Death in the wilderness

Secret killings, enforced disappearances by the KWS, KFS officers
By : Daniel Wesangula
[email protected]

Kenya has recorded some level of success in her wildlife conservation struggle. Numbers for key species that ten years ago were under threat are on the mend. Forest cover is increasing. Key ecosystems too are being restored.

But this success, has come at a heavy price. A price mostly paid through the blood of communities living around some of the country’s most spectacular parks, reserves and conservancies. And, behind these statistics of success, lie tales of despair, loss and death, sometimes in the most gruesome manner.

And the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Kenya Forest Service, the country’s key agencies in protecting flora and fauna stand accused. To date, at least dozens of cases of deaths and enforced disappearances point towards the existence of an elite killer squad within the state body whose sole purpose is to cover up murders committed by its officers and intimidate possible witnesses.

In one village, locals have documented close to 400 cases involving killings, disappearances or torture. At least one of the agencies has denied culpability.

The identification parade

MALINDI, February 2019: Three teenage boys timidly walked out of the Malindi Police Station to the open courtyard behind the station’s high perimeter wall. As they stepped out into the open one of them hesitated. He sought reassurances from his minders that there would be no blowback on what he was about to do. And most importantly that he and his brothers would be safe. Their task for the day was simple. Much simpler than running after their fathers’ goats within Tsavo East Game Reserve.

Paraded in front of them was a group of thirteen men, all officers from the Kenya Wildlife Service taking part in an identification parade. At the time, there were fears that 6 among the thirteen had been involved in the killing of Lami Bocha, a 50-year-old man on 24th December 2018.

The brothers say they witnessed the Christmas Eve murder of their father. On that day, the four were arrested by the KWS rangers, before being beaten and tortured. Bocha, their father, was shot at point blank range by one of the rangers who proceeded to dump his body into the roaring, crocodile infested waters of River Galana before arresting the three boys and detaining them at the KWS cells in Voi.

But their plan had a vital flaw. The beatings and torture the boys received wasn’t enough to break them. And as soon as they were released, on the 28th of December, they reported the alleged murder at Garsen Police Station. Ensuing investigations ended up in the identification parade, during which the six rangers who witnesses say beat and killed Bocha , a cattle herder from Bisanadi, were picked out from the small crowd.

Bocha’s isn’t the only death that Bisanadi village is grieving. In fact, before him, seven other people suffered a fate similar to his between 2012 and 2018. Fatally shot or tortured to death. At each of these instances, multiple witness accounts from interviews and investigations conducted by the Sunday Standard puts KWS rangers on the scene of crime, or where bodies are never recovered, place the victims’ last known interactions with members of the government body. Residents say the numbers are higher.

“There are those who went out and never returned home,” Area MP Ali Wario says. “Almost fifty people have been reported missing over the last decade.” Data collated from years of research coming through police records, government pathology reports and interviews with communities bordering parks, forests and reserves by the Sunday Standard shows how dozens are missing or have been killed by KFS and KWS. Other infringements such as sexual assault, arbitrary arrests and torture grows to the numbers of the aggrieved to hundreds, and possibly thousands countrywide.

Dawn and out

For years, the atrocities and killings by KWS and KFS officers have gone on with little resistance. Often, the path towards justice of the families of the dead are laden with insurmountable challenges. The biggest of them being the lack of physical evidence that ties the agencies directly to murders and, according to dozens of survivours of this brutality, intimidation from those suspected of the atrocities.

“Their intelligence unit is one of the most feared within the disciplined forces. We know that they may be responsible for a lot more killings. But they leave no bodies behind,” a senior investigator within the Directorate of Criminal Intelligence told the Sunday Standard. “We rarely venture into their turf.”

Investigations have shown that while KWS prefers dispersing bodies in the most remote sections of their parks and let scavengers have their day, KFS prefers dumping bodies laden with weight down rivers that traverse the country’s forests. Their preferred mode of killing is the same. Beatings, some torture and the eventual fatal single shot from close range.

A single shot similar to the one that killed James Maina Wairimu on 15th March 2013. For Maina, death came in the morning. It came to him when the dew was still holding on to the grass and the birds were yet to start their songs of the day.

