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Kenyan Conservationists and Wildlife Officials Offer Conflicting Accounts of Poaching and Prevention

Mar 25, 2014 03:10 PM EDT

The Kenya Wildlife Service called upon Kenyans Tuesday to report wildlife crimes and suspected poachers who are killing the nation's iconic elephants and rhinos to earn a profit from the sale of ivory tusks and rhino horns.

Scores of elephants and rhinos have already been poached in Kenya this year, the KWS said. The figures from barely three months into the year suggest that by the end of 2014 the number of poached elephants and rhinos will be on par with previous years.

In the first quarter of this year poachers killed 51 elephants and 18 rhinos in Kenya, the KWS said in a statement released Tuesday.

In 2012 Kenya lost 302 elephants and 52 rhinos to poaching, compared to 384 elephants and 30 rhinos in 2011.

It is possible that the KWS figures are inaccurate, however. An independent census of Kenyan elephant deaths in the last two years placed the death toll at 800.

In Kenya's port city of Mombasa, officials seized 13.5 metric tones of contraband ivory last year. The KWS said that most of the illicit ivory entered Kenya from other countries and suggested that in the future less ivory will be smuggled out of Kenyan ports.

"There has been a decline in the desire by smugglers to use Kenyan ports to smuggle contraband ivory since we heightened surveillance there and with the enactment of a more punitive new wildlife law," the KWS said.

Kenya Wildlife Service chief William Kiprono said his department's law enforcement officials have arrested and prosecuted 249 individuals for "various wildlife offenses."

However, Kenyan conservationist Richard Leakey, founder of the Kenyan NGO WildlifeDirect and former founding head of the Kenya Wildlife Service, said most poachers do not face jail time.

"A study of trials in Kenya reveal that fewer than 4 percent of all convicted poachers are ever jailed," Leaky said in a recent statement. "Interpol reveal that despite many ivory seizures in Kenya, no dealers have ever been arrested and prosecuted in court. A major rhino horn smugglers caught at JKIA was released. A Chinese ivory dealer was sent back to China. If a Kenyan threatened a Chinese Panda bear, he or she would face life imprisonment."

Leakey called Kenya "the world's hub for ivory smuggling."

"The port of Mombasa serves as a staging post for ivory from Tanzania and many other countries," he said. "More than 13 tons of ivory were seized in Kenya last year and we can only speculate at the quantities that passed through undetected."

According to The Associated Press, last week Leaky suggested the KWS had been infiltrated by powerful individuals with a motive to enrich themselves from poaching profits (see video below). KWS chief Kiprono denied the allegations that a poaching cartel exists within the KWS, the AP reported.

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