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Kenya: Magistrates Lenient On Wildlife Traffickers

BY PAULA KAHUMBU, 29 NOVEMBER 2013

WildlifeDirect has been studying the conclusion of wildlife crime cases at Nairobi’s Makadara court which handles all arrests made at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Already this year there have been at least 45 arrests.

Out of 45 arrests 84% were offenders of nationalities from the Far East (42% were Chinese, and 39% Vietnamese, another 11% Thai and 2% from Laos).

41 of the offenders, or 93%, had ivory. Six individuals had ivory and lion claws, two had snake skin. One Vietnamese man had 5 rhino horns.

Apart from one case where the file was incomplete, all of the offenders pleaded guilty.

Earlier this year WildlifeDirect began drawing attention to the release of offenders at Makadara court on petty fines when the current law actually allows for up to 10 years for offences against elephant and rhino or trafficking in their products.

Things seemed to turn around when Chinese woman Chen Bie Mei was arrested at JKIA with 6.8 kg of ivory packaged as macadamia nuts, she pleaded guilty and to her surprise was jailed for 2 years 7 months on August 15th.

Kenyans celebrated, they thought that things had changed. However, our follow-up research shows hat this was a rare occurrence. In fact, only 3 people have been sent to jail for crimes against elephants and rhino at Makadara court this year. That’s less than 7% – ie if you are caught with ivory or rhino horn at JKIA, the probability of going to jail is less than 1 in 12.

This is surprising given the economic impact of the slaughter of elephants and rhino, especially in light of the fact that the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act, Cap 376 for 10 years in jail for offenses involving elephant, rhino and lion.

The magistrates have been more than lenient – in 7 cases where offenders pleaded guilty, magistrates discharged them and set them free!!

Sadly the situation is even wore than this, some files were missing from the court. For example, on 1st July KWS reported the arrest at JKIA of a Sudanese Achol Kuil Reng with ivory bangles, and American former colonel David McNevin Thoreau (known locally as Thor) with .8 kg of ivory. Mr. McNevin is a former colonel with the US Embassy. Both pleaded guilty and were released with fines. Neither file was available at Makadara court.

The fact that magistrates at the Makadara court are routinely releasing offenders from the Far East using this excuse means that Kenya could inadvertently be enabling an infamous global syndicate to operate with impunity. This flies in the face of the presidents commitment to fighting the poaching of elephants, and ignore the global alarm about the crisis.

For example, the American Government has recently advertised a 1 million dollar reward for information leading to the arrest of members of the Xaysavang Network. The Xaysavang Network is one of Asias’ largest wildlife -trafficking syndicates.

Particularly upseeting is the case of Vietnamese man Le Manh Cuong caught with 5 rhino horns while in transit at JKIA. The value of these horns is estimated at about Ksh 40 million. The offender had arrived from Maputo Mozambique where rhinos went extinct this year – they may have come from South Africa just across the border where 860 rhino have been poached already this year in an all time record for rhino poaching.

Our researcher was told by a court official that Cuong was released on a fine of Ksh 10,000. We have been unable to verify this because the file was missing.

In reference to this case the Chief Magistrate at the Makadara Court, said this to the researcher:

“The judges and magistrates in Kenya have to work with the available laws. They can’t use laws that have not been passed by parliament to pass judgments. We know the laws are very lenient but you people have to get the parliament to pass tougher laws and penalties. This way, something can be done for the elephants. Also the people who are been arrested at the airports are mostly on transit so the laws have to be specific on how to handle such traffickers.”

That the law is silent about seizures made in transit is notwithstanding, the magistrates are clearly willing to fine the offenders in transit but jail them.

With the much anticipated passing of the new wildlife law Kenyans must monitor wildlife crime cases to ensure that magistrates apply the full force of the existing or new laws to save our heritage.

This original article can be found in this link: http://allafrica.com/stories/201311290746.html