Kenya curbs poaching with sniffer dogs, US army software

Killing of elephants, rhinos on decline in East African nation

NAIROBI • Sniffer dogs trained to identify ivory, and US military software designed to trace militants have contributed to a nearly two-thirds decline in elephant and rhinoceros-poaching in Kenya, making the East African nation an exception on a continent where such crimes continue unabated.

"We've been able to buck the African trend," Mr Kitili Mbathi, director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), said. "We've seen a decline of between 60 and 70 per cent in numbers of animals killed since 2013. Poaching is under control at the moment."

Poaching of the two species peaked in 2013, prompting the government to devote more money to hiring and equipping rangers, and stepping up intelligence across the country, Mr Mbathi said on the sidelines of a conference in Johannesburg.

He said a sharp decline in 2014 in the number of animals killed continued into last year and remained stable this year. Exact numbers for wildlife populations are not available until the government publishes new data this month, he said.

Wildlife safaris are a cornerstone of Kenya's tourism industry, the country's biggest generator of foreign exchange after tea exports.

The state-run KWS last year began using US military software, originally developed to trace improvised explosive devices in conflict zones, and adapted it to wildlife poaching.

The programme, known as #tenBoma, makes advanced analyses and predictions of where poachers are likely to strike, said Ms Faye Cuevas, a former US army officer currently working as chief of staff at the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

It uses existing data such as animal mortality figures, weather information and GPS feeds from collared elephants, she said. 

"What we do is, instead of finding lower-rung poachers, you find the person who has the greatest aggregate impact on wildlife crime," Ms Cuevas said.

The use of sniffer dogs that can detect contraband ranging from pangolin scales to rhino horn powder at the airport in Nairobi, the capital, has also been "enormously successful", Mr Mbathi said. Smugglers from West African countries such as Nigeria often use Nairobi as a transit hub when travelling to Asia and the Middle East.

Kenya has stepped up arrests and prosecutions, with a court in July handing an unprecedented 20-year prison sentence to a trader who was found with more than 300 elephant tusks in the port city of Mombasa.

Africa lost as many as 111,000 elephants over the past decade as a surge in poaching in the east and the centre of the continent caused the population's biggest declines in the past 25 years, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

While Kenya has successfully curbed the killings, neighbouring Tanzania has lost more than half of its elephants in the past five years and South Sudan's civil war has had a disastrous impact on its wildlife. 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2016, with the headline 'Kenya curbs poaching with sniffer dogs, US army software'. Print Edition | Subscribe