Strengthening Africa’s criminal justice systems to fight illegal wildlife trade

Strengthening Africa’s criminal justice systems to fight illegal wildlife trade

By Harleen Sehmi | February 18, 2019

About the Author

Harleen Sehmi is the Senior Digital Content Officer at African Wildlife Foundation. She develops articles for AWF’s website and publications, connecting audiences with the organization's work in diverse landscapes and showcasing the impact of community-centered conservation.

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Driven by international poaching syndicates as well as local bush meat hunters, the illegal killing, trading, and trafficking of wildlife and wildlife products keep African species at risk. Learn from Didi Wamukoya, African Wildlife Foundation’s Senior Manager, Wildlife Law Enforcement, why the continent needs watertight investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial processes — coordinated across regions — to adequately protect its wildlife.

How did AWF respond to the upsurge in poaching?

Though we had been battling the wildlife trade for many years, we escalated our efforts in 2014 to reverse the drastic population declines suffered by Africa’s iconic elephants and rhinos. We launched emergency initiatives targeting priority wildlife populations and wildlife trafficking hotspots in each region — Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Ethiopia in eastern Africa; Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon in central Africa; as well as Botswana and Mozambique in southern Africa. In these high-risk sites, we deployed a comprehensive intelligence-led strategy to support national wildlife authorities tackling armed poachers, partnering with communities and organizations to stem the illegal killing. Authorities also needed to improve detection of illegal wildlife products being smuggled through borders and ports — we have helped train and deploy canine detection units at major air and sea transport hubs in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania since 2012.

Why did AWF prioritize law enforcement in the fight to stop the killing and stop wildlife trafficking?

We embarked on a dynamic program to strengthen wildlife law enforcement in these countries because prosecuting poachers and traffickers deters further crimes against wildlife. Starting in 2015, the program focuses on building the capacity of wildlife law enforcers including investigators, prosecutors, and judicial officers. Ultimately, we want to enhance communication and collaboration between law enforcement agencies to increase their success in apprehending violators. Improving interagency coordination is especially important across country boundaries if we want to deliver a robust response to this complex and ever-changing transnational crime. We also continue to devote significant resources to stop the demand of ivory and rhino horn through awareness-building campaigns in local markets as well as consumer countries.

Close-up photo of AWF-trained Canines for Conservation sniffer dog

What are some of the factors impeding wildlife law enforcement in AWF’s partner countries?

Wildlife crimes are by nature, environmental crimes. In most jurisdictions in Africa, these crimes are regulatory and therefore quasi-criminal in nature — they are similar to traffic offenses. There is no moral stigma attached to persons convicted of such crimes, which only gives offenders the courage to continue committing them.

Adequate enforcement is also hampered by weak legislation. This could be a result of poor legislative drafting, low penalties, or minimal enforcement powers in the law. Unfortunately, well qualified and experienced judicial officers, prosecutors, investigators — and even rangers on the ground — lack requisite knowledge on the laws they are supposed to be enforcing. At the same time, decision-makers and community members have a limited awareness of the contents of wildlife legislation.

Concerning case management, we found that exhibit storage rooms for seized wildlife contraband are disorganized, unsanitary, and not well maintained making it difficult to trace and to track the evidence crucial to many cases. Further, there were no proper evidence tracking and management systems in place, which is a danger as wildlife products that have been seized and removed from circulation in the illegal markets, can easily find their way back.

How does AWF address the gaps to improve wildlife policies and laws?

We begin with detailed analyses of wildlife policies and legislation as well as supporting legislation to understand their provisions regarding enforcement structures, offenses, and penalties. Importantly, we check that the laws meet recommended international standards. So far, we have produced comprehensive analysis papers on Botswana, Cameroon, DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Photo of Didi Wamukoya, AWF Senior Manager, Wildlife Law Enforcement speaking at youth conference

How does AWF then help officials successfully prosecute wildlife crimes?

We organize Wildlife Judicial and Prosecutorial Assistance Training sessions in each country to enhance participants’ skills and competencies on administration and adjudication of wildlife cases. We have held 33 such trainings since 2015, reaching 1189 officials from 15 countries — wildlife crime prosecutors, investigators and judicial officers, as well as wildlife protection rangers, customs officers and port authorities. The first training we hold in a country is meant to facilitate an initial meeting between relevant agencies to break the ice, understand the law, and get a broad perspective of the extent and nature of wildlife crimes in a their country so that we can find appropriate solutions.

During our interaction with participants at these trainings, we realized one gap that was weakening the wildlife crime prosecutors’ cases. This was the poor quality of testimony given by witnesses in court. Law enforcement officers including wildlife rangers, dog handlers, and community scouts are bound to go to court as witnesses in wildlife cases. Unfortunately, their field training does not prepare them for their role as witnesses in criminal trials. They struggle to record their own witness statements, understand court procedures, and often crumble under cross-examination. We addressed this gap by introducing a training module that helps build the confidence of these officers when they are testifying in court. They also learn about the identification and production of exhibits in court.

Close-up photo of two white rhinos grazing in grassy savanna

How do law enforcement officers maintain improved standards after AWF training?

We have developed a unique year-long mentorship program that pairs prosecutors working on particularly challenging wildlife crime cases with experienced lawyers from their countries to support them. Our first On the Job Training is currently taking place, targeting prosecutors from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Ethiopia.

We also develop educational materials to assist wildlife crime prosecutors and investigators as they encounter challenges on the ground. We regularly update and distribute practical manuals, handbooks, and guidebooks focused on investigation and prosecution of wildlife crimes.

AWF also routinely upgrades investigation equipment for teams in poaching hotspots. For example, in Tsavo, we issued basic scene-of-crime processing kits and GPS-enabled digital cameras to Kenya Wildlife Service officers. We also try to enhance use of science including DNA forensics in resolving wildlife crimes. To this end, we have procured DNA forensic sample collection kits and laboratory reagents to support the Kenya Wildlife Service Forensic and Genetics Laboratory.

Close-up photo of giraffe head and neck, with elephants grazing in the background

What other techniques does AWF use to support wildlife law enforcement? Does AWF use forensics or any new technologies?

Yes, our support often goes beyond the agency’s daily law enforcement routine. We partner with the relevant law enforcement agencies to fund their special operations targeting key species or rampant crime while also covering the entire spectrum of wildlife law enforcement — from intelligence-gathering to investigation and prosecution of offenders.

The first special operation we supported investigated the illegal bush meat trade in Kenya. KWS investigators collected meat samples from butcheries as well as local unlicensed meat dealers in the Tsavo landscape. The meat samples were taken to the KWS Forensic and Genetics Laboratory for DNA analysis. The study revealed that wildlife including buffalo, dikdik, hare, Grant’s gazelle, impala, and — shockingly — giraffe were being sold to unsuspecting consumers. Though the investigation is ongoing, two suspects were arrested for dealing in bush meat. One suspect pleaded guilty and received a fine of US $400. The other suspect pleaded not guilty and his case is still pending before court.

Monitoring such cases is critical in strengthening prosecutorial and judicial capacity to deliver watertight sentences that keep wildlife criminals behind bars and deter others from taking part in the illegal wildlife trade. We have also launched a new partnership with Irdeto, a leading digital security firm, to address wildlife cybercrime. Through Irdeto’s targeted cybersecurity technologies and expertise, we will work together with relevant law enforcement agencies to investigate and the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products on the internet. Information obtained will be shared with the law enforcement agencies to enable them arrest criminals trading in illicit wildlife products online.

> Learn more about AWF's campaigns to stop demand for illegal wildlife products like rhino horn, ivory, and pangolin scales in consumer countries