By Joe Kiarie
NAIROBI, KENYA: Details of how unscrupulous Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) staffers have been colluding with poachers to massacre wildlife in the Tsavo can now be revealed.
The officers find buyers for trophies, steal from stockpiles or help poachers, warn their accomplices about ranger patrols and harass any locals who report crimes.
Poachers get access to the animals by hiding among pastoralist communities allowed to graze in parts of the park. Armed gangs from Somalia and elsewhere are believed to take advantage of the heavy presence of livestock in local ranches and the Tsavo National parks to monitor and hunt down elephants.
The gangs, which have been said to profit Al Shabaab terrorists, enjoy protection from senior KWS officers directly involved in the illegal trade. A fight-back has begun, with tougher penalties on poaching and a massive Government operation to flush out the thousands of herders in the Tsavo Conservation Area. Hundreds of herders and more than 50,000 animals have been moved out of the area in the last one week.
This comes as KWS scrambled to interdict and prosecute wardens suspected of conspiring with criminals in damaging “inside jobs” that have made wildlife protection all but impossible.
Last Saturday, KWS interdicted 10 employees for allegedly colluding with poachers. They included an acting senior warden, a company commander, five platoon commanders and three rangers.
This came barely three months after two senior KWS wardens were charged with stealing more than Sh15.3 million worth of elephant tusks recovered from poachers. The duo appeared before the Mombasa Chief Magistrate on February 28 accused of collecting exhibits from the courtroom and selling them to dealers.
None of those interdicted or charged in court has been found guilty of any offence. Sources within the corporation say the hunt is on for an intricate crime web that they blame for the recent rise in poaching cases.
“There has been a very powerful, untouchable cartel that almost neutralised KWS,” said our source, a long-serving warden who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“Their network has involved (a chain of people from) officers operating from the headquarters in Nairobi to rangers in the bush, who guide every step poachers make. Every time we have intelligence on the movement of poachers, they impose delaying tactics such as tipping off the criminals, diverting patrol teams and even holding onto patrol vehicles.”
The source cites an incident in January when an entire family of 12 elephants was killed in Kenya’s worst single recorded loss of the animals. He says rangers on foot patrol who could have caught the poachers were sent in the wrong direction.
He also points to a recent incident where an informer reported spotting elephant ivory being loaded onto a Mombasa-bound bus at Voi, only for a response team to be deployed to the town eight hours later.
“There have also been multiple cases of stockpiled ivory going missing from the stores with no break-ins reported,” he reveals. Kenya has a stockpile of more than 65 metric tonnes of elephant ivory in the custody of KWS. Julius Kimani, a KWS Senior Assistant Director (intelligence), in charge of the Tsavo Conservation Area, readily admits the existence of ‘secret agents’, who he says have fuelled the poaching menace.
“In a family, all children cannot be the same. We have some rotten eggs,” he says.
“They have been leaking information and alerting poachers on deployments and movement of patrol teams. Considering how vast the area is, this has really hindered anti-poaching efforts.”
Suspicion of inside jobs, he says, has hovered over the service for years. “We have always had reports of inside jobs, but never thought it was true. But it is now coming out as a serious issue,” he says.
While the cartels mainly target elephant tusks, Kimani says investigations into the killing of two rhinos at Tsavo West National Park early this year pointed to insider help.
There are also questions being raised about the killing of seven rhinos last week in what was the bloodiest period for the endangered animal in Kenya in decades.
Kimani says majority of those involved in undermining anti-poaching efforts are technology-savvy junior officers, who connect with illegal ivory dealers online.
“Some are succumbing to the temptation of the big money coming from trophies,” he states. This suspected collusion has not escaped the public eye. Within Kuranze area of Kwale County, residents claim KWS and Administration Police officers either collude with poachers or have no interest in protecting wildlife. They say that locals who report animal killings are victimised.
“For years we have been hearing gunshots in the evening and spotting as many as seven elephant carcasses later on,” one person we spoke to said.
“We think this is done by Somali herders under the close eye of supervisors who spend the whole day chewing miraa at Kuranze Shopping Centre. But when we report the cases to the police and KWS, they rarely come here. When they do, they arrest us yet we are innocent. We no longer report any such cases to the authorities.”
Kimani admits KWS has an unhappy relationship the residents of Kuranze.
“I cannot rule out cases of victimisation (by police or KWS),” he says. “We are not very happy with these people. They take up to two days to report poaching. While some are held as suspects, they are usually freed if investigations clear them.” Last year, the KWS arrested 250 poachers in the region, in the process recovering 18 firearms and 450 rounds of ammunition. Tougher penalties, Kimani says, will help fight poaching.“The punishment (before changes in late May was) a fine of not more than Sh40,000,” he quips. “They always plead guilty to the charges and that’s it.” Parliament has approved significant increases in the penalties. Those caught can now expect fines up to Sh10 million, along with jail sentences of 15 years.
Prior to this, fines were capped at Sh40,000 and jail terms at two years. “Kenya’s elephants declined from 160,000 in the 1960s to 16,000 in 1989 due to poaching,” North Horr MP Chachu Ganya said in debate on the measures.
“Today, Kenya is home to only 38,500 elephants and 1,025 rhinos.”
So far this year, poachers have butchered about 21 rhinos and 117 elephants to feed growing demand for animal trophies and parts in Asia’s black market.
The Tsavo is one of the regions that have seen an alarming increase in elephant killings starting last year.
This sparked claims that some KWS officials were trying to undermine the organisation’s new director Dr William Kiprono. To deal with the crisis, Dr Kiprono sent senior staff from Nairobi, like Kimani, into the regions.
Conservationists hope their intervention will help bring an end to the killings and weed out the cartels behind them.