Kenya’s Poachers To Face Execution For Killing Treasured Species

After months of debate, the African nation appears poised to ignore concerns from the United Nations.

A Kenya Wildlife Service veterinarian watches Wide Satao, a male African Savannah Elephant.
Andrew Renneisen / Getty Images

After months of debate, the African nation appears poised to ignore concerns from the United Nations.

Kenya’s tourism and wildlife minister, Najib Balala, announced a bold move last year, one with the intention of curbing the country’s serious poaching problem. Activists worldwide had a mixed response to Balala’s plan to execute poachers — most wildlife lovers praised the idea, but several human rights groups spoke out against the death penalty.

News 360, an online paper from South Africa, reported that none of the controversies appears to have changed Balala’s mind. In fact, it’s believed that Kenyan lawmakers are now in the process of fast-tracking the proposed death penalty law, one which dramatically increases the already steep stakes for convicted poachers. Until this law is enacted, poachers will continue to face a fine of $200,000, or life behind bars.

Advocacy group Save the Rhino collects data about Kenyan animal poaching. In a two-year span from 2016 to 2017, the advocacy group claims that at least 23 rhinos and 156 elephants lost their lives to poachers in just one country. In total, Save the Rhino claims that there were 2,082 rhino poaching incidents in Africa during the same two years. The immediate effect of Balala’s threat apparently made a difference in 2018, though, when the continent-wide poaching number dropped to 769.

The situation in the Congo Basin is even more desperate. According to National Geographic, almost 30,000 elephants die annually due to poaching. It’s unknown if the Democratic Republic of the Congo has any plans to adopt Kenya’s death penalty strategy.

The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation pointed out that only 4 percent of Kenyan wildlife poaching cases were prosecuted before the country switched to a large fine and life in prison. It seems probable that other hard-hit areas — like the Congo — will be watching to see if making the move from a life sentence to execution makes another dramatic difference in the number of overall poaching incidents.

Elephants Collared As Fears Over Human-Elephant Conflict Grow
Elephant gets collar at Tsavo East National Park as fears of human/elephant conflict grow. Andrew Renneisen / Getty Images

The United Nations (U.N.) takes a hard line against deploying the death penalty for any crime. In 2017, the U.N. proposed a global moratorium to abolish legal execution altogether. U.N. News indicated that the organization’s official stance is that “the death penalty has no place in the 21st century.”

The Conversation looked closely at this thorny legal issue in May of 2018. They quoted Balala as saying that life in prison “has not been a deterrence enough to curb poaching.” However, the death penalty has also been shown not to have a big impact on crime. Kenya had even previously commuted all death penalty sentences to life behind bars.

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Borgen Magazine made this topic even more complicated back in 2017. The magazine’s report on poaching indicated that 80 percent of poachers live in poverty, and kill endangered animals for money and for food. Additionally, 96 percent of the poachers in question said they’d be happy to quit if they could make a sufficient income elsewhere. This highly suggests that many of the people killing these animals are working for crime lords who rake in most of the profits.

There’s one major question that Kenya’s proposed law may soon answer: will the main benefactors of illegal poaching be deterred by the death of their workers, or will they simply hire new poachers? Many protesters against Kenya’s death penalty plan believe that fixing the area’s economic woes would protect endangered animals much more efficiently than threatening poor locals with execution.