Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Chairman Richard Leakey   PHOTO DAVID NJAAGA/STANDARD

KWS founding director and former head of public service spoke to TED MALANDA about an organisation that needs Sh30 billion for a complete makeover because it has fancy gardens and choppers for its officers, yet vehicles on the ground have no fuel or tyres!

Elephant and rhino poaching. How serious is the problem?

It is no longer a crisis. From the beginning of 2016, it has become clear that poaching is on the decline. So far, less than 100 elephants have been killed.

Rhino deaths are far less than in 2014. We are investing more on intelligence to stop poachers before they strike. The new wildlife laws are also taking effect and the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Judiciary are doing a fantastic job.

What is the concern then?

Kenya is a transit point for ivory. This is happening because the coastal line of Mombasa is very porous - too many small ships darting in and out. There is also a great deal of crime in our ports. Obviously, this ivory is originating from our neighbouring countries.

When poachers finish the elephants in those countries, they will come back here. Our duty is to prepare for the future and ensure that does not happen.

Now, as in 1989 when Kenya first set ivory stockpiles ablaze, there are those who feel Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), which is broke, should auction the 105 tonnes of ivory and plough the proceeds into conservation...

The ivory burn of 1989 destroyed the market for ivory, plunging the market price from $300 (Sh30,000) per kilo to $5 (Sh500) in a week. We did that by embarrassing the people who were wearing ivory. That is what we want to do. This burn will give us the sort of publicity we would never afford through paid media advertisements.

To what extent is the problem of poaching compounded by corruption within KWS?

I do not have the evidence. But herdsmen who graze livestock in parks illegally claim they pay people in uniform to be allowed access. I have heard that some KWS officers are compromised to look the other way, present weak cases in court, or tamper with  evidence. We have to clean this up because donors will not give you funds if you are not clean.

The KWS anti-poaching unit was once hailed as the finest field force in Africa. Why did it seem incapable of dealing with the recent upsurge in poaching?

Rangers are controlling poaching, but they are no longer the strong field force they were. Tell you what, I went to Tsavo and they had 10 vehicles lying in the yard. Not one had a tyre you could drive around the compound; all the tyres were totally worn out.

The Authority to Incur Expenditure (AIE) provision for field operations was only Sh23,000. You can’t stop poachers with such a paltry amount.

So what really is the state KWS is in?

It’s been so run down to be honest. We completely lost it. We got beautiful headquarters, which is good - red carpets, fancy gardens, big cars, we fly around in helicopters and have a band that goes out to play drums with the army. But our vehicles have got no fuel. No tyres. No batteries. That’s what we have to get right.

How will you fix that?

Director Kitili Mbathi, the Board of Trustees, and I feel that the only way we can get it right is to first of all clean up KWS, because no one is going to give you a lot of money when you are corrupt. Let us prove we are clean and close the loopholes. We have already done an audit. And then towards the end of this year, we will go back to the multi-donor group led by the World Bank and ask for $300 million (Sh30 billion). Let’s build new staff houses, get new cars, build fences, and get the thing right once and for all. I think we can do it.

How did Kenya lose its voice as a global conservation leader?

We closed people out. We have not been open and truthful. We created a very wrong impression; we are now a military unit. And children can’t go to a ranger with a G3 and say, ‘Can you tell me about this chameleon?’ People are scared of KWS.

A lot of people who complain about things get penalised. You know Kenya. You report that there is a poaching incident and someone goes, ‘If you know about it, you must be one of them. Ndani! Ukitaka toa, pesa!’ We have got to change that.

The Kibaki and Moi eras...which was best for wildlife conservation?

Definitely the Moi era. He gave tremendous support. I don’t know whether Kipng’etich and those other guys looked for support (from President Kibaki) and didn’t get it or whether they didn’t look for it.

Kibaki didn’t come across as interested in wildlife or conservation. He made... was it only one visit to KWS in ten years?

That would be my view. But I think Uhuru is impressive by the way. My discussions with him have been very good. He is on the ball, he knows the issues. The follow through isn’t always there, but I think of all presidents, I would rate Uhuru very highly, although he doesn’t run the same (Moi) style.

He will talk to the Chief of Staff, the minister, have discussions... but you know this is Kenya. Moi with his rungu would say (bangs the table), ‘I want this done’ and it was done. But I think the leadership we have today is more enlightened than before. Unfortunately, you can’t expect one man (Uhuru) to save the country. He needs a much stronger team of his age group to support him.

Who impressed you the most in your previous tours as KWS director?

Former Deputy Director for Security Omar Bashir. He was a man of principles, and a fair man. I thought he was a fantastic guy. We had some other guys whose names I can’t clearly recall since I am not getting any younger. But I remember the guy who was in charge of park fences. Kagiri, yes Joachim Kagiri.

Very impressive fellow. Then I think of, uh, one of the other guys who left and came back briefly as KWS director... Yes Michael Wamithi. Very clever man. Very intelligent. Very passionate. There were a lot of younger people who left too. But I have been around since I came back as chairman. There are good young people at KWS.

Why aren’t these good young people rising through the ranks to the position of director? KWS always hires CEOs externally...

Corruption, again. Tribalism is corruption. If your boss is from a different ethnic group, then you can’t rise up the ranks. You’ve seen that in the papers. Hii ni ugonjwa mbaya sana Kenya!