The death of the 11 black rhinos relocated to the Tsavo East National Park in June may have shocked Kenyans and caused outrage among wildlife conservationists the world over.
But the historic blunder also brought to light systemic malpractices, ineptitude and impunity at the helm of the country’s wildlife management agency.
Details have emerged about personal vendettas and sabotage that have rocked the boat at Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) for years, paralysing the agency’s operations.
Circuses pitting the management of KWS and the Board of Trustees have been the order of the day for years, leading to senior officers blocking government efforts to restructure the agency, which has a budget of Sh7 billion annually.
The agency raises Sh3 billion from its activities with the Treasury (Sh3 billion) and donors (Sh1 billion) paying for the rest.
These chaos — effects of which manifested in the catastrophic translocation — have also given poachers the leeway to operate with abandon within some Kenyan parks, while unscrupulous donors have constantly arm-twisted the agency.
An assessment carried out earlier this year by audit firm PricewaterhouseCoopers blew the lid on pervasive non-compliance with laws, regulations and organisational practices at KWS.
The organisational risk assessment, done on behalf of United States Agency for International Development (USaid), was to determine whether KWS had the requisite systems, operations and internal controls to best utilise funds from the donor.
The audit report instead exposed KWS’s inability to properly manage funds and utilise donor money.
Furthermore, the audit exposed the human resource management mess, where staff morale has hit rock bottom, affecting productivity and retention of key skills.
While senior management is laden with ageing men and women, most of the staff are hired on a temporary basis.
Notably, 316 members of staff are serving the agency in acting capacities, including 71 in senior management positions for prolonged periods.
Ms Nancy Saumu, a former board member, revealed to the Nation that wrangles between the board and the management of KWS is nothing new.
“The management blatantly ignored any recommendations on various administrative issues that we made as the board or from other parties. They always came up with excuses for not implementing such recommendations,” Ms Saumu said.
According to her, the board had severally expressed concerns about the bulging number of temporary staff at KWS, upon which the management promised to advertise the positions.
“By the time our term expired, the positions had yet to be advertised, with the occupants still holding them in acting capacities,” she said.
The misunderstanding between the two administrative organs reached its watershed when former KWS director-general Kitili Mbathi quit in July 2017, less than two years in office, citing “micromanagement” by the board chair, Dr Richard Leakey.
While Dr Leakey wanted a faster restructuring process, the DG feared that such an exercise, if done without a strategic plan in place, would result in massive job losses.
When Mbathi took his annual leave on July 1, 2017, Dr Leakey appointed a new director-general in an acting capacity for three months, a move that angered Mbathi who tendered his resignation on July 12, 2017.
Meanwhile, Dr Leakey appeared to point fingers at the Tourism and Wildlife ministry for the rhino deaths, and specifically Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala.
Dr Leakey argued that the absence of a board for three months had left the weighty issue of operations in the hands of Mr Balala’s ministry, which contradicted the existing legislation governing KWS and its operations.
On the other hand, Dr Leakey is accused of heavy-handedness and various irregularities during his three-year tenure, including multiple violations of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act of 2013.
Dr Leakey illegally hired Ambassador Nehemiah Rotich as the chief operating officer and Mr Mark Jenkins as a senior adviser at KWS, roles that are not provided for in the approved organisational structure.
In a letter dated June 27, 2017 and signed by Dr Leakey, Mr Rotich was to receive a total of Sh25,000 per day as compensation for his role, for a maximum period of 90 days.
Amb Rotich was to be the agency’s spokesperson and would also oversee strategy and change, finance and administration, human resource, corporate and legal services.
According to documents obtained by the Nation, the board had questioned the legality of Mr Rotich’s contract, arguing that he was not hired competitively.
But on August 31, 2017, Dr Leakey extended Amb Rotich’s contract to June 30, 2018, under the same terms of remuneration.
In total, the country lost approximately Sh9 million to Amb Rotich, excluding other emoluments he may have received.
The hiring of Mr Mark Jenkins, the son of former senior warden Peter Jenkins, triggered a storm of fury at KWS, with some aggrieved quarters claiming he was “unqualified” and “unfit for the job”.
Dr Leakey could not comment on activities of the board, until he had appeared before the Parliamentary Committee on Environment and Natural Resources where former members of the board are expected.
A member of the board who spoke in confidence told the Nation that the management had been working in cahoots with the relevant ministries to frustrate the board.
While the ministries of Environment, Water and Natural Resources, Devolution and Planning and the National Treasury were represented at the board by Mr Gideon Gathaara, Ms Christine Mathu and Mr Arthur Nduati respectively, the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife did not have a representative.
This, consequently, made relations between the board and the ministry difficult.
“While our three-year term was expected to end in June, we were forced to vacate office in March this year, to pave way for a new board whose constitution had not even started,” the member said.
Another source privy to the developments at KWS said the board’s term was terminated to allow a new board that would support the implementation of changes within the organisation’s hierarchy.