Poaching of both rhino and elephant has reached alarming levels in Kenya. The recent killing of a family of 12 elephants in Tsavo East National Park by a gang of poachers has raised the level of alarm both nationally and internationally.
Several factors have been cited to explain the upsurge in poaching in Kenya and indeed the rest of Africa. The most important factor has been the growth of the Chinese economy with a growing middle exhibiting an insatiable appetite for ivory.
It is on record that the average Chinese person is unaware that an elephant has to die for their tusks or horn to be removed. They believe that tusks and horns are harvested from live animals and that they grow again like teeth.
Reducing the demand for ivory is the key to ending this tragic loss of elephants. This calls for stricter law enforcement in China and transit countries that facilitate the movement and sale of ivory and public education and awareness campaigns to ensure that the people of China understand the impact of the ivory trade on Elephants.
Equally important are the decisions made by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Trade in ivory was banned in 1989 after the unprecedented slaughter of African elephants during the 1970s and 1980s. The elephants were placed under the highest level of protection by CITES and all international trade in ivory banned.
In subsequent years, CITES has allowed some elephant populations to be down listed, affording them less protection and allowing trade in ivory from these populations.
CITES also made the unfortunate decision to allow China to buy ivory from these countries despite glaring evidence that the trade controls in China were inadequate resulting in high volumes of illegal trade. The next CITES Conference of Parties is coming up in March this year.
To save elephants from decimation, the parties will be called upon to support a proposal by members states of the African Elephant Coalition led by Kenya to amend the text of the CITES convention towards tightening ivory trade controls.
A third factor in the trade is the challenge faced by elephant range states in securing free ranging elephants and rhinos and protecting them from poaching.
The investment required to provide security for these animals is a major strain on government departments. Kenya Wildlife Service is one of the best wildlife management agencies in Africa.
South African National parks are equally highly regarded. It is notable that in 2011 and 2012, both agencies recorded unprecedented levels of poaching despite having highly trained, well equipped and dedicated personnel. It is scary to imagine what is happening to elephants and rhinos in countries that are less well prepared to fight the poaching menace.
Equally important is the weak penalties afforded to those found guilty of killing and trading in wildlife trophies across Africa. Wildlife crime has traditionally been viewed as low level crime and the impact of the loss on national economies has remained a hidden cost.
This is despite evidence that the global wildlife trafficking is as profitable as the illicit drugs trade and the illegal arms trade to the underworld.
To stem the poaching menace, wildlife crime must be recognized for its impact on African economies and be treated accordingly in the national laws.
Stiff penalties for wildlife crimes are bound to be a deterrent. In Kenya, the wildlife act has been under review since 2006 and it is unfortunate that parliament is coming to the end of session without passing this law that would have afforded stiffer penalties for offenders. In the absence of this law, the legal fraternity must scrutinize other statutes in our laws that can be used to punish offenders.
Finally, public outrage is an important aspect in causing the government to pay attention to the poaching menace. Unfortunately this is lacking in Kenya.
Kenya is in the middle of heightened political activity. Politicians will only pay attention to what they perceive to be important to the citizens.
Wildlife based tourism contributes significantly to Kenya's GDP and it is strange that the tourism industry remains silent when wildlife is being killed at unprecedented rates. It is equally disturbing that communities that are bound to suffer the most as the poaching menace threatens tourism remain silent.
There seems to be a pervasive view that wildlife in Kenya belongs to KWS. This is far from the truth. Wildlife is a natural heritage bestowed upon this country for us and our children and we need to get angry when a band of criminals choose to profit and decimate our natural resources.
Dr. Winnie Kiiru is the director CHD-Conservation Kenya and a trustee at the Kenya Wildlife Service.