Kenya poaching crisis a 'national disaster'

Peter Martell

Nairobi (AFP) - Kenya's government was under renewed pressure Friday to declare a "national disaster" because of the rampant slaughter of elephant and rhino, with two major newspapers dismissing wildlife authority claims that the situation was under control.

Conservation groups have repeatedly said the state-run Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is losing the fight against poachers and the organised crime bosses that pay them, and that the country's famed wildlife -- key to the nation's vital tourism economy -- is on a fast track to destruction.

In a rare common call, top newspapers said more action had to be taken and they accused the KWS of sleeping on the job and trying to cover up the real extent of the poaching problem.

"Poaching is a national disaster," The Standard newspaper said in its editorial. "KWS is being economical with the truth when it argues that poaching is not an immediate danger."

"Those charged with preserving game must come out of their lethargy and realise that if it takes limiting access to our national parks to preserve endangered species for posterity, losing revenue from tourism for a while will be a small price to pay for a long-term gain."

The Daily Nation newspaper said the ministry's downplaying of the "brazen slaughter" was a "big surprise."

"Officials cannot afford to pretend that the threat is not grave enough and let the poaching menace spiral out of control," the Nation said.

A campaign group, Kenyans United Against Poaching (KUAPO), have gathered over 20,000 signatures in plea to Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to "declare poaching a national disaster."

- Poachers operate with 'impunity' -

But the environment ministry and KWS, in a report to lawmakers this week, insisted "Kenya is yet to reach such a critical stage", and that calling the crisis a "disaster" would only scare off tourists.

"Drawing from the data on population growth and the incidence of poaching, it is reasonable to conclude that both elephant and rhino populations are not retarded by poaching," top environment ministry officials Judy Wakhungu and Richard Lesiyampe told lawmakers, according to The Standard.

Officials also dismissed claims by conservation campaigners who say the figures of animals killed is far higher than government statistics.

"There are NGOs (non-governmental organizations) who go all over the world flashing these numbers as they raise money," Lesiyampe said, according to reports.

Instead, the ministry has asked lawmakers to toughen existing anti-poaching laws.

Poachers slaughtered double the number of Kenyan rhinos in 2013 than the year before. Nearly a hundred elephants have been killed this year, according to official figures.

The situation in Kenya is mirrored in many nations elsewhere in Africa.

In March, veteran Kenyan conservationist Richard Leakey said drastic action had to be taken, warning that known poaching ringleaders were operating with "outrageous impunity".

Vast hauls of ivory tusks have been repeatedly seized in Kenya's port of Mombasa.

The rise in poaching, with rhinos being killed even inside the most heavily guarded zones, show that poachers have little fear of tough laws designed to stem the wave of killings, he said.

On the Asian black market, rhino horn is sought after as an ingredient in traditional medicine and can be more expensive than the equivalent weight in gold. Ivory from elephants is also sought out for jewellery and decorative objects.