African conservationists seek tougher penalties for wildlife crimes

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African conservationists have called for stiffer penalties to address wildlife- related crimes which have contributed to the dwindling number of elephants in the continent as a result of rampant poaching.

The conservationists decried the entry of organized crime syndicates into the illegal wildlife trade, most notably of rhino horn and elephant ivory, which they said, has created a crisis situation in many African countries.

These syndicates, they said, have employed cutting-edge technologies and sophisticated methods to poach, then illegally traffic, wildlife parts off the continent, making wildlife protection difficult, dangerous, and expensive.

"Our wildlife authority counterparts across the continent have all increased their efforts to protect their wildlife. In some cases, however, the ability to arrest and successfully prosecute these criminals is not quite there," Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Director William Kibet Kiprono said in a joint statement issued on Saturday.

The KWS has expressed fears that the scenes of the 1970s and the 1980s when poaching was a serious menace, and contributed to the depletion of wildlife including elephants, lions and rhinos are back, are threatening many years of conservation efforts and animal populations that had started to balloon.

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is currently involved in efforts to improve the capacities of African countries to fight poaching as well as enabling countries where illegal animal trophies are destined to improve their capacity to detect the trophies through their points of entry.

Kiprono said the situation calls for a united approach that will not only facilitate the capture of those involved in wildlife crime, but also enhance prosecution of the illegal killing and trafficking of wildlife.

More than 1,000 rhinoceros, an all-time high, have been poached in the last three years, and current poaching of elephants is documented to be the highest since the 1980s. The illegal poaching of wildlife for commercial purposes is also decimating many more species.

"As of the end of October, 488 rhinos have been slaughtered this year in South Africa," said Dr. Hector Magome, managing executive of the Conservation Service Division, South African National Parks.

"However, increased arrests in South Africa demonstrate that as a country we have implemented some successful measures worthy of consideration by others."

The meeting brought together top legal minds which came together at a judicial discussion surrounding the need to enforce harsher penalties for wildlife-related crimes. They discussed strategies to deter crimes, such as poaching.

The meeting, which was convened by African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and KWS focused on the successful prosecution of illegal wildlife trafficking, with the goal of effecting more meaningful deterrents.

The event was well attended by individuals from top law firms, as well as representatives from state law offices and the judiciary.

"Africa is experiencing an unparalleled surge in wildlife crime that seriously threatens the continued survival of key species and the associated benefits, such as tourism," said Helen Gichohi, president of African Wildlife Foundation.

During the meeting, participants discussed current processes, identified successful strategies being used for prosecuting wildlife crimes, noted gaps that exist in the system, and developed a comprehensive response to enhance prosecution of poaching.

The participants agreed on some initial approaches for enhancing the prosecution of illegal wildlife crimes.

The conservationists agreed to work together to enhance awareness on the part of magistrates, legal professions, and the law enforcement community on the atrocity of illegal wildlife crime and their potentially crippling effects on national economies and national security.

The conservationist also agreed on a unified approach to more strictly enforce sanctions currently in place in Kenya's penal code and raise awareness of other legal avenues that may be applied to capture and prosecute wildlife crimes, such as organized crime legislation.

According to the statement, the conservationists also agreed to determine what additional measures should be incorporated into Kenya's new wildlife legislation.

"Many NGOs, wildlife authorities, governments, and others have been able to make strides in increasing on-the-ground protection of critical wildlife species, enhance cross-border security measures, and more," Gichohi said.

"It's clear that those in the law enforcement and legal communities have been desiring more stringent prosecution and enforcement measures for some time, and this meeting has provided an important way forward."

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