Kenya begins construction of wildlife forensic lab

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Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) on Monday commissioned the construction of a 1.3 million U.S. dollar wildlife forensic and genetics laboratory in Nairobi.

KWS Director Julius Kipng'etich said the lab which is being used by KWS officials in Seattle in USA for DNA analysis will help in forensic investigation on case involving wildlife.

"The project is a major boost to the overall mandate of KWS in conservation and management of wildlife in Kenya," Kipng'etich said during the launch of the project in Nairobi.

"We are also moving towards empowering Kenya and East and Central Africa in general in having a facility that can support forensic and DNA analysis," he said.

Kipng'etich said the wildlife body which manages all the country's national parks and game reserves has able forensics personnel to run the laboratory and an established prosecutorial unit for arraigning poaching suspects in court.

The facility that is supported by donors from various parts of the world will comply with standards established by the Kenya Accreditation Service (KENAS).

However, he said a team of technical staff will undergo a further forensic training at Koret School of Veterinary Medicine in Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a world re-owned molecular lab that deals with wildlife forensics analysis for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Other trainings will be conducted at the Smithsonian Institute in the USA.

Rampant poaching incidents have forced KWS to embrace the use of modern technologies under its force modernization program to counter the problem and other poaching-related threats.

KWS said it has introduced the Canine Unit with sniffer dogs on a 24-hour basis at the Jomo Kenyatta in Nairobi and Moi International Airport in Mombasa to detect movements of illegal ivory. The unit has since 2009 netted more than eight tons of raw and worked ivory.

This, according to the wildlife agency, has effectively led to reduced smuggling of illegal trophies. Plans are at an advanced stage by KWS to also introduce sniffer dogs at the Eldoret International Airport as well as other exit and entry points.

Stiffer penalties related to wildlife crime have been incorporated under the proposed wildlife law to deter poaching- related cases and incidents in Kenya.

The country's Attorney-General Professor Githu Muigai said the lab will help in providing evidence to bring to justices poachers and wildlife products smugglers who have increased in the recent past.

"This initiative sends a strong and clear message that Kenya is ready to combat illegal trade in wildlife and poaching using scientifically proven evidence," Muigai said.

Once complete, the facility will be the only one of its kind in East and Central Africa.

Illegal poaching for wildlife trophies and bush meat is a pervasive and extremely serious conservation problem facing wildlife in Kenya today.

Despite strong intelligence and investigatory capacities by KWS, there has always been a challenge of having strong legal evidence in courts to convict suspects arrested for committing these crimes.

"By establishing a forensic and genetics laboratory that will employ modern DNA technology, this challenge will be surmounted because it will be possible to connect exhibits (wildlife trophies and bush meat) to specific poaching incidents," Kipng'etich said.

He said the laboratory will in addition help in tracking genetic status of declining wildlife population as well as determine isolated and special gene pools that require special protection.

It will also enhance disease diagnosis, surveillance and monitoring in wildlife populations.

The East African nation has been losing 100 lions a year for the past seven years, leaving the country with just 2,000 of its famous big cats, meaning that the country could have no wild lions at all in 20 years.

Conservationists have blamed habitat destruction, disease and conflict with humans for the lion population decline.

The number of elephants has reduced from a high of 160,000 in 1970s to below 30,000. KWS said between the 1970s and 1980s Kenya lost over 80 percent of her elephants, mainly due to intensive poaching of elephants for ivory.

Also affected are the Black Rhinos whose number declined from 20,000 in 1970 to 577 in 2011. KWS officials said poachers who are mostly armed are dangerous will not hesitate to turn these firearms against innocent members of the public.



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