“Two forest guards known to us called Maina at 6:30AM. Muigai and myself accompanied him to where the guards were but they told the two of us to leave. After walking a short distance we heard a gunshot. We couldn’t go back there. We tried to call Maina but his phone went unanswered,” Stephen Kihiu, a witness to the alleged crime wrote in his police statement, dated 15th March.

Kihiu and Muigai next saw Maina on the cold slabs of Naivasha mortuary. A post mortem report shows how Maina died.

IDENTIFICATION: The body was identified as the correct body of James Maina Wairimu by Lucy Wanja Waweru and Mwangi Kanyeri Wanyoko, the wife and father of the deceased respectively. No. 73247 police constable Vincent Oluoch for Kijabe Police Station was in attendance.

CIRCUMSTANCE OF DEATH: According to the police file, the deceased person and others were found chopping trees inside Kinale Forest by the Forest Rangers. While being arrested he resisted and instead attacked the said officer while armed with an axe. As a result, he was shot in the head. But relatives are claiming differently.

EXTERNAL FINDINGS: The body was of a male adult of Negroid descent who had been preserved by refrigeration. Entry gunshot wound left posterior hairline just behind the left ear. The wound has a contusion collar and blackening indicating a close range shot. Multiple bruises on the forehead ranging from 10- 60 millimetres.

The autopsy was performed by a Dr Ngulungu, a government pathologist who at that time was based in Nakuru.

On a day devoid of heavy traffic, the drive between Nairobi and Naivasha can be a pleasant one. As you leave Nairobi and drive towards Naivasha you pass through the serene Kinale Forest. Its tall trees throwing long shadows on the road twice a day. From the road, Kinale Forest looks like a destination that hides a picture-perfect picnic spot.

For those who live around though, it is also the theatre of some of their worst nightmares and from it, all too often, bearers of bad news emerge to announce a death or a disappearance of an individual to an unfortunate next of kin such as Maina’s wife. But another forest, hundreds of kilometres away bordering Muhoni Village, signifies death to another family too.

On 19th May 2013 at around 8pm, Paul Barasa requested his 18 year old wife Eunice Barasa to accompany him to Malava forest to gather firewood for the night. Their trespass into the forest was short-lived.

“Two people emerged from the darkness. One of them ordered us to remain where we were and not to move. Then I heard a very loud bang,” Eunice says. She ran and heard a second, a third and a fourth bang. “I ran to our homestead and told my father in law what had happened,” a statement written by Eunice at the Kabras Police Station reads.

Accompanied by her father-in-law, two brothers-in-law and a nephew, she went back into the forest to look for her husband. “We found him lying on the ground. There was a hole at the back of his head, a bleeding open wound on the left side of his chest and another small bleeding wound on his lower back,” Eunice says. Her case remains unresolved. She says her husband was killed by forest rangers.


Without a trace

If Kinale and Malava Forests are theatres of bad dreams, the Meru Conservation Area, fondly referred to as MCA within conservation circles is the building within which the two forests are hosted. The MCA is a complex of protected areas along the Tana River that includes the adjacent Bisanadi and Mwingi National Reserves, the Kora National Park, and Meru National Park.

Meru National Park, measuring some 870km2 was gazetted as a conservation area in 1966 and later as a National Park in 1990, following the murder of conservationist and author George Adamson by poachers. Since Adamson’s killing death has really never been far from those living around the Meru Conservation Area and like an unwanted spirit, it continues to linger.

At the Kenya Wildlife Headquarters along Nairobi’s Langata Road, Meru National Park is talked about fondly. For those who’ve been with the wildlife agency for long, it represents a conservation success story in a country that once looked to have lost the battle of protecting her wildlife. But as the wildlife numbers improve, a bordering community continues to suffer, tens of men disappearing or killed in, according to witnesses, the hands of officers from the Kenya Wildlife Service. If you leave Nairobi and head north on the Meru-Nairobi highway you will get to the Makutano junction. If you take a right turn at the junction, and proceed for another 35kilometres you get to Embu Town and then proceed to Maua town, then Thitha then Kiatene. From Kiatene and past the miraa trees that dot almost every homestead you get to the Garbatula junction.

