WILDLIFE CONSERVATION POLITICS

Open letter to the new KWS Director General, Brig John Waweru

There can be fewer, more challenging, thankless tasks in this country than being thE DG of the Kenya Wildlife Service

In Summary

• You should be aware that CS Balala, who does not take criticism well, threw Kimani under the bus twice last year.

• KWS likes to use the word “stakeholder”... You will meet many of these people in the coming weeks. 

KWS Rangers during a past parade at the Malindi Marine National park while celebrating World Wildlife Day.
KWS Rangers during a past parade at the Malindi Marine National park while celebrating World Wildlife Day.
Image: ALPHONCE GARI

Dear John Waweru,

May I call you John? I see you are an ex-Navy man and went to Britannia Royal Naval College in the UK some years ago. I also went to a military academy some years ago and enjoy kayaking, so it is almost like we are cousins.

Anyway, as I am sure you have heard already so many times in the past, congratulations or commiserations on your new appointment. You have either done something very bad and been ‘red carded” to the Kenya Wildlife or you are a man of courage, proven leadership skills and integrity, with an insatiable appetite for challenge. I will go with the latter. Honestly, there can be fewer, more challenging, thankless tasks in this country than being the Director General of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

It occurred to me that under the circumstances of your appointment, a proper “handover” was surely lacking and you may well be deficient on some details for the new job for which you “volunteered”. No worries. Let me pass on a few tidbits that may help in your transition from missile boats and Mombasa to your new world of elephants and desert boots.

Firstly, do not be concerned about your lack of conservation experience. Of your 10 predecessors in the DG position, only two came directly from the KWS and that was some time ago. Having said that, most of them were sacked within a year or so of their appointment. William Kiprono was an exception, being dispatched to the semi-war zone of Mandera county instead. Hardly an endorsement of his performance. Julius Kipn’getich, who amazingly lasted almost a full eight years before leaving for greener pastures, presently holds the “longevity in position” award. I am sure he saw some really dark storm clouds on the horizon.

You have inherited the management over a great deal of land, eight per cent of the country by all accounts, and we know how Kenyans love land. You will meet many new ‘friends’ because of this. Some will ply you with apparent sweet heart deals to “hive off” a few acres here or there to assist you with your inherited cash flow difficulties. The Southern Bypass and SGR railway comes to mind. Beware! To that end, you may wish to review exactly how many parks, reserves and sanctuaries under your new umbrella. There are discrepancies between your website, the last Auditor General’s audit and USAid as to exactly what you are managing.

I am not sure, and my guess is that the public is as equally perplexed, as to who your new boss actually is. The head of the new board of trustees, John Waithaka, has been pretty quiet since his appointment last May; very wise, I suppose, in light of the rhino translocation project that went sideways.

At the other end of the spectrum is Tourism and Wildlife CS Najib Balala, who has been anything but quiet. To his credit, CS Balala has taken a slighter lower profile since he demoted acting DG Julius Kimani, suspended six senior managers and told the general public to “Go to Hell”.

In any event, you should be aware that CS Balala, who does not take criticism well, threw Kimani under the bus twice last year: Once over the Hell’s Gate amusement park controversy and later over the rhino debacle. As an aside, the Hell’s Gate ‘eco-friendly’ project, that reportedly included a cable car between Hell’s Gate and Mount Longonot, was only suspended. You may have that to deal with it in the near future.

There is not much more to say about the rhino tragedy that has not already been said. It is a black eye that KWS will be wearing for some time. May I draw your attention to one of the causal factors in the rhino deaths.

The inquiry is reported to have stated that the “holding place (at the sanctuary) was found inadequate with outdated, portable bomas (corrals) not suitable for rhinos.” World Wildlife Fund paid $1 million for that project and your new team couldn’t even build a proper boma? Maybe the invoice will provide a clue.

NGO ‘STAKEHOLDERS’

KWS likes to use the word “stakeholder”. It is even in their mission statement.

The reason for this is that stakeholders contribute significant money to your operating expenses. You will meet many of these people in the coming weeks. Many come from a group referred to as “NGOs”. They will seem like nice people at first but when things go wrong at KWS, (which, let’s face it, is much of the time lately) be prepared for an earful.

On the plus side, they often contribute millions of shillings on various KWS projects with minimal follow-up or accounting. Provide them with a few photos of whatever project they sponsored and you’re golden. Take your new forensic lab for example. It looks great and sounds great and hundreds of VIP’s have taken the tour but you don’t even have the staff to man it properly and nobody even minds. (Btw, if you were wondering, your seized ivory still goes to the National Museum for scientific analysis.)

Be advised that last year CS Balala said a few things that ruffled some feathers amongst these NGOs. You may well be asked as to your position on these comments. He expressed a desire to make poaching an offence punishable by death. He remarked that there are too many activists in wildlife. When questioned about ivory stocks under KWS control, he replied: “Anyone who doubted KWS in terms of keeping these stocks, these are the people who are enemies of wildlife conservation in this country.” He, on at least two occasions, suggested he would be going after “wildlife cartels” in regards to where their money was coming from and where it was going. Did I mention that many of these NGOs are staffed with ex-KWS employees?

IVORY

This question relating to ivory and rhino horn stocks came up due to a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) requirement for member countries to declare their inventories. Balala provided an evasive response to this question, as had his predecessor, CS Judi Wakhungu, some months previous. You will find that the subject of your ivory/rhino stocks is a sensitive one to all concerned and for good reason. First and foremost, it is worth a lot of money. As an example, the horn from the rhinos who met their premature death at Tsavo East National Park last July, could fetch upwards of Sh250 million on the Chinese or Vietnamese markets.

