Watch It, Poachers—Kenya Just Got Serious About Punishing You

The African country finally mandates harsher consequences for the criminals wiping out its wildlife.
Rhino horns are prized in Asia, fueling the poaching industry. (Photo: Prasit Chansakreekorn/Getty Images)
Jun 1, 2013· 1 MIN READ
Joanna writes about environment and energy for the NYT, Popular Science, OnEarth Magazine, and more.

Last week, four rhinos were killed in Kenya. The slaughter, however, didn't catch many people's attention. The fact of the matter is that elephants and rhinos are being poached at such an alarming rate this year that the individual tragedies are hardly newsworthy. Kenya has already lost 117 elephants and 21 rhinos in the first five months of 2013.

Despite the fact that wildlife tourism is the backbone of the Kenyan economy, the country has been notoriously lenient with poachers, with fines of around $480 and maximum jail time of just two years—consequences which were very rarely imposed.

Now the Kenyan parliament is at long last addressing the country's poaching crisis like the impending economic and security catastrophe that it is. The fine for poaching has rocketed to $120,000 with a potential 15-year jail sentence.

Across Africa, it's part of a growing trend to crack down on the heavily armed gangs that are decimating one of the continent's most precious natural resources.

"Kenya's elephants declined from 160,000 in 1960s to 16,000 in 1989 due to poaching," said Chachu Ganya, MP for North Horr, in a speech to fellow legislators. "Today Kenya is home to only 38,500 elephants and 1,025 rhinos. These animals are a major tourism attraction and anyone who threatens them is committing economic sabotage and should be treated as such."

"The passing of this bill is a huge victory, it is the strongest message from the Government of Kenya on the commitment to preserve our national heritage," said Paula Khumbu, Executive Director of Wildlife Direct. "MPs today voted for Kenya to restore her position as a global leader in wildlife conservation."

South Africa also recently doled out the harshest sentence in the country's history for a wildlife crime. Thai national Chumlong Lemtongthai, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for his involvement in a sophisticated rhino horn smuggling ring.

"When you think that in 2011, 27 tons of elephant ivory were seized by authorities, and understand that that just scratches the surface of the actual volume of ivory being illegally traded, you start to realize that the profits here are enormous, so the penalties have to match," said Crawford Allan, Director of TRAFFIC North America. "Ivory goes for at least $1,000/kilo, so you do the math."

"Many countries are very nervous. They see what is happening in Central Africa's elephants and South Africa's rhino and they don't want to be next." said Allan.

"They know that if the elephants or rhinos are wiped out in those countries, or the governments actually do manage to clamp down and make wildlife in their borders secure, the poachers are just going to go somewhere else," he said. "The profits aren't going anywhere so the killing will just move. Kenya thinks that they might be the next South Africa or Cameroon, and they may well be right unless these new laws are enforced."

Do you think a 15-year prison sentence is punishment enough? Let us know what you think in the Comments.