Tough laws and strict surveillance at ports of entry and exit have led to a dramatic decline in elephant and rhino poaching in Kenya.
Environment and Natural Resources Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhungu said that when she took office in 2013, Kenya was one of the eight countries highly implicated in the illegal trade in ivory.
Others were China, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Tanzania (including Zanzibar) and Uganda.
“We are now on our way out of the gang of eight,” said Prof Wakhungu in an interview, adding that the feat had attracted a recommendation from a meeting on illegal ivory trade in Geneva, Switzerland, last week.
The measures that have been implemented by the government in the past three years have seen elephant poaching decline from 384 cases reported in 2012 to just 96 in 2015.
Poaching for the rhino horn also declined from 59 cases in 2013 to only 11 in last year, according to statistics from the ministry.
The period 2012-2013 was the worst in elephant and rhino poaching in the recent past.
CITES data on elephants unveiled in March last year shows that overall killing rates exceed natural birth rates.
It also shows that poaching continues to cause the decline in elephant populations across Africa.
Kenya currently has nearly 45,000 elephants, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service.
“Most countries are actually being told to emulate our system,” said Prof Wakhungu.
She credited the success to a wide-range of initiatives, including improved protection in game reserves and stronger Customs controls.
She said dogs trained to sniff out ivory and rhino horns had strengthened surveillance at the ports of entry.
“Previously, the ivory and horns left our borders and would be seized at their destinations in the Far East. Since we stepped up of our efforts, the seizures are much higher here,” she said.
The establishment of a DNA and forensic laboratory has helped not only with the provision of evidence in courts of law, but isotopic analysis is also assisting in identifying the origin of seized ivory.
“We can now scientifically prove through tests that most of the ivory seized in Kenya is actually not originating from here but other countries. It transits through our ports,” she said.
The porous borders and ports of entry, which occasionally fail to detect the illegal merchandise, remain a challenge for Kenya.
The country has been a key transit route of African ivory, especially from West and Central Africa, destined for the Far East.
Due to strengthened legislation and policies, and investigations achieved through collaboration with other institutions, members of some international syndicates are getting arrested.
“Since January 2014, we have the harshest penalties in the world that serve as a disincentive to poaching. And we have been training magistrates in the last two years to make sure they are on board,” the minister said.
According to the new laws, all poaching cases are now prosecuted as economic crimes. Penalties for poaching were increased from Sh30,000 to Sh20 million in fines or life imprisonment, or both.
“We want to make ivory priceless. The reason I am very cautious about putting a monetary figure on seizures is because in our new philosophy, the horns and ivory are beyond economic use,” she said.