By Julius Kithuure
A newly launched special unit of prosecutors is looking to become an integral part of Kenya's efforts to stem the uptick in elephant and rhino killings across the country, as 26 cases against poachers have already been concluded successfully in less than a month.
The Wildlife Crimes Unit, which began work on March 5th, will help enforce the stricter laws passed under the Wildlife Conservation and Management bill in December 2013, said Katto Wambua, prosecution counsel in the office of the director of public prosecutions and a member of the new unit.
"We are now well-equipped and ready to hit poachers hard," he said, adding that the unit will give fresh impetus to the war on poaching.
The decision by Director of Public Prosecutions Keriako Tobiko to form the unit sends out a clear message to poachers and their accomplices that "prosecution will no longer be cited as the weak link in the justice process", Wambua said.
The unit's 35 specially trained prosecutors have taken over cases that were being handled by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and police prosecutors who were previously tasked with that duty but had no legal background, he said.
In the first three months of this year, a total of 253 poachers and traffickers have been arrested. The new prosecution unit concluded 26 poaching cases -- 15 of which had already been underway and were transferred to the special prosecutors from KWS, and 11 new cases -- with a 78% conviction rate, compared to 20% conviction rate by police prosecutors between January and March 5th, he said.
Wambua attributed the success rate to collaboration among various government agencies. "We regularly hold joint brainstorming sessions and training on the new laws and challenges to map out ways each actor could aid in the delivery of justice."
According to the prosecutor, 20 rhinos and 51 elephants have been killed by poachers since the beginning of this year. In 2013, a total of 302 elephants and 59 rhinos were killed.
To reverse the trend and build successful cases against poachers, prosecutors are expected to take advantage of new provisions in the law that allow them to ask magistrates and judges not to release poachers on bond.
"This way, we make sure they are not released and [that they do not\ end up tampering with the evidence, intimidate witnesses, abscond from court proceedings or go back to poaching as many did," Wambua said.
More park rangers, drones needed to beat poachers Despite the positive change the special prosecution unit will bring, KWS Director of Security Julius Kimani said it will remain difficult to halt the illegal trade unless there are enough "boots on the ground" in all of Kenya's parks.
"We have 975 wildlife rangers against a demand of more than 2,000 officers," he said. "That is why we want to supplement their effort by deploying drones to survey parks."
Kimani said KWS was awaiting grants promised by donors and non-governmental organisations to start the drone surveillance project. In the meantime, he said KWS has embraced technology to help beat poachers. "We are using aircrafts fitted with surveillance cameras and GPS tracking systems to monitor endangered species," he said. "We have also fitted microchips on rhino horns in a bid to monitor their movements."
For his part, David Waweru, an investigation officer with the Criminal Investigation Department in Nairobi, said that since the new unit was formed, detectives have widened the net on poachers, collaborators and traffickers under investigation, encouraged by the fact that their work would not "gather dust on the shelves of overwhelmed police and KWS prosecutors as it was before."
"We have actually increased hours of surveillance against organised poaching rings and infiltrated their network," Waweru told Sabahi, adding that the quality of their detective work has made it possible for the new prosecution unit to successfully prosecute cases.
"I have confidence the combination of thorough detective work and timely, quality prosecutions will discourage would-be poachers through fear of legal punishment," he said.