Sniffer Dogs, U.S. Army Software Help Kenya Curb Poaching

  • Government set money aside to fight poaching after 2013 surge
  • East African nation seen as bucking trend on the continent

Sniffer dogs trained to identify ivory and U.S. military software designed to trace militants have contributed to an about two-thirds decline in elephant and rhino-poaching in Kenya, making the East African nation an exception on a continent where such crime continues unabated.

“We’ve been able to buck the African trend,” Kitili Mbathi, director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, said in an interview. “We’ve seen a decline of between 60 and 70 percent in numbers of animals killed since 2013. Poaching is under control at the moment.”

A Kenya Wildlife Services ranger walks through a secure ivory stock room in Nairobi.

Photographer: Carl de Souza/AFP via Getty Images

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, Mbathi said on the sidelines of a conference in Johannesburg.

He said a sharp decline in 2014 in numbers of animals killed continued into 2015 and remained stable this year. Exact numbers for wildlife populations won’t be available until the government publishes new data this month, he said. Wildlife safaris are a cornerstone of Kenya’s tourism industry, which is the country’s biggest generator of foreign exchange after tea exports.

Advanced Analyses

State-run KWS last year began using U.S. military software originally developed to trace improvised explosive devices in conflict zones and adapted to wildlife poaching. The program, known as #tenBoma, makes advanced analyses and predictions of where poachers are likely to strike, Faye Cuevas, a former U.S. army officer currently working as chief of staff at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said in a separate interview.

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,” 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,” Mbathi said. Smugglers from West African countries such as Nigeria use Nairobi as a transit hub when traveling to Asia and the Middle East.

Arrests, Prosecutions

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 center 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, neighboring Tanzania 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. East Africa is home to about 20 percent of the continent’s elephants.

Kenya last week announced a revival in tourism for the second quarter of 2016. Accommodation and food services, which capture tourism activity, rebounded to grow by 15.3 percent from a contraction of 5 percent in the same period the previous year, according to the national statistics bureau.

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