KWS doesn’t want to talk about these stocks because they are not particularly secure, and when handled as an exhibit for court, there are opportunities for items to be ‘misplaced’. NGOs feel uncomfortable talking about ivory stockpiles because they need your permission to audit these stockpiles and will almost certainly find “discrepancies”, which then puts them in an awkward position because they don’t want to address the possibility that someone may have committed theft. Point to remember, none of the really big NGO’s like to talk about or address corruption. Neither does your organisation for that matter and in the past, only Dr Leakey openly admitted that your organization had 'greed over integrity’ issues.

A piece of good news. It is generally recognised that the elephant poaching numbers are down and Mombasa is no longer the ivory transit hub of Africa. Your department in December released numbers showing only 40 elephants were poached last year. The general rule of thumb in the conservation world is that each elephant, on average, carries 10kg of ivory. We are thus looking at about 400kgs seized.   This approximate number was arrived at through a carcass count done in conjunction with some of your stakeholders. However, a few weeks later, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics released a somewhat contradictory report stating that wildlife numbers across Kenya were showing a worrying decline. I can tell you that in 2018, ivory seizures published through open source revealed that approximately 750kg of ivory had been seized throughout Kenya by various authorities. If you take into account that many seizures are not published and they account for only a small percentage of contraband that is actually in transit, then all these numbers don’t quite add up.

I don’t like devoting too much time to this NGO thing, but there is one last incident of which you should be aware. Last May, KWS entered into an agreement with Basel Institute on Governance, a Swiss-based but independent, not-for-profit group established to counter corruption and related financial crime. The agreement, an MoU, provided at no cost for KWS, an embedded expert investigation specialist to support them in their (financial) investigations of large scale international wildlife trafficking and related money laundering offences. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Anyway, despite the MoU, this financial crime expert, who wasn’t even a mzungu, was deported without warning six months later for not having a work permit. Can you believe it, John? He was in Kenya, from another African country, under an MoU to assist KWS in their fight against wildlife crime and gets deported? This never hit the newspapers so KWS dodged a bullet there and avoided some awkward questions.

Back to CITES (pronounced ‘sitees’) for a moment. It is an international organisation set up with the intention of regulating the international trade of plants and animals. Every three years, it has a large meeting for all country members and refers to this meeting as the “conference of the parties” or CoP. Similar to the UN and the EU, CITES is heavy on talk and light on action. In 2008 it sanctioned a “one-off ivory sale” of 108 tonnes to China to placate South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Most pundits attribute this sale as the primary factor in re-igniting the illegal ivory trade. CITES has, on its website homepage, a countdown clock to this next meeting. Does anything more need to be said? Oh yes, CoP is in Sri Lanka this May and you will be expected to attend.

As a military man, you will be well acquainted with the expression: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. This is particularly pertinent as you get to know your new organisation.   In this vein, may I recommend reading Dr Richard Leakey and Virginia Morell’s book, Wildlife Wars, a recounting of the early days of KWS? I am sure you will be struck by the fact that essentially all the issues he faced in 1989 remain; financial distress, corruption, inoperable vehicles and equipment, bad morale, poor accounting and questionable procurement practises. May I also recommend that you don’t tell anyone you read it unless you really, really know your audience.

I know your time is now at a premium and I hope this has been of some assistance. One last thing, if I may have your permission to speak freely? I know, and thousands of tourists to Kenya know, that you have some exceptional people working for you. Let’s face it, tourism is a major part of the Kenyan economy, and your team is a major reason that the numbers remain high. Internationally, everyone loves KWS; from your ‘elephant’ logo, to the rustic, pristinely kept headquarters at Nairobi National Park (don’t lose the ‘pet’ warthogs), to the friendly and immaculately turned out rangers manning all the parks. They present a professional and friendly image for which they have gained international recognition and respect.

Having said that, there is without question, some members of your staff who, shall we say, are not ideally suited to the position for which they have been hired. Poaching ivory or rhino horn while a ranger is not cool. The practice of suspected poachers/traffickers going ‘missing’ after KWS arrest may also be detrimental to your overall goals. It is appreciated that there are magistrates who from time to time, make curious, economically based judgements in favour of an inexplicably wealthy accused but some of your lads need to understand that ‘sorting them out permanently’ is not the preferred option. You will be relieved to hear that many of these past transgressions have, from the international perspective, essentially gone unnoticed. The recent arrest, however, of 6 rangers for feeding a herdsman to crocodiles may be seen as crossing the line.

It has been past practice within your organisation that should a ranger be found in possession of ivory, complicit in the poaching of rhino horn or involved in the transportation of large quantities of sandalwood, that the transgressors simply be demoted, suspended and maybe transferred. Pre 2014, under the old Wildlife Conservation and Management Act, this internal discipline was indeed a greater penalty than was at the time legislated. Now, however, it doesn’t sit quite right that rangers who are caught with their hands in the cookie jar, face suspension or transfer when perpetrators whom KWS charge, are looking at a life sentence.

May I humbly suggest that this practise be re-examined? Presently, KWS has no external oversight (I know, who would have thought?) so perhaps this is maybe an option for you. I do realise that the Independent Police Oversight Authority does have its limitations, but at least the optics are better for you.

You have a herculean task ahead of you John. I wish you the best. If you ever need to have a chat with someone you can trust, give me a call.

P.S. The First Lady is an ardent follower of all matters relating to conservation. She is even patron to the very successful “Hands Off Our Elephants” campaign initiated by Kenyan NGO, Wildlife Direct. In a speech last year, excerpts of which are on your website, your Deputy Director Security referred to that organisation as one “whose intentions may be ignoble”.