Combating wildlife crime through effective prosecution

About the Author

Didi Wamukoya is AWF's Senior Manager, Wildlife Law Enforcement and is based in Nairobi, Kenya. Having graduated with a Masters Degree in Environmental Law from the University of Nairobi, Didi served as head of prosecution for the Kenya Wildlife Service for eight years. Her area of expertise lies… More

In March 2013, Tian Yia was arrested at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, and charged with the possession of two pieces of worked ivory weighing 16.6 kg. He pleaded guilty and was fined US$300. In January 2014, Leo Leilonge was arrested at the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport in Ethiopia and charged with possession of six ivory items. He pleaded guilty and was fined US$330.

In both cases, it took vigilant officers to intercept the well-concealed contraband. The officers likely had to carry out further investigations, including interviewing the suspects, taking down their statements, recording witness statements, taking the seized ivory to experts for identification, preparing charges, compiling case files and finally taking the suspects to court. It is unfortunate that after all this time and effort, all the suspects got away with a mere slap on the wrist. The judicial system had failed the officers and had failed conservation.

Crucial Role of the Law

These cases reinforce the notion that successful wildlife law enforcement goes beyond the arrest of offenders. The law and its application play a crucial role. For laws to be effective, they must include penalties that serve as strong deterrents. As well, with strong laws must come a robust, sensitized and effective judicial system. AWF recognizes these gaps in criminal justice systems within some African countries and has put in place effective strategies to assist countries in addressing such weaknesses.

One strategy is regional judicial and prosecutorial trainings, being carried out under a continent-wide program, ARREST (Africa’s Regional Response to Endangered Species Trafficking). ARREST is designed to increase capacity and communication at the national, regional and international levels to combat wildlife trafficking and poaching. The implementers—AWF, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Freeland Foundation, with support from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL)—have developed a strong partnership in this effort.

From the outcomes of the legislative and case analyses, AWF is able to focus the judicial trainings toward proper detection, investigation and adjudication of wildlife crimes. Target trainees include investigators, prosecutors and judicial officers, with the aim of assisting officials to better understand their national wildlife laws, overcome weaknesses in investigations and prosecutions, establish interagency collaborative frameworks, and ensure proper case management.

AWF has held trainings in DRC, Kenya and Ethiopia and is planning to carry out trainings in Uganda, Tanzania and Mozambique this year.

The trainings have been a great success. Ethiopia is reviewing its wildlife legislation based on recommendations from the AWF legislative analysis and the judicial trainings we conducted in that country. In Kenya, AWF has been instrumental in assisting national authorities to amend the new wildlife law, including reversing some errors that had fundamentally affected wildlife crime prosecution. We are further seeing quality investigations and prosecutions being conducted.

Higher penalties are also being meted out in those countries where we have carried out trainings. For example, in Kenya, a magistrate who attended one of our trainings fined an ivory dealer US$590,000. In Ethiopia, one of the prosecutors who attended our training there successfully argued for, and won, a three-year prison term for an ivory smuggler.

“While there is no one silver bullet in combatting wildlife trafficking, strong laws and a criminal justice system capable of seeing the whole process through—arrest, prosecution, and conviction of wildlife traffickers with appropriate sentences—are a major deterrent to poachers and traffickers,” said Jessica M. Graham, senior advisor, environmental crime team lead for INL.