The main gate to the Meru National Park lies less than two kilometeres from this junction. But if you take a left, on newly laid tarmac towards Garbatulla, you get to Kinna Town, where the tarmac seems to melt away under the 39 degrees celcius heat, giving way to fine dust. Kinna, like many other transit towns is T-shaped, with shops spread along the road to Garbatula and others along a slip road heading into the bowels of the town. Few sheep and goats walkaround the streets.

In the evening, women sit outside their houses, legs crossed with bundles of miraa in front of them. Men walk up to them. Some purchase stems of the stimulant and go away while others sit and join in in the chewing. A kilometre from all this is an electrified fence that cuts into Kinna’s black cotton soil. Humans on one side, animals on the other.

“This fence has never brought us any joy,” Jattan Haji Waqo, an elder in Kinna says. “Never.” Among the Borana community, the majority in Kinna, Mzee Jattan is revered. They call him the president. But on 18th May 2015, the president’s powers were put on trial and for the first time in many years, the man whom folklore says is so influential that sitting presidents have to seek his permission before getting into Kinna Town, Jattan was helpless, his authority tested.

Nine days before the May 18th incident three men Ismail Adan Gedi, Kalicha Halake Dima and Godana Duyo left Kinna Town for Duse Town, some 20 kilometres away. Just four kilometres away, their motorbike registration number KMDJ 101D was stopped by what witnesses say was KWS wardens. The three, according to witnesses who spoke to the Standard were beaten, tied up and finally bundled into the back of a waiting Toyota Landcruiser.

“We have never seen them since. We don’t know whether they are dead or alive,” Halima Dhahabo Guyo says. Her husband, Godana Guyo was among the three. The disappearance of the three men stoked emotions in Kinna. Protests were planned, but they were stopped even before they started.

On 18th May 2015, at around midday, young men were driving cattle towards the Kinna Kanchoragi watering point. Among the boys was Abduba Duba’s son Mohammed.

“I left home with some tea and bread for my son. He had been away since dawn. I wanted to give him something to eat as the animals drank,” Abduba says. As he approached the watering point, a helicopter appeared, hovering above the animals. “We were looking up at the airplane and suddenly gunfire was heard all around us,” Sarito Dido a survivour of the incident said. “They were shooting at us from all directions.”

“The deceased person was among demonstrators within water source in Kinna Area where officers opened fire and he was shot dead,” reads a post mortem report issued at Isiolo Police Station. The report notes that the body was handed in by Police Constable Cyrus Wahome, force number 77187. On the day Mohamed died, 11 other people survived with bullet wounds. Some like Mohammed Hassan Abduba, whose forehead was grazed by a bullet, escaped death by a whisker and lives to tell of the ordeal. For others like Abdulahi Wario though, death would have been an easier option.

“I am not worthy,” he says.

Months before the watering point incident, Waqo Liban, Sarito Dido and Abdulahi were dispatched from Kinna by the elders with a special message. Five kilometres from the town, a group of herders from the neighbouring Tana River County had gathered. At stake was rangeland that pastoralists from Kinna had depended on year in year out. The message from Kinna to the visitors was simple. “We wanted them to drive their cattle away,” Sarito says. Their message was never delivered. As they approached the temporary manyatta set up by the visiting pastoralists a contingent of KWS officers ambushed them. “We were not even in the park. They said we were poachers,” Abdulahi says. Abdulahi says the three of them were ordered to lie on the road and flogged. The ordeal was particularly bad for him. He says the armed officers then repeatedly trumpled on his scrotum. “They finished me,” he says. “They finished me.”

Later, the three men were taken to Maua Police station where they were charged with illegal possession of game trophy. The case was dismissed three years later for lack of evidence. Abdulahi’s young wife later ran away from their home. “Our brothers are not men. They are not even women. We don’t know what they are. Their wives have run away from them, and they themselves have run away from the community. Hiding. Ashamed of what was done to them,” Dhahabo, whose husband remains missing says. “We can’t talk. And when we do, we are hunted down.”

The fear, the elders say, has resulted in many more cases going unreported. “Where will you report them,” Haji Ali Guyo, another elder asks. We see them pass in their cars. Mothers see the men who shot down their sons but they can’t do anything about it. For how long can people live like this?” Guyo says the Kinna community does not want many things from the Kenya wildlife Service.

