman Mohammed Hersi.
"The other reason why poaching has been going on unabated is because there was no commitment from top government officials in the fight, and that statement from the president gives this effort an impetus," he told Sabahi.
Apart from applying stringent measures against poachers, the government should form a task force to assist authorities in investigating and prosecuting poaching cases, Hersi said.
"We fear that poaching will deplete our wildlife," he said, adding that tourism makes up 12% of the Kenyan economy. "What this means is that we are kissing goodbye to tourism."
Wildlife tourism is the biggest draw for Kenya's tourism industry, and other sectors such as the beach and cultural tourism revolve around it, Hersi said.
"Almost all tourists who come to Kenya come for wildlife safaris, and after that they choose to relax on our Kenyan beaches, which means that if we lose our wildlife, then we better forget tourism as well," he said.
"Elephants and other wildlife are worth more alive than they are dead," Hersi said.
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