Some conservationists could neither believe their ears nor eyes when news from Geneva, Switzerland, started trickling in at the weekend that Kenya's law enforcement against wildlife crime had won recognition at a United Nations meeting.
Four Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Secretary-General's Certificates of Commendation were awarded to Nepal, China, Kenya and Nairobi-based regional agency - Lusaka Agreement Task Force - for exemplary wildlife law enforcement efforts.
The Certificates were presented at an International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) event taking place as part of the 65th meeting of the CITES Standing Committee, which ended on Friday.
It's important to point out that the CITES award was not an overall assessment of Kenya's performance in wildlife conservation but was specific to the law enforcement operation.
China, Kenya and the Lusaka Agreement Task Force (LATF) were awarded Certificates of Commendation for collaborative efforts to take down an international criminal syndicate smuggling ivory from Kenya to China in a least publicised operation.
The joint action occurred during Operation COBRA II - an international wildlife law enforcement operation involving 28 countries that took place in January 2014 - and resulted in the extradition of a Chinese national from Kenya to China and the arrest of more than 20 smugglers and domestic ivory traders in China implicated in the activities of the syndicate.
The certificates were presented to China's National Inter-agencies CITES Enforcement Coordination Group on behalf of Chinese authorities, Kenya Wildlife Service on behalf of Kenyan Authorities and LATF, a Nairobi-based regional wildlife law enforcement agency.
The fourth certificate was awarded to Nepal in recognition of its exemplary efforts to combat wildlife crime. In 2011, no rhinoceroses, tigers, or elephants were illegally killed in Nepal, and in 2012 the country lost just one rhinoceros to poaching. On the first UN World Wildlife Day, 3 March 2014, Nepal for the second time celebrated 365 days with zero poaching.
Back to China and Kenya, which won the award for having successfully joined hands under the co-ordination of the LATF and the China Inter-Agency CITES Enforcement Coordination Group to arrest and repatriate a notorious wildlife smuggler from Kenya to China for prosecution.
The inter-regional global enforcement operation in two continents broke new ground by netting at least 400 suspected wildlife traffickers, disrupting global ivory syndicates.
The one-month operation code-named 'Operation COBRA II' brought together African and Asian agencies in 28 countries.
It recorded more than 240 seizures consisting of more than 40 assorted wildlife species, out of which elephant ivory was the most dominant accounting for 43 per cent (102 seizures), followed by giant glam 26 per cent (63 cases), pangolins 8 per cent, sea turtle and tortoises (7 per cent (16 cases) and se snails 6 per cent, among others.
The following were the operations most significant outcomes:
o Seizure of 36 rhino horns, over 3 metric tons of elephant ivory, over 10,000 turtles, over 1000 skins of protected species, over 1000 European Eels and more than 200 metric tons of rosewood logs
o The cooperative effort marked the first-ever joint China-Africa undercover sting intelligence led operation that identified and arrested members of a major ivory trafficking syndicate operating between China and Africa.
o The arrested suspected ivory smugglers were residing in Nairobi and orchestrated the buying and transportation of wildlife products from Africa to China for the past three years. The three suspects had earlier been sought by Chinese authorities to face charges relating to ivory smuggling from Kenya in November 2013.
The details of the operation remain secret but those privy to the planning and implementation liken it to the stuff of movies. The operation involved discreet involvement of many agencies including Immigration Department, Foreign Affairs ministries, embassies, Customs, wildlife authorities and police in both countries.
It was outstanding in collaboration, including the daily exchange of real-time intelligence, which underpinned the joint investigation. The investigation's results present an shining example of multi-disciplinary and collaborative enforcement at an international level.
The investigation emphasized that wildlife crime is a serious trans-national organized crime and served as a reminder that the same techniques used against other transnational crimes such as trafficking of narcotics, human or arms, must be deployed against it.
Through the award, CITES has saved Kenya from the fate of Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe's lizard in Things Fall Apart that jumped from a high iroko tree to the ground and said he would praise himself if no one else did. At least for Kenya, her efforts have been recognized by a credible international third party.
The CITES award bucked the emerging mistaken but dominant narrative that the government and its agency in charge of wildlife, the Kenya Wildlife Service, have been sleeping on the job with regard to conservation of wildlife. The fact of the matter is that this only the half-truth.
Details of what Kenya has been doing were captured in the National Ivory Action Plan, whose implementation was subject of review in Geneva. The jury is still out on this.
Although the CITES recognition was for the single operation, even our detractors must acknowledge that it remains testament to the Kenyan and Chinese governments commitment to protection of wildlife. Its significance lies in the fact that the two governments and global partners, including INTERPOL and LATF, showed what could be achieved through international collaborative efforts.
Admittedly, some aspects of KWS operations are dysfunctional. Indeed, some of the KWS creaky areas have been captured by the recent Nehemiah Rotich Task Force findings and recommendations on wildlife security. But it's just not right for anybody to off-handedly write off all the good work KWS and partners have done. KWS has many diligent and conscientious employees, doing incredible work against many odds. But, of course, the authorities have to heed Nigerian author Ola Rotimi nugget of popular wisdom in the play The Gods Are Not to Blame that: "Until the rotten tooth is pulled out, the mouth must chew with caution."
As we reform KWS, we have to be careful to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
The writer is the Kenya Wildlife Service Corporate Communications Manager