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How Kenya’s New Wildlife Forensic and Genetics Lab Will Help Save Wildlife

By Fredrick Nzwili

In Kenya, poaching of wildlife for bush meat, trophies such as rhino horns and elephant tusks, skins of animals, feathers of birds, as well as illegal trafficking in animals for the pet trade such as rare chameleons and parrots, has reached epic proportions.

While many suspects of these crimes have been arrested, they often elude punishment because concrete, scientific evidence that would result in prosecutions and convictions isn’t available.

This is bound to change following the launch of a forensic and genetic laboratory last month at the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) headquarters in Nairobi.

The laboratory—the first of its kind in East Africa—is expected to aid in the provision of accurate identification of seized wildlife and wildlife products in order to bring to justice perpetrators of wildlife crimes.

 

A KWS laboratory technician demonstrates how an equipment in the forensic and genetic laboratory works. Looking  on Kenya's cabinet secretary in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, Judi Wakhungu ( centre), and Canadian High Commissioner to Kenya, James Christoff. Photo credit: KWS
Kenya’s cabinet secretary in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, Judi Wakhungu ( center), and Canadian High Commissioner to Kenya, James Christoff, are shown how one of the pieces of equipment works. Photo credit: Kenya Wildlife Service

 

Francis Gakuya, the head of KWS’s veterinary service department, who will coordinate the new laboratory, explains how it will make it possible to convict more wildlife poachers, what other work will be done there, and the main challenges it faces.

 

Francis Gakuya , the head of KWS veterinary service department during the interview on May 8. Photo credit Fredrick Nzwili.
Francis Gakuya , the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service’s veterinary department, is in charge of the new forensics lab.
Photo credit: Fredrick Nzwili

 

Why did KWS decide to establish a forensic and genetic lab?

We started thinking about a forensic laboratory about 15 years ago. By then, how to differentiate between common meat and bush meat was proving a challenge. We knew wild animals were being slaughtered for their meat and seizures had been done, but we did not have concrete evidence to prove this was really meat harvested from wildlife.

Poachers had discovered that our only means of separating the two was by the anatomical features of the animals. To beat this, they started deboning all bush meat before sending it to the markets. With all the bones removed, it became very difficult to get conclusive whether the meat was from wildlife. This is when we started thinking of scientific tests.

We first started using protein tests, but that didn’t prove effective for wildlife. So we turned to DNA. This was about five years ago. Before then, we’d been using elimination evidence. We would take the samples to the government chemists, where the scientists would tell us if these are domestic animals or not. This had a lot of challenges, because it never said exactly what type of animal or which animal the product was from.

Did this method produce enough evidence that you could use in court to try the poachers?

The evidence collected through this means could not be used in court trials. It was not concrete enough, and we took these tests just as trials.

It will be different with DNA testing from the laboratory, I know it’s robust—one can use it in court as evidence. It will also provide clarity on what type of animal, and from which country or area, unlike in the past.

I feel proud. It’s been a long journey towards this laboratory. We started it three to four years ago, and now we’ve commissioned it. I feel excited—we’ve achieved our longtime dream of having such a laboratory.

How do you expect the lab to contribute to the conservation of Kenya’s wildlife?

With scientific evidence from the laboratory, we hope that there will be more convictions of poachers and traffickers. Once offenders have been imprisoned, this will definitely deter and reduce animal poaching and trafficking. Poaching is one of the leading challenges facing wildlife conservation in Kenya, so this will enhance conservation efforts.

I think this will also see an increase in distribution and numbers of some of the species that are threatened or have been decimated by poaching.

What tests will you carry out?

We will carry out tests on wildlife trophies, especially ivory and rhino horn. We will also test products from other animals—there are many wildlife products that are illegally traded.

Does the laboratory have any other capacity?

Yes—but we’ll concentrate on wildlife and wildlife crimes, because it’s a laboratory that’s specific for wildlife.

We will also focus on diseases affecting wildlife and their diagnosis. We will be doing wildlife genetics, so that we can map our wildlife species.

The lab will also be open for conservation research. Anyone studying ecology and requires to use molecular tools, as part of their study will be supported by the laboratory.

What challenges do you expect to face?

We anticipate that there will be a huge volume to be tested. That means we’ll need to increase our capacity from time to time. I also see a challenge in the equipment. We have equipment that will require frequent servicing, and that will require funding.

I also see a challenge in staffing levels. As the volume increases, we’ll require more staff. At the moment, the laboratory has five full-time employees, but I’m hopeful these are challenges we can surmount. Already, the lab is running.

Where did the staff gain training for this specialized kind of work?

We sent two to Israel, three to the United States, three to Canada, and two to South Africa. We did this at different times.

We have a workforce of five to seven and all have been posted to different areas. We want to train and expose as many people as we can, so that they can work in the laboratory.

If an animal trophy is presented to you now, how long will it take for you to give results?

How long a test takes depends on what animal it is. But we expect on average a DNA test to take at most one week.

Fredrick Nzwili is journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya, who on reports politics, religion, the environment and wildlife, among other topics.