“We just want them to apologies and acknowledge the wrongs they have committed,” says Guyo. “We just want them to greet people when they pass by. We just want them to be human.” Attempts at reconciliation have been made. Two years ago, a KWS delegation reached out to the elders and told them they wanted to make peace. “They brought one sheep and promised some Sh3.2million to be shared out by those affected by the watering hole shooting. We listened to them. They went and have never come back.” So the pain festers on. Passed on from generation to generation.

“These stories you hear from me are the same ones you will hear from my neighbour. And the same ones you will hear from his neighbour. The pain of child birth is the same for every woman. The pain of death is the same for every parent who has lost a child,” Waqo Liban says. For now, an uneasy calm sits on Kinna Town.

Every evening as the men and women sit outside their houses, on shop verandas or on stools and mats next to the road, their conversations focus on many things. A sick relative, an exemplary child in school, an errant young man, a wedding, famous sons and daughters of Kinna such as Isiolo Senator Fatuma Dullo or even a botched devolution project. But amidst this banter, the painful past and present always infiltrates daily talk. And through cheeks fully extended from mouthfuls of miraa, and in between nibbles off juicy stems of the stimulant, they talk about the deaths. They talk about the disappearances. They talk about the men whose wives have ran away from them. “Soon, they might start talking about revenge too,” Mohamed Mullow Abdi, an elder says.

The old men have a book they guard with their lives. On it are more than 400 names, signatures and thumb prints of those who cannot write. They are names of men from Kinna who have either been killed, abducted or tortured by officers from the KWS.

Five armed men, a school girl and a school boy

Tsavo Conservation Area known simply as TCA, mirrors the situation in Meru. TCA covers an area of about 43,000Km² -roughly 60 times bigger than Nairobi County- and it is the largest conservation area in Kenya.

The ecosystem is home to some of the largest and most iconic herds of elephants. KWS data shows that in soon after independence, in 1967, the jumbo population stood at approximately 35,000 animals.

Devastating droughts in 1970 and 1971 coupled with a ruthless period of poaching saw the numbers drop to a paltry 5,400 within the TCA within two decades, a 1988 KWS census reported. The loss was drastic. Environmentalists said that in a few years, the elephant populations within Tsavo would be wiped out. There was need for urgent action.

The following year, the Kenya Wildlife Service was created. Key among its mandate was the protection of the country’s wildlife at whatever cost, including a shoot to kill order against poachers. An order that stands to date. Over the years, the numbers of elephants within TCA swelled.

  • 1994 the population was 7,371
  • 1999 the population was 8,068
  • 2002 the population was 9,284
  • 2005 the population was 10,397
  • 2008 the population was 11,696
  • 2011 the population was 12,573

A 2017 census shows jumbo numbers at between 13,000 and 14,000. “Ironically, these years of recovery for wildlife represent years of attrition for communities living around wildlife protected areas,” Cosmas Nzili, a resident of Nthngoni says. It is also during these years of recovery that one of the most disturbing acts of violence was committed by KWS officers.

On October 11th 2014, the biggest story in Kenya was the departure of President Uhuru Kenyatta for the International Criminal Court where proceedings against him on a raft of atrocities committed during the 2007 post-election violence were to begin.

Away from the national debate, twelve-year-old Ndinda Wambua had accompanied her parents on what she thought was a mundane mission, the everyday chore of collecting firewood for the family. Ndinda’s family home is located right next to the Chyulu Hills national Reserve. Before she collected enough for the day, a group of KWS officer accosted her and demanded to know the whereabouts of a logger they were pursuing.

The twelve-year-old said she did not know what they were talking about. Behind her, a smouldering mound of earth, a charcoal kiln for the illegal loggers, seethed slowly.

“One of the officers thrust me between his legs and started hitting me with his gun,” the twelve year old girl said in a statement in possession of the standard. The KWS officers didn’t let her go after this.

“They beat me and started throwing me into the charcoal kiln,” she said. They would hold her over the kiln for a few seconds, then when her cries became too loud, they would place her aside. Then put her above the smouldering mound again. Then put her aside after the pain became too much for the girl. All the while interrogating her about the illegal logger they were after.

