Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Complexities of African Politics and Wildlife Preservation

"You can't beat DNA. Without DNA analysis, we'd be lost."
Kent Hodgin, Ontario conservation officer

"People heard shots from an island where hunting was prohibited. A boat landed at the nearest docks laden with deer meat, but the hunters claimed they had killed the deer further up the coast. Conservation officers found the kill site and took some DNA samples. We compared those samples with the meat samples in the boat. It was the first time animal DNA was presented as evidence in a North American court." 
Dr. Bradley White, director, Wildlife Forensic DNA Laboratory, Trent University

"Through DNA, we will be able to track the crime chain."
"It is often easy to catch the person who does the killing. But it is the person in the middle, the traffickers -- the kingpins -- and the end consumers, that are hard to identify."
Patrick Omondi, deputy director, Kenya Wildlife Service

Hunting was banned in 1978 in Kenya, but despite the ban, the slaughter of big-game wildlife, protected in Africa's many wildlife preserves relentlessly continues. There is high demand for ivory and for various parts of animals' horns and viscera in traditional oriental medicine. Apart from the demand of ivory for purely ornamental purposes to be carved into finely chiseled objets d'art, forbidden for import into most countries of the world aware of the illegal trade and the devastation it brings in animal life.

"We have used actual DNA before, but only at limited levels", Moses Otiende, a molecular biologist in charge of a laboratory newly established in Nairobi, representing the second of its kind in Africa, and paid for by the Government of Canada. As was the trip to Canada by Mr. Otiende, along with a Kenyan veterinarian, two laboratory technicians, a lawyer and a deputy conservation director, all associated with the Kenya Wildlife Service.
A human rights group says Kenya wildlife rangers are allegedly executing suspected elephant poachers to cover-up their collusion with the criminals.
Ben Curtis / The Associated Press
A human rights group says Kenya wildlife rangers are allegedly executing suspected elephant poachers to cover-up their collusion with the criminals.

They were being exposed to the experience and professional techniques utilized by Trent's forensic laboratory, a world leader in animal DNA forensics. For the past several decades the laboratory has been assisting in the tracking of illegal poachers. The trip to Peterborough by the Kenyan team was meant to bring them up to speed on the techniques and interpretation of DNA forensics use, part of a $2-million "emergency" fund, courtesy of the Canadian taxpayer.

Mr. Otiende plans to build a comprehensive African elephant DNA database to enable his new laboratory to trace ivories showing up anywhere in the world to an elephant carcass discovered in the Congo. His Canadian trip represented a headstart in acquiring the skills needed to extract DNA, analyze samples and thus accustom themselves to the science it will take to track rhino horn and elephant ivory, and prosecute the poachers, where feasible.

AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell   A baby hippo bobs next to its mother in a Kenyan Game Reserve. An Ontario lab is helping the nation tackle poachers.

It has been estimated that one hundred thousand African elephants were slaughtered between 2011 to 2014 to satisfy the illegal trade in ivory. Ivory is viewed as a status symbol in Asia, a precious element that declares the owner has taste and the money to fund that aesthetic appreciation for the finer things in life; ivory that once was an integral part of a majestic living creature transformed into an object of material beauty.

And then there are the animal parts viewed as vital ingredients in traditional Asian medicines. Where the Vietnamese believe that rhino horn is a cure for cancer, and horns sell on the black market for $100,000 per kg. Often enough, impoverished African farmers succumb to the allure of trapping animals for their ivory or viscera to earn money far in excess of what they are able to earn as simple farmers.

And nor do employees of the Kenyan Wildlife Service earn great salaries. Some conservation officers among them have been accused of collusion with poachers. Last year a scandal erupted where eighteen suspected poachers had disappeared in the space of three years, close by Kenya's Tsavo National Park. The Park is a wildlife sanctuary that once held 25,000 elephants, but in the decades since, only 11,000 remain.

Of the 18 poachers missing, eight were seen last in the custody of Kenya Wildlife Service officers. Those eight were eventually found in nearby forests, their bodies ravaged by animals. The remaining ten, according to witnesses, were shot dead by rangers, in a bid to cover up their collusion with the poachers.

Richard Leakey, of the famed Leakey family of archaeological anthropologists whose discoveries of early humanoid fossils in Kenya made history -- himself a founding chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service -- said in 2014 when the scandal arose, that it is his belief that extrajudicial killing does take place by officers in the Kenya Wildlife Service "from time to time". Poachers are mostly Muslim of Somali origin, he pointed out.

And it is entirely feasible that some Kenyans employed in the Kenya Wildlife Service could very well be resentful and suspicious of Somalis because Somali jihadists representing Al Shabab have been mounting deadly atrocious attacks in Kenya. "Sadly, the extrajudicial killing is all too common in the uniformed services", Mr. Leakey stated.

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