One Woman’s Career Fighting Wildlife Crime

About the Author

Hannah was AWF's content specialist. She worked on content for AWF's organizational publications, website, and other materials. Hannah received her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Relations from William Smith College, where she also completed a minor in Studio Art. She has… More

Didi Wamukoya, AWF's wildlife law enforcement unit manager

Some might argue that being on the front lines of today’s poaching crisis is a man’s game—far too dangerous for “the fairer sex.” But this couldn’t be farther from the truth. At all levels, women are occupying—and pioneering—critical roles in the fight against wildlife crime.

You may remember Pacha Lotango, the young female eco-guard who, after graduating at the top of her class, was attacked by poachers while on patrol in the dense forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Pacha has since recovered and immediately returned to work—a testament to her determination.

Or perhaps you’ve heard of Imetura Imelda, one of several women now working in the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s canine units after graduating from a training program with AWF. Imelda and her canine partner are helping uncover concealed wildlife contraband, like ivory, that traffickers are trying to smuggle out of Africa.

But whether it’s apprehending poachers in the bush or intercepting smugglers at key transit points, catching someone in the act is only half the battle. To truly put an end to the poaching problem, offenders must be dealt strict sentences by the court system. Long jail times and large fines are not only essential for deterring repeat offenses, but they also underscore the importance of wildlife protection.

Unfortunately, strict sentences for wildlife crimes haven’t been the norm in Africa. All too often, poachers and traffickers that are arrested are subsequently let off with what amounts to a mere slap on the wrist. But in this arena, too, women are stepping in to foster radical change.

Seeing the link between conservation and well-being

The intersection of law enforcement and conservation first piqued Didi Wamukoya’s interest when she was interning with Kenya’s Public Complaints Committee on the Environment. “I witnessed how people suffered because of the misuse and overexploitation of natural resources,” she says, adding, “the only solution to most of the complaints we received was to put mechanisms in place for the conservation of natural resources, and this meant enforcing the relevant laws already existing. The committee wouldn’t have received the majority of these complaints if the laws were being properly enforced.”

Wamukoya’s realization about the link between conservation and a better quality of life sent her down a remarkable career path. In 2007, she joined the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the government agency charged with protecting and managing the entirety of Kenya’s wildlife and wild lands. At the time, KWS didn’t have a dedicated unit for handling cases of wildlife crime, yet Kenyan law stipulated that the authority could prosecute such cases. Wamukoya was about to change that. “With support from my supervisors, I set up the KWS Prosecution Unit, and we took over prosecution of wildlife cases in courts throughout the country,” she says.

KWS rangers at Kenya's 2016 ivory burn

In 2016, Kenya burned over 100 tons of ivory in a symbolic gesture with a clear message: its wildlife is worth more alive. Above, KWS rangers watch as the pyres are enveloped by flames.

Soon, the efforts of Wamukoya and her KWS colleagues began to pay off. “We started seeing a higher conviction rate for wildlife offenders, meaning that we’d managed to change the courts’ original perception that wildlife crimes are merely petty crimes,” she explains. “Courts started giving stiffer pecuniary and custodial penalties as opposed to the community service penalties normally given to petty offenders.”

Strengthening wildlife law enforcement across Africa

In 2015, Wamukoya again set out to establish a new unit focused on improving wildlife law enforcement—this time within AWF. The Wildlife Trafficking Law Enforcement Unit—of which Wamukoya is the manager—is tasked with implementing the organization’s action plan for bolstering wildlife law enforcement efforts across the continent. It also serves as the technical lead for all AWF efforts aimed at halting illegal trafficking of wildlife products.

As part of this work, Wamukoya has helped train judicial officers, prosecutors, investigators and wildlife managers through a series of national and regional workshops. By the end of 2016, her team had engaged with 624 members of law enforcement from a variety of African nations, including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania.

Continuing this effort into 2017, the Wildlife Trafficking Law Enforcement Unit held a two-day workshop in Johannesburg, South Africa, last week, bringing together prosecutors from Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland. The event was sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

The goal of these workshops is to provide members of law enforcement with the tools they need to effectively handle cases of wildlife crime. This means identifying existing mechanisms at their disposal. As Wamukoya puts it, “we encourage judicial officers, prosecutors and investigators to use customs laws, firearms control laws, anti-organized crime laws, anti-money laundering laws and penal laws alongside the main wildlife laws in order to increase the number of charges and get more deterrent penalties.”  

Participants at an AWF-led wildlife law enforcement workshop

Through workshops led by Wamukoya's team, AWF brings together various members of law enforcement, engaging them in discussions about how they can more effectively collaborate when handling wildlife crime cases.

But the workshops also help uncover gaps where additional resources are needed. “One major challenge in wildlife crime prosecution is that the offenders are getting more and more organized, and are even working in transnational networks,” notes Wamukoya. As a result, her team is increasingly focusing on establishing greater cross-border collaboration between countries, so that poachers who strike in one country cannot simply cross into another and feel that they have landed in a safe haven.

A core component of this will be the creation of regional networks for prosecutors, enabling greater communication and information sharing. “These networks will hopefully get prosecutors talking across borders and bringing to justice offenders who commit crimes in one country and hide out in another,” explains Wamukoya. “They will also help bring down networks of criminals that are spread across multiple countries.”

A pioneer in her field

While Wamukoya has soundly established herself as a true pioneer amongst conservationists, her success hasn’t come without its fair share of obstacles. “You have to spend long hours on the job, including traveling and being away from home for several days at a time,” she points out. “It can be difficult to balance your professional life and your home life.”

That’s not the only balancing act she has to contend with, however: There’s the gender imbalance as well. In describing her career progression, Wamukoya explained how she’d struggled to be accepted and respected in such a male-dominated field. Because of this imbalance, there were very few women she could turn to for moral support and mentorship, or who would understand the challenges and frustrations she faced because of her gender.

But, as Wamukoya sees it, that shouldn’t deter any girls or women out there thinking of making a career out of wildlife law enforcement. “As a woman, you should believe in your abilities and ride on your passion to conserve wildlife species not only for ourselves but for future generations,” she insists. The wildlife, wild lands and people of Africa are certainly fortunate that Wamukoya followed her own passion in this regard.

This article is the second in a series highlighting the many ways women are making a difference in conservation across Africa. In the first article, AWF Trustee Myma Belo-Osagie discusses the critical role women play in shaping the continent’s sustainable development, and its future.