Ndinda cannot remember for how long this went on for. Eventually, the officers left her where they had found her. Her parents who later tracked her down, found her passed out from the pain. A medical report from Makindu Hospital details the extent of injuries she suffered on that day.

First degree burns on her head and neck. Multiple bruises on her thorax and abdomen. Second degree burns on both her palms, wrists and all fingers. Second degree burns on right leg.

Four years later, Benedict Kyule, a form four student at Kiuani Secondary School wasn’t as fortunate. Unlike Ndinda, the 18-year-old did not live to tell of his ordeal. He was killed within the Tsavo West National Park on the night of February 14th 2019 while on midterm break. Reports of an autopsy conducted on him at Makindu Sub-county Hospital mortuary showed the teenager died of excessive bleeding.

The post mortem results showed the boy had four bullet wounds. The first bullet went through the right lower limb, leaving a 12 centimetres above his knee. Another hit the left limb. Two more bullets went through the chest.

“The velocity of the bullets that went through the chest led to the lungs collapsing. What followed was excessive bleeding. The chest cavity was filled with blood. This is what killed him,” David Kasanga, the Makindu medical superintendent said at the time adding that Benedict was probably shot from the back and on the sides. He also said the post mortem results showed the teen could have been either shot by one person who was changing positions, or by three different people.

KWS issued a statement on the incident saying that rangers had killed a suspected poacher during a 10am fierce gun battle within the Tsavo, and that KWS had launched a manhunt for a suspect on the run.

The statement further said that three rangers were on routine patrol within the park near Mang’elete boundary when they encountered two armed suspected poachers. “The suspects immediately shot at the rangers and a shootout ensued. One suspect was killed while his colleague escaped,” the statement read.

In the statement, KWS also claimed that after a search, police recovered one .303 heavy calibre rifle and a cartridge, three cartridges for an automatic rifle, and a mobile phone. “My son was not an armed poacher. The rifles planted on him are very old and probably obtained elsewhere many years back,” Benedict’s father said.

Visits to multiple locations around the country show a clear strain on relationships between communities and rangers. Executions. Disappearances. Torture. Rape. Destruction of property. All these making it to the list of atrocities that communities lay firmly at the doorstep of KWS and KFS.

In a 2016 report that was presented to the senate, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights noted thus: “It was alleged that the KWS officers routinely made demands for bribes and livestock from the pastoralists and those who failed to yield to the demands were beaten and in some cases killed in disregard to their fundamental freedoms and constitutional rights,” KNCHR said.

Some of those killed or tortured were also in violation of certain laws as well. For instance, it might be argued that Lami Bocha who was killed in Tsavo or James Maina who was executed in Kinale Forest or Ndinda Wambua who was held over the embers of a slow burning flame were all in violation of some rule or another.

There exists grazing and watering guidelines for pastoralists like Bocha. “No person shall enter into a national park with any livestock for any purposes without authorisation. Any person who contravenes this provision commits an offence and is liable upon conviction to a fine not exceeding Sh100,000 or to imprisonment of upto six months,” part of the wildlife act reads.

The act also bestows powers on the rangers to demand any person in possession of any wildlife specimen to produce authority permit or licence for its possession; power to search any person, vehicle or vessel suspected of having committed an offence in respect of which an offence has been committed, arrest and detain the person.

Also, the law states that KFS and KWS are uniformed services and their officers are authorised to use firearms for carrying out their functions. In a statement, the Kenya Forest Servoce denied all involvement in any of the cases investigated by the Standard.

“The mentioned incidences in Mt. Elgon, Kinale and Kakamega have not been brought to our attention hence we are not in a position to comment accordingly. You are therefore advised to treat them as mere allegations and general statements unless otherwise established,” a statement sent by Anne Kaari, the institutions communication person said.

The statement further said that KFS officers are guided by various provisions of the law. “Such incidences should have been reported to the police and up to now we have not received any report from them touching on our officers. To this end, the service is not in knowledge of such criminal activities or human rights violations.”

Our requests for reply from the Kenya Wildlife Service were not honoured. Calls, emails, WhatsApp messages to the organisations official Spokesperson and Head of Coporate Communications Paul Gathitu, mandated to deal with all external queries, went unanswered.