Conservationists globally were elated following the announcement by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) that the rhino population in Kenya had record births and zero deaths from poaching in 2020. When the pandemic began, there was fear that the decline in tourism would lead to an increase in wildlife poaching.
One reason for the concern is that tourism helps fund the security of national parks and conservancies. Although the pandemic did cause a 92 percent drop in Kenya’s tourism revenue, the country’s rhino population did not suffer.
The protection and growth of the rhino population is the result of the hard work of KWS rangers. KWS reports that the overall rhino population in Kenya grew from 1441 in 2019 to 1605 in 2020 and that not a single rhino was lost to poaching. Their efforts have helped preserve Kenya’s natural heritage.
KWS, with USAID’s support, launched a high-tech forensics and genetics lab in 2015, complete with wildlife scientists,veterinarians, and other experts. Five KWS staff members were trained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensic Laboratoryto support the new lab’s operations. The laboratory has a genetic database of rhino and elephant DNA as well as a monitoring system. The lab helps obtain critical data with a DNA sequencer. This enables scientists to track endangered species and, if needed, link them to suspected poachers.
“Every other day our work is used in a court case somewhere in Kenya,” says Dr. Francis Gakuya, KWS Head of Veterinary Services. Before the existence of the lab, wildlife samples that required analysis had to be sent to South Africa which led to delays in tracking and prosecuting suspects in court.
In addition, USAID and KWS collaborated to upgrade the KWS Law Enforcement Academy to a regional training center that trains wildlife rangers on forensic investigation protocols in 10 rhino and elephant sites. From the training, rangers can now accurately collect biological materials from crime scenes to be used in the prosecution of wildlife crimes.
The fruits of these partnerships are clear: the rhino population is growing and they are protected from poaching. Technology, policy, and accountability improves the protection, conservation, and sustainable management of Kenya’s natural resources. In a time of new challenges and uncertain futures - the well-being of the rhino population gives conservationists, Kenyan citizens, and rhino enthusiasts renewed hope.