The Making of a Big Game Poacher
Weak Laws Encourage Poachers
They sneak into the jungle armed with razor-sharp machetes, bright flashlights and keening horns that are meant to confuse and immobilize their prey. Sometimes however, all they do is lay wired snares on the ground to trap the unsuspecting wildlife. On a good and overly lucky day, they will manage to kill and escape with at least twenty five lifeless dik diks and wild rabbits. Sometimes, as happened three days ago, they are not that lucky and end up in the efficient hands of the Wildlife Works Rangers or other wildlife conservation authorities. It is then that justice starts to serve its course.
The prosecutor at the Voi Law Courts will read the charges. The case will be heard, conclusive and incriminating evidence will be presented to the court. After all this, the magistrate will slap down his gavel and announce a ten thousand shillings fine on the startup poachers or a 3-6 months jail term. Family members and friends, who are merciful enough to the young hunter, will pull both leg and arm to raise the amount after which the culprit will be released with a stern warning not to repeat poaching. But there is something in the mind of a poacher that won’t just stop them from reentering the jungle.
According to common folklore, most of the poachers pass by a witchdoctor’s hut before trespassing into the wildlife sanctuaries. The traditional medicine man will lace the young man (or woman) with herbs or whatever concoctions they use that will protect him from the authorities and other ‘dangerous’ wild animals. This gives the young man a sense of immortality and invincibility. If (maybe from the charms, or maybe from his good luck) he goes undetected by the authorities or unharmed by the dangerous wild animals, this vicious and merciless rabbit hunter will one day graduate into a Big Game poacher complete with AK47’s and ammunition, stalking and felling elephants and rhinos with sheer abandon. As he upgrades his game (pun not intended) he will recruit and coach his younger siblings, first, second and third cousins on the ways of the jungle. And on and on, the vicious cycle will continue.
The Judicial System
This cycle reminds me of once when out of my journalistic curiosity, I had to sit through a court hearing where members of a pastoralist community had been charged with trespassing and grazing livestock in the Tsavo West National Park. After all the evidence had been provided and the case had been heard, the magistrate struck down his gavel and announced a fine of twenty thousand Kenya shillings. And almost on cue, out of the court audience, a man (probably the owner of the livestock) sprang up and handed the court clerk four bank deposit slips made to the court in the amount of five thousand shillings each! Talk of justice quickly served, and retribution promptly collected!
Feeling cheated by the judicial system, we congregated outside the courthouse with fellow scribes and tried to point out what was wrong with that court ruling. Had justