Convictions for wildlife crimes surge in Kenya as state agencies join to end poaching

On the eve of Christmas in December 2014, Feisal Mohammed, a poaching kingpin, was arrested in Tanzania. Interpol had placed a Red Notice on Feisal after a 2-ton haul of elephant tusks valued at Shs.44 million was found at a motor yard in Mombasa in June.

Interpol placed him among nine of the most wanted global criminals for crimes against environment.

He was later extradited to Kenya to face charges of possession and dealing with elephants’ tusks. On 22nd July 2016, two years after his arrest, a Mombasa court handed Feisal 20 year jail-term and Shs. 20 million for the offences.

The severe sentence was hailed globally as a show of Kenya’s commitment to stamping out poaching networks that have posed a grave danger to elephants in the region.

But lost in all the celebrations of Feisal’s arrest and subsequent jailing was the extensive, laborious and well-coordinated behind-the-scenes efforts by various government departments, conservation bodies and other stakeholders to ensure justice was delivered for hundreds of dead elephants.

Key agencies involved include Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), National Police Service (NPS), Directorate of Criminal Intelligence, Office of Director of Public Prosecution (ODPP) and Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA).

Non-state actors including Africa Wildlife Foundation (AWF), Wildlife Direct and Save the Elephants amongst others were also engaged in offering technical and legal support to have the poaching lord face justice.

Vincent Monda, Senior Assistant Director in the office of Director of Public Prosecution in Kilifi County said the convergence of government agencies and conservation groups in a bid to ensure the poaching lord was jailed heralded a new chapter for networked justice for Kenyan wildlife.

He notes that a new approach involving multi-agency collaboration of law enforcement officers, conservation groups and Judiciary were the single-most factor that contributed to Feisal’s arrest and prosecution.

The world was excited by the arrest and jailing of Feisal that few knew of other actors who were working tirelessly from behind the scenes, he said.

Years back, such achievements appeared impossible. There existed troubled relationships between government agencies and conservation organizations that were often characterized by mistrust over conservation politics with some groups fearing to be overshadowed by others.

However, such challenges seem to have been laid to rest as all stakeholders come together in a united bid to fight for the elephants.

As a result, similar success has been noted in judicial convictions while prosecuting suspects charged with wildlife crimes. For the past two years, close alliances and seamless networking amongst government organs has seen conviction rate for wildlife crimes surge to unprecedented 90 per cent.

Monda said the success can be attributed to professionalizing the investigative and prosecution process to ensure legal flaws like defective charges, shoddily-done investigations and weak circumstantial evidence were addressed before a case was presented in court.

He noted that aggressive efforts to harmonize the functions of investigative and prosecution offices to minimize the risk of such cases being thrown out of courts over lack of evidence have been fruitful.

In the past, poachers and wildlife offenders have escaped justices due to flawed cases being thrown out over technicalities.

To address this challenge, the investigators and prosecutors work closely to build a watertight case that is backed by evidence. Prosecutors, largely drawn from ODPP advise the investigators on what form of evidence was needed to get a conviction.

The collaboration is backed by the statute that established ODPP and allows police and prosecutors to work on the case together before taking it to court.

In the past, police investigated and prosecuted. Currently, police are investigating and officials in ODPP are prosecuting. But we all work very closely in the judicial process from the time investigations start to the time the verdict is issued, he explained.

African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), a regional conservation body, has been largely credited with spearheading and forging of the new alliance amongst different government conservation agencies.

Since 2016, AWF has held intensive training for officers drawn from KWS, ODPP, Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), national police and KRA. The trainings are carefully tailored to capacity build the officials and enhance the information and data sharing capabilities amongst various agencies.

This came about following revelations of glaring gaps on how vital information is shared by agencies involved in prosecution process.

Didi Wamukoya, Manager, Wildlife Law Enforcement at AWF, said the trainings have been focusing on how to boost wildlife crimes investigation techniques, modern methods for evidence preservation and understanding of judicial process.

A deep knowledge of these vital aspects lay at the heart of successful prosecution for crimes related to wildlife.

We are on ensuring and building on synergy between prosecutorial and investigative agencies to minimize the risk of fatal flaws in charges that have in the past killed cases for wildlife crimes, she said.

Data obtained from cases in 2016 for Tsavo Conservation Area shows a marked improvement in successful convictions. There are 12 courts that fall under Tsavo Ecosystem where crimes falling under Wildlife Management and Conservation Act 2013 were prosecuted. The courts are based in Kajiado, Kitui, Machakos, Mariakani, Taveta, Voi, Wundanyi and Makindu. Others are in Kilungu, Kithimani, Loitoktok and Mutomo.

In total, there were 610 cases with Taveta courts handling the largest number at 283. Kitui courts handled only a single case. The bulk of the cases at 598 were prosecuted by ODPP while police and KWS prosecuted 10 and two cases respectively. Out of the total 473 concluded cases, there were only 27 acquittals with successful prosecution of 196 cases. 66 cases were withdrawn while 184 were discharged.

Wamukoya notes that future training would help deal with strengthening of the cases to avoid unwanted acquittals. The trainings would also be extended to law enforcement organs in Tanzania as part of capacity-building outreach program to enhance cross-border coordination amongst agencies protecting wildlife in East Africa and beyond.

Such efforts are buoyed by professional bodies like East Africa Prosecutors Forum where prosecutors from the region share experiences and challenges on dealing with wildlife cases. She revealed that the focus was now shifting to international poaching networks, funded and run by kingpins, who are largely unscathed when actual poachers are arrested.

We are collaborating with other regional and international agencies to trace illegal trophies from the point of origin, transit points to ports of destination. We will apprehend all actors involved in that network especially the big players, Wamukoya said.

She urged the government to weed out corrupt officers who were abetting poaching through collusion or negligence. As part of equipment support, AWF, in May, donated six evidence preservation kits worth half a million shillings to KWS.

Moses Karani, Legal Manager at Wildlife Direct, says the aim of such collaboration is to achieve maximum conviction rate for crimes related to wildlife whether in Kenya or elsewhere.

It started with Feisal. The success rate we are aiming at is at 100 per cent. We are still working on the few gaps left and soon, we will have sealed all legal loopholes that suspects charged with wildlife crimes use to evade justice, he said.

The completion of wildlife forensic lab is expected to boost collection of evidence-based investigation by providing empirical evidence needed in courts. A report by Wildlife Direct in 2016 noted that out of 628 species of wild animals cited in wildlife cases, a staggering 474 species were marked as unknown. This posed a challenge to prosecutors who are faced with the dilemma of identifying such species.

Failure to identity a species might be the difference between victory and loss. The lab will help establish the type of animal species in every case, he said.

Source: Kenya News Agency