By Kibiwott Koross
On Sunday morning, a carcass belonging to a female rhino was found at the Nairobi National Park. The rhino’s horn had been hacked by suspected poachers.
This discovery, according to conservationists, is just the tip of the iceberg as there are many more killings of wildlife taking place countrywide which go unreported.
The incident is the second in a span of five months at the park and insiders are now pointing fingers at wrangles between Kenya Wildlife Service Director William Kiprono and powerful individuals in the government and conservation sector who want him removed.
Sources privy to security matters at the park say the killing of the rhino got them by surprise. They suspect that some rangers may have colluded with the killers.
“The poachers must be so daring to attack a rhino inside Nairobi National Park,” said a ranger who sought anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “I was on duty during the day and when we changed shift around six in the evening, all was well. I was shocked to learn that a rhino had been killed.”
He added: “This was actually an act of intimidation. It was not a case of poaching but a dare... a way of telling them we can do it (poach) right at your doorstep.”
In August last year, a white rhino was killed at the park, a short distance away from the KWS headquarters in what sources say was a ploy to frustrate the director. Mr Kiprono’s appointment has marred by controversy since he was picked two days after the KWS board, led by David Mwiraria, picked Peter Leitoro as an acting director in October 2012. Mr Leitoro was later dismissed.
“This is a puzzling case,” said a senior officer at KWS, who also sought, phone. “There is no way poachers can dare come to Nairobi National Park. The exercise must be a well-co-ordinated one because the park enjoys 24 -hour surveillance.”
He said the security department at the park was concerned how some conservationists got information of wildlife killings in the parks before them.
When contacted, Kiprono said he could not rule out an inside job in the killing of the two rhinos, but downplayed the claims of sabotage. He said he had been away on leave and had not been suspended as rumoured.
“I was just from leave and as per our records, we have not had much poaching in the recent past. But what happened at Nairobi National Park is shocking because it shows that the poachers are daring. We suspect there are individuals within KWS who are colluding with the killers and we are going to smoke them out.”
Two months after he assumed office in January 2012, 12 elephants belonging to one family were wiped out in a hail of bullets and their tusks hacked in Tsavo East National Park. Kiprono was, again, on leave.
KWS rangers were said to have been sent away to a different location to give safe passage to the poachers.
Thirty-two KWS rangers who were suspended following persistent poaching and the five killed by poachers are yet to be replaced. The officers suspended were accused of colluding with poachers to kill elephants and rhinos for trophies.
Those interdicted included a senior warden, company commanders, platoon commanders and several rangers.
Also at stake, The Standard on Saturday has learnt, is a stockpile of rhino and elephant horns at the KWS headquarters, which were seized in many parts of the country. It is suspected that some individuals are fomenting confusion at KWS so that the ivory can find its way out.
Although KWS has not given the tonnage of elephant tusks in their custody, it is believed to be slightly below 20 tonnes with half of it nabbed in Mombasa port last year alone.
It has been alleged that ivory is being stolen at the KWS store but the director dispelled the claim, assuring Kenyans of its safety.
Asked about the claims that the director is been being sabotaged, Wildlife and Natural Resources Secretary Judi Wakhungu dismissed it as a rumour.
Wakhungu said there is need to focus on the new laws to end poaching.
Under the new law which came into force a month ago, dealing in wildlife trophies carries a minimum fine of Sh1 million or a minimum jail sentence of five years, or both. Killing of endangered animals now carries a penalty of life imprisonment, as well as fines of up to Sh20 million. Previously, punishment for most serious wildlife crimes was capped at a maximum fine of Sh40,000 and a possible jail-term of up to 10 years.
She said: “It is important to refrain from rumours of sabotage at KWS. The stockpile of trophies in our custody is also safe, but I have directed that an audit be carried out.”
The delayed recruitment of 1,000 game rangers in June last year as announced by the government also raises questions.
Currently, there are 2,800 rangers distributed in more than 58 national parks and reserves nationwide, something that, according to KWS, has not also been received well by conservation experts.
In a telephone interview in November last year with this writer, Wakhungu said there was a delay in release of funds for the exercise, but insisted it would be rolled out soon.
But the exercise is yet to commence almost three months later. The last time KWS recruited rangers was two years ago when 500 were enlisted nationally with sources saying only about 430 completed the nine-month paramilitary training in Manyani.
Currently KWS has no board of directors following the expiry of the term of Ms Patricia Awori, Winnie Kiiru, Adil Khawaja, Ian Craig, Nicholas ole Kamwaro and Margaret Mwakima, who were appointed in October 2011 by retired President Mwai Kibaki and board chair David Mwiraria which has forced the director to double his work.
When the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act 2014 came to force on January 10, KWS board ceased to be in existence.