When it comes to protecting wildlife, those who work to protect animals against poaching are up against some serious obstacles. Lack of funds often leave rangers overworked and underpaid, often not even with adequate equipment to patrol such an expansive area. In some countries, rangers aren’t even allowed to carry firearms even though they are up against armed poachers. Some poachers have even gained employment as rangers in order to have better access to the animals. Even the rangers with the best of intentions are struggling to combat poaching and keep the animals alive. For the rangers in Kenya, however, help is on the way.
Government officials have stated that rangers will soon be getting assistance from drones to use for surveillance purposes. Patrick Omondi, who serves as Deputy Director for Wildlife Conservation at the Kenya Wildlife Service has stated that the first drones to be put into use will be in Tsavo National Park. At 40,000 square kilometers, this is one of the largest parks in the world, making it a challenge to stop poachers. In 1967, Tsavo National Park was home to over 35,000 elephants. That number has been cut down to about 12,500 today and represents a third of all elephants in Kenya.
Last year, Kenyans lost 302 elephants and 59 rhinos to poachers. In 2012, poachers claimed 384 and 30, respectively. As of the time of this report, poachers in Kenya have already killed 18 rhinos and 51 elephants this year. Authorities have already identified 249 suspects and are beginning prosecution.
Poachers seek out elephants for their tusks. The ivory is used to make ornaments that are in high demand, particularly among the Chinese. Rhinos are also prime targets for poachers, as their horns are used in traditional folk remedies in Vietnam. Wildlife crime is the fifth most lucrative illegal activity in the world, generating an estimated $10 billion annually. Because these animals happen to live near some of the most impoverished people in the world, the high payout is worth any potential risk that the poachers may face. Penalties against poachers have generally been fairly minimal, though Omondi claims that has changed.
One man from China who was detained while trying to smuggle ivory in January became the first to be sentenced under the new regulations. He has the option to either serve seven years in prison or pay 20 million shillings (about $233,000). For a little perspective on that fine, the average annual income in Kenya is roughly $1700.
Additionally, the government has been investigating those who are employed in Wildlife Services for the last five years, in hopes of cracking down on those aiding poachers. That has resulted in five fines, three demotions, and seventeen terminations, including some with prosecution. Two dozen other employees have been investigated, but no evidence was discovered. While Omandi does not minimize the damage caused by these workers, he does stress that having appropriate equipment is paramount to conservation attempts. “We don’t need criticism,” he asserts. “We need support.”