Noah Sitati, A Voice for Elephants, National Geographic
November 18, 2014
An elephant poacher in Kenya is finally behind bars, thanks to a local magistrate and coordination between the wildlife authority and two conservation partners.
In late 2013, community game scouts undertaking an anti-poaching patrol near world-renowned Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya came across a fresh elephant carcass.
Not surprisingly, the elephant’s two tusks were missing. The scouts, guided by tracker dogs and accompanied by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers, managed to track down the poacher, arrest him, and confiscate the two elephant tusks and python skin in his possession.
The pursuit and arrest of Kerumpoti Leyian wasn’t celebrated for long. After posting bail, Leyian failed to show up for his scheduled court appearance and all but disappeared. This was a demoralizing blow to the scouts who tracked down Leyian and recovered the tusks before they could be smuggled abroad, likely to China, where they’d be cleansed of their bloody origin, polished, and carved.
In spite of the setback, the scouts, who operate with a team of tracker dogs under the direction of Big Life Foundation with support from the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), continued to monitor Leyian’s home. They also worked the extensive informant network they’d built up in the area for any tips as to his whereabouts.
Time passed, and it began to seem that here again another elephant poacher had evaded justice.
Then in July, the game scouts received intel that Leyian had returned to his village but was living with a relative. They scrambled and with help from KWS re-arrested Leyian. This time, he was not granted bail.
Law Enforcement Workshop Raises Awareness
In the same month that Leyian was being taken into police custody for a second time, KWS and AWF were hosting a workshop for 35 magistrates, revenue authority officials, immigration officials, prosecutors, and county administrators from districts adjacent to Kenya’s Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks.
The workshop aimed to sensitize attendees to the seriousness and complexity of the illegal wildlife trade, drawing particular attention to the illicit industry’s impact on Africa’s elephants and rhinos.
The workshop also focused on Kenya’s new Wildlife Conservation and Management Act, which six months before had come into force, empowering Kenya’s courts to deal harshly with convicted elephant and rhino poachers and traffickers.
No longer would the country’s wildlife criminals get a mere slap on the wrist for their offenses. Under the new law, anyone involved in the illegal wildlife trade could be hit with a maximum penalty of $233,000 or seven years in jail.
In January 2014, a Chinese man arrested in Nairobi and convicted of ivory smuggling became the first to feel the full brunt of the new law when he was ordered to pay $233,000 or serve seven years in jail.
Many participants in the workshop were not aware of the scale and devastation of the illegal wildlife trade, nor of the harsher penalties allowed under Kenya’s new wildlife law.
They highlighted the many challenges in bringing alleged poachers and traffickers to justice, from poor techniques in evidence collection to a lack of general knowledge among police and magistrates about the new wildlife act.
Magistrate Evans Mbicha (at back in checked shirt with glasses) at the July training workshop. He subsequently sentenced Leyian to seven years in jail.
Magistrate Evans Mbicha (at back in checked shirt with glasses) at the July training workshop. He subsequently sentenced Leyian to seven years in jail. Photograph by Noah Sitati/African Wildlife Foundation.
At the close of the workshop, Honorable Evans Mbicha, a magistrate from Kajiado District, joined his colleagues in vowing to do more to combat the illegal wildlife trade.
From now on, they gave assurance that they would deal sternly with poachers and traffickers convicted of their crimes. When Leyian appeared in Mbicha’s courtroom last month, he was sentenced to seven years in jail.
Power of Partnership
The year-long effort to bring one of Kenya’s elephant poachers to justice highlights two important things.
First, as demonstrated by Kenya’s new wildlife act, Tanzania’s new anti-poaching national strategy, and the U.S.’s national strategy to combat global wildlife trafficking, countries everywhere are prioritizing shutting down the illegal wildlife trade.
The sentencing of Leyian in Kenya comes amid news of the U.S. indictment of two South African brothers for their alleged operation of a rhino horn trafficking ring, suggesting that the law is finally closing in on poachers and kingpins alike.
Second, combating an illicit industry as pervasive and global as the illegal wildlife trade will require partnerships and coordinated efforts at the regional, national, and global level.
Conservation groups bring resources and different types of expertise that can help to extend and enhance the rule of law in many countries—and in the far-flung counties, districts, conservancies, group ranches and chiefdoms—in which they work.
Game scouts on patrol in the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem, southern Kenya.
Game scouts on patrol in the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem, southern Kenya. Photograph by Fiesta Warinwa/African Wildlife Foundation
The arrest of Leyian could not have happened without cooperation and coordination between Big Life Foundation game scouts and Kenya Wildlife Service staff.
And were it not for the July workshop facilitated by KWS and AWF, Leyian may have been charged with a petty offense and received a lighter sentence.
Leyian’s arrest and sentencing bring attention to some rare successes that often go unreported.
During the past couple of years, anti-poaching patrols have intensified and expanded in certain areas of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, and elephant poaching in those areas has declined as a result.
Wildlife authorities and game scouts on both sides of the border are coordinating their patrols and sharing information and in some cases resources to intercept and track down poachers and traffickers.
Recently, community scouts, magistrates, and others in the law enforcement establishment in Tanzania have requested similar training as that provided to their Kenyan counterparts in July.
Only by working together and joining in smart partnerships will we put the poachers, traffickers, and kingpins out of business.
For the elephants of the Amboseli–Tsavo ecosystem, they can rest a little easier now knowing that one less poacher is stalking them in the bush.
Noah Sitati is Kilimanjaro Landscape Manager for African Wildlife Foundation and Jeremy Goss is Conservation Project Manager for Big Life Foundation, both based in Kenya. AWF and Big Life are working together and with national wildlife authorities in the Amboseli–Tsavo ecosystem of southern Kenya, and across the border in Tanzania with another local NGO, Honeyguide Foundation, to counter wildlife poaching and trafficking.