Kenya Wildlife Service forensics lab a step closer to opening

Kenya Wildlife Service forensics lab is a step closer to opening. Much is promised but challenges remain. Article in Kenya’s The Star reviews progress. See:


13 October 2014

Kenya: KWS Plans Sh100 Million DNA Lab to Catch Poachers

CONVICTION rates for crimes arising from handling of wildlife trophies will soon rise after the Kenya wildlife Service opens a Sh100 million forensic laboratory later this year.

The laboratory, to be housed at the KWS headquarters in Lang’ata, will also help to trace the origin of trophies confiscated, a move likely to cut international syndicates.

A recent report – Out of Africa: Mapping the Global Trade in Illicit Elephant Ivory by Born free USA – cited Mombasa as the conduit of most illegal ivory seizures worldwide in 2013-2014.

The report says Mombasa replaced Dar Es Salaam port, which previously had the highest number of seizures globally.

The report says once ivory has been hacked off an elephant, there is an abrupt transfer from the poachers to more professional trafficking networks capable of nesting their illicit activities within the legal international trade and transportation systems.

It adds that between 2009 and June 2014, 18,817 kilogrammes of ivory were seized at the Mombasa port.

Last week, a Germanbased company, Qiagen, donated a machine to the Kenya Wildlife Service, for use in the planned genetics and forensic laboratory.

Courts are now expected to rely on watertight forensic evidence for convictions.

Speaking while receiving the automated nucleic acid extraction machine from Qiagen in Nairobi, KWS director William Kiprono said it will enhance prosecution through forensic investigations.

“The forensic and genetic lab will enable us execute our overall mandate of conserving and managing wildlife since it will help in disease diagnosis, surveillance and monitoring. It also acts as major deterrent to poaching activities as it will greatly enhance the ability of law enforcement agencies to secure prosecutions,”Kiprono said.

The KWS has already trained personnel how to operate the machine in South Africa and another team is expected to travel to London next week for further training.

Kiprono called for more organisations to help the service equip the new lab. The lab will be commissioned towards the end of this year and is expected to bring to an end lack of substantial evidence, which has seen several suspected poachers evade justice.

The government has pumped in about Sh50 million, Kiprono said, but Sh100 million more is needed for the lab to meet international standards.

KWS normally sends some samples to other countries such as South Africa for analysis but with the new lab, the government is expected to save on both time and costs.

Qiagen business manager Oriana Zoghbi lauded KWS for its efforts against poaching, saying the machine will have positive implications in conservation for many years.

“We believe what we have to offer in the field of molecular biology will give KWS the opportunity to further expand biodiversity research and monitoring division and continue to conserve and manage wildlife,” she said.

Kenya’s tough poaching law has also netted foreigners flying through Kenya with illegal ivory.

Kiprono says such people should face the Kenyan law regardless of where they sourced their ivory products.

He said KWS will use the lab to carry out DNA profiling (also called genetic fingerprinting) to identify suspects by their respective DNA profiles.

DNA profiles are encrypted sets of letters that reflect a person’s unique DNA makeup.

The new technology is in line with recommendations made at the last Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, which recognised that illegal trade in elephant specimens is an international problem that requires all elephant range states and consumer states to take urgent and concerted efforts to combat it.