Poachers slaughter rhino in Nairobi national park

Brazen attack defies Kenya's new stricter laws to protect wildlife as horn is hacked off the animal in heavily guarded sanctuary

Poachers have slaughtered a rhino in a heavily guarded national park near Nairobi in a brazen attack that flouts severe new wildlife crime laws aimed at stemming a surge of such killings.

The shooting of elephants and rhinos for their ivory and horns has risen in Kenya in recent years and a new report reveals the tiny fines and near absence of imprisonment that has provided little deterrent to the lucrative crimes.

Earlier in January, life imprisonment and much heavier fines were introduced in new laws, but the poaching of the rhino in the Nairobi park, just 4.3 miles from the capital, and the headquarters of the government's Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), shows the scale of the challenge that remains in protecting the nation's threatened wildlife.

"Nairobi national park is one of the best-protected areas, so it is a really shocking thing for us," said KWS spokesman Paul Udoto. "The rhino horns were hacked and taken away. Investigations are under way."

Paula Kahumbu, executive director of Nairoibi-based NGO WildlifeDirect, told the Guardian: "It is very exciting what is happening now with the new laws. They had been just sitting around for 10 years, but the proof of the pudding will be if we put some serious players behind bars." WildlifeDirect's report found that from 2008-2013, just 4% of those convicted of wildlife crimes in 18 courts in affected regions were sent to jail. The fines levied instead were consistently far below the maximum 40,000 Kenyan shillings ($460) and in some cases were just $1 per item. In contrast, demand from Asia for rhino horn has made it more valuable than gold or cocaine, and across Africa poaching has grown into a major activity for organised crime and terror groups.

On Monday, in the first case under the new law, a Chinese man pled guilty to carrying an entire elephant tusk in a suitcase while in transit from Mozambique to China via Nairobi. Tang Yong Jian, 40, now faces a fine of up to 20 million Kenyan shillings ($240,000) or life in jail. Previously, the maximum prison term was 10 years.

Kahumbu said: "This is the first time we have seen the government getting serious about this. We are now starting to see public concern turning into a national sense of responsibility." However, she added that the new severe penalties would mean far fewer poachers pleading guilty and would mean even stronger evidence would be needed to secure convictions.

Poaching severely harms wildlife in Africa, the only continent not to have driven most of its large animals to extinction, but also damages communities, said Kahumbu. Poor young men, tempted by the prospect of quick riches, are often killed or injured, as are wildlife rangers, eight of whom were killed in Kenya in 2013. "There is insecurity for people in these areas, as people are running around with guns, and the communities also lose the potential for tourism," said Kahumbu.

Furthermore, she said: "It is very easy for criminal enterprises to set up here and they specialise in the corruption of officials: the impact on Kenya is enormous." WildlifeDirect's report, which examined 314 cases, found none in which a KWS officer was convicted, despite frequent arrests. The last poacher killed on a ranch turned out to be a policeman, Kahumbu said.

In 2013, between 40 and 60 rhinos are thought to have been poached in Kenya, but not a single horn was recovered. "It is obviously getting out of the country," Kahumbu said. "And the size of ivory shipments is going off the charts too."

Kenya has begun inserting microchips into rhino horns and wildlife officials plan eventually to microchip all the rhinos in the country, just over 1,000 animals altogether.

In 2013, the world's top wildlife crime official told the Guardian that crime syndicates and terrorists were outgunning those on the frontline of wildlife protection and posed a deadly and immediate threat to both people and animals. John Scanlon, secretary general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, said the law enforcement fightback must mirror the war against illegal drugs, with undercover operations and harsh penalties.


Damian Carrington

The GuardianTramp

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