New state of the art forensic lab to aid wildlife crime prosecutions


(Posted 07th May 2015)

The Kenya Wildlife Service will formally commission a state of the art forensic laboratory which will put the organization in a position to provide crucial hard evidence to the office of the Director of Public Prosecution when taking wildlife crimes to court.

Paul Udoto of KWS, in a communication to this correspondent, wrote: ‘As you are aware Kenya’s wildlife new wildlife law, which was assented to on the eve of Christmas in 2013 and came into force on January 10, 2014, has very punitive penalties for wildlife crimes, especially those touching on keystone species of elephants and rhinos.

The penalties include fines of up to Ksh 20 million and life imprisonment. Already, some criminals have tested the law and lived to regret their involvement in such crime. Wildlife crime has to be made into a low profit, high risk enterprise if our precious heritage is to have a fighting chance. This is particularly so given the many challenges ranging from increased human population, climate change, competing land uses shrinking and degraded habitats as well as disease.

With such law, the criminals are likely to spend an arm and a leg if not to beat the law enforcement at least to fight in court with the best lawyers in town. At the same time, courts of law are likely to require a higher threshold of evidence for admissibility and conviction.

Therefore, the forensic and genetics laboratory not only has a scientific value to conservationists but will also be handy in the prosecution of wildlife crimes in Kenya and neighbouring countries. This is a landmark development in terms of Kenya’s wildlife conservation efforts and we look forward to better days ahead in fighting wildlife crime’.

The invitation for the media to cover the event on Friday morning, 08th of May, contained additional information on the background why this state of the art laboratory was established and what purpose it is to serve primarily:

Start quote:

The increasing demand for bush meat, wildlife trophies such as rhino horns and elephant tusks, skins of animals, feathers of birds, as well as live pets such as chameleons and parrots, is alarming and resulting in direct loss of African biodiversity.

Although many suspects of wildlife crimes in Kenya are usually arrested, their prosecution and convictions are rare due to challenges of accurate identity of the confiscated products to species level. In some incidences, effective prosecution is hampered by lack of concrete expert evidence that can link a poacher to a confiscated rhino horn or ivory and relate it to a specific poaching incident.

Prosecutors need concrete scientific evidence to corroborate their allegation that a product is from wildlife of a particular species. Without scientific evidence, suspects are usually acquitted which tends to encourage repeat offence while law enforcers may become demoralized.

It is envisaged that the establishment of a Wildlife Forensic and Genetics Laboratory in Kenya will aid in the provision of accurate identification of wildlife and wildlife products in order to strengthen prosecution of wildlife crimes.

This is critical because the rate of poaching for bush-meat and trophies, is leading to alarming decline of wildlife biodiversity. The rhino and the elephant which are classified as critically endangered and endangered respectively under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and Appendix 1 of CITES are particularly affected.

The establishment of the laboratory is critical to yielding convictions in courts of law and thus deter wildlife crimes. Already, KWS has both Intelligence and Investigation units that are able to process wildlife crime scenes and collect evidence and samples for laboratory processing.

There are molecular biologists and laboratory technicians in KWS whose skills have been and continue to be honed through scheduled trainings in functional forensic laboratories. KWS has also gazetted prosecutors who are able to prepare and present evidence in courts of law.

End quote

The development comes in the wake of several high profile cases pending before Kenyan courts where sleazy lawyers are trying to use the absence of forensic evidence to cast doubt over the guilt of their clients and get them off the hook by the proverbial hook or crook as long as their extravagant fees are paid. The Kenyan public and in particular the conservation fraternity has often criticized courts, especially at magistrate level, which have granted bail with laughable sureties or issued equally laughable fines to culprits instead of jailing them. This has led to demands of sentencing guidelines to be established which provide magistrates with no choice but to jail those found guilty besides inflicting financially painful fines.

Of late were in Thailand alone two containers nabbed on almost subsequent days, each containing several tons of blood ivory and allegations were made by the Thai authorities that at least one consignment had earlier been returned to Kenya to aid in prosecutions but was then apparently stolen and shipped abroad again, just to be nabbed a second time. This is indicative of deeply rooted corruption in the police force, other law enforcement agencies and even in the judicial system as such evidence should be kept under lock and key and the supervision of the courts.

There is renewed hope though as Dr. Richard Leakey was in April appointed Chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service and his presence alone serves to reassure the conservation fraternity that KWS will redouble their efforts to contain poaching in the field and more effectively carry out prosecutions, with the new lab providing the evidentiary means to secure convictions.

%d bloggers like this: