During a random patrol in mid-October 2021, a patrol team of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) came upon a group of over 47 children deep inside Tsavo East National Park in the Galana area. The minors, aged between 8 and 17, were looking after a large herd of cattle. None of the children could barely speak a word in Swahili.
They were driven to Voi to be charged for grazing and trespassing in a protected area. The case turned out to be of enormous challenge for actors in the criminal justice system. First, the huge number of minors presented a logistical nightmare for the police whose cells were instantly crowded.
The language barrier made the process of extracting details of each minor a long-drawn headache. The court had to set aside other business to handle the minors’ cases. During plea taking, most of the younger children kept swooning from hunger and had to be revived with bread and milk.
Days later, the children’s department, KWS and Kenya police under the directives from the judiciary worked frantically to repatriate the minors back to their drought-devastated villages in Kilifi and Tana River counties.
“We reached out to Area Advisory Council in Tana River to help with getting the minors home and ensuring they enroll in school,” says Mr. Robert Thuku, the Children Officer in Voi sub-county.
Grazing in national park remains one of the major challenges facing conservation efforts in the Tsavo Ecosystem. Apart from devastating pastures, herds of livestock are also blamed for pushing wildlife out of the park and causing human-wildlife conflicts. This has been made more complicated because culprits responsible for this are children from pastoralists’ communities.
The problem of minors grazing in Tsavo East and West National Parks is so prevalent that some KWS patrol teams opt to look the other way or at best issue vague threats to children rather than effect arrest.
“It’s not worth the effort. Once you arrest children, they become your responsibility. You feed and take care of them. When the court sets them free, you then start organising transport back to their homes. It is a lot of work I would rather avoid,” admits a Tsavo Ecosystem ranger who requested for anonymity
Actors in the criminal justice system agree that minor offenders present a unique challenge largely because they are processed differently from adult offenders. The Children department and facilities like hospitals are also incorporated to ascertain the ages and write recommendation reports for courts to act on. The process often ends in acquittal.
Ms. Dorcas Wangeci, the Principal Magistrate and head of station for Wundanyi Law Courts, says parents sending children to graze in the national parks despite the risks to the minors should be held responsible for the minors’ actions.
“There is a need to find a way of dealing with this matter of parents deliberately sending children to graze in national parks. They know the minors will be released,” she says.
She was speaking at a consultative cross-sectoral judicial symposium on wildlife crimes in Voi in a forum that brought together several actors from Tsavo and Amboseli eco-systems. The symposium, organised by African Wildlife Foundation, was aimed at strengthening inter-agency collaboration, identifying operational gaps and helping boost justice for conservation cases. Stakeholders were drawn from judiciary, KWS, office of Director of Public Prosecution, conservation non-state actors and lawyers in private practice.
There are mounting fears with the ravaging drought in Tsavo, the incursion of livestock in the park might spike and children are most likely to be the found grazing the herds.
The symposium further identified poaching, trafficking of wildlife products and trophies and trading of game meat as additional challenges confronting conservation in Kenya.
Mr. Elema Saru, KWS’s head of investigations, noted that inter-agency linkages between key players in the criminal justice system was a major boost in fighting wildlife crime.
He said KWS was mandated to protect wildlife as a national treasure and called for protection of the ‘voiceless’ wildlife threatened with decimation by poachers and other activities hostile to conservation.
“Our wildlife does not have a voice to speak for itself. It is all of us to safeguard this national heritage that remains under threat,” he said.
According to data by KWS, elephants, rhino, porcupine, sea turtles, Giraffes and zebras are some of the commonly trafficked animals. Currently, pangolin remains the most trafficked animal due to the high demand for its scales, and bones; both used as aphrodisiac and medicine in the East.
Data on poaching paints a grim picture for many of the iconic species found in Kenya. In 1980, Africa was estimated to have 1.3 million elephants. According to the Great Elephant Census in 2017, the continent had 415,000 elephants. Between 2007 and 2014, 20,000 elephants were killed every year for their ivory.
The population of other species like rhinos, giraffes, pangolins and lions has also been declining from poaching and climate change.
Mr. Victor Simbi, official from the office of Director of Public Prosecution, said successful prosecution of wildlife crimes required meticulous organisation from gathering of evidence at the scene of crime to presenting it in court.
He cautioned against speedy trials that relied on flimsy evidence that might lead to a case dismissal. He urged arresting agencies to consider having a plea bargain with contrite criminals as part of a strategy to seize the big fish.
“You can use the offenders as state witnesses to assist in getting the powerful actors behind poaching and illegal grazing in the park. This will make significant progress in elimination of wildlife crimes,” he argued.
Chief Magistrate Mildred Obura called for a more practical approach in handling wildlife offences. She stated that punishing offenders ought to be directed towards supporting the conservation agenda.
“The key question is whether actions taken against people guilty of wildlife crimes ultimately advance the goal of promoting conservation agenda,” she said.
She called for public awareness campaigns in communities where wildlife crimes are rampant to help them view conservation from a different perspective.
KWS has initiated a new training curriculum meant to produce new generation rangers to combat the emerging issues in conservation. The curriculum will be implemented at KWS Law Enforcement Academy (LEA) at Manyani and will have 14 units including paramilitary and security services as core and communication, human-wildlife conflict and tourism management as basic units.
Mr. Joseph Sala, Deputy Commandant at LEA, said the curriculum would enhance the capacities of the rangers to make them versatile in all environments.
“The training will produce an all-round ranger who is capable of handling multiple activities when called upon,” he explained.
By Wagema Mwangi