Joseph Maina had never seen an elephant up close before. The first time he looked into the eyes of one of Africa's giants, he was hacking off its tusks with an axe. The elephant was dead and he was ripping it apart to obtain ivory. He had been paid 500 Kenyan shillings, or a little over £3.50 for the work – twice his normal daily income.
The 47-year-old casual worker is now in a medium security prison. Unlike the majority of poachers who kill African elephants and leave them to rot in the bush, he was arrested the next day. The father of six is serving four and a half years inside Naivasha Prison. He wears a black and white striped uniform and sleeps with up to 80 other convicts on mattresses on the floor. He is one of around 800 inmates. He never thought he would end up here.
Statistically, he is unlucky. The poaching epidemic is now an internationally recognised crisis. More than 100 African elephants are killed every day and in 2011 alone, almost 12 per cent of the population was destroyed. But despite the fact that Kenya's elephant population has plummeted from around 167,000 to 35,000 in less than four decades, prosecution rates for wildlife crimes are shockingly low.
Around 2,000 people in Kenya are arrested every year for offences linked to poaching and trafficking, according to a study by conservation charity WildlifeDirect, which analysed records from around 15 courts in the country. But only 10 per cent of those arrested ended up in court (200) where more than half pleaded guilty. Despite this, only one in 20 received a jail sentence.
At Makadara court – which handles those arrested at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport – less than 7 per cent of people caught with ivory or rhino horn were put behind bars. Paula Kahumbu, who carried out the research, said the statistics show a clear pattern: "Even though the conviction rate is high, very few go to prison."
As for Maina, from Nyandarua County, he said very few poachers know killing an elephant can lead to jail. "I am a casual worker. I do any type of business to raise money for my children. We don't have the money to pay their school fees. Men asked me to help remove ivory from an elephant. It was already dead and I was to get paid for the job. I had never really thought about elephants – people in my community think they are destructive. They destroy crops and can be dangerous."
He said the men poisoned the elephants by leaving contaminated food, often salt and ash mixed together, at known feeding areas. The lethal mixture gives the elephants diarrhoea and eventually kills them. The other poachers had promised him a cut of the ivory sale – he hoped it would be around 10,000 Kenyan shillings, or just over £70. "That day I saw an elephant for the first time up close. I felt something in my heart. I really felt for it. I still have the vision of that dead elephant in my mind. The other men were part of an organised group, who also sell game meat. Those involved in the actual poaching are rarely arrested. Perhaps if they knew they could end up in prison, it might deter them."
This is the hope of the Kenyan government, which has just passed a Wildlife Conservation and Management Bill that will bring in stricter sentencing rules for poachers, and larger fines. Chachu Ganya, a Kenyan MP who has worked closely on the Bill, said that poachers could face life imprisonment under the new law, and a fine of 15 million Kenyan shillings (£107,000). He said that the legislation was a "big departure from the previous law" which led to "minimal penalties and hardly any form of punishment".
He added: "Remember, it's organised guys leading this, with guns. The laws we had compared to other countries were very, very bad. In fact, the law was conducive for poachers to thrive without any form of penalty. It was very unfortunate for Kenya."
Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Water and Natural Resources, Judy Wakhungu, agreed that the Bill will help Kenya win the fight against poaching, and conserve wildlife species for future generations. Local communities will also be economically incentivised to protect wildlife under the new law.
But according to Stephen Githinji, chief magistrate at Naivasha law courts, most suspects do not even make it to court. They are not being arrested, he said, as a result of poor investigations or corruption. Many cases that do come before magistrates collapse because the prosecution has failed to follow protocol. "When police realise that no one is following up on their cases, it is easy for them to be compromised and help the suspects. We need to know all cases are tracked," Githinji said.
This is why Space for Giants, a conservation charity determined to protect African elephants – is planning on working with the judiciary.In partnership with the Director of Public Prosecution and the British High Commission, they have designed a handbook of all the laws that could be used to combat wildlife crimes – for example, economic sabotage, fire arms and terrorism laws – for magistrates, prosecutors and law enforcement agents.
With the help of money donated by Independent on Sunday readers, they will train Kenya Wildlife Service wardens in all elements of the criminal trial process – from the drafting of charge sheets and handling and presenting evidence to the recording of witness statements. It is hoped they will then train others in the Kenyan Court Users Committees, which includes everyone from senior police and prosecutors to prisons and civil society.
"Without capacity built on these fundamental elements of the criminal trial process, it doesn't matter what laws exist – successful prosecutions will be very rare," said Dr Max Graham, the founder. "This represents a novel and exciting new training programme that will have a major impact on prosecutions of wildlife crime."
As for Maina, he is looking forward to the day he can return home. "I feel very bad." he said. "It wasn't worth it." He added that communities like his should be used to help the anti-poaching crackdown. "The best way to stop it is to use people like me to stop poaching; use us to prevent it. We know those who do it and we can safeguard animals if we are brought on board. I had never thought about it before, but now I feel that poachers are bad people. I know elephants are relevant to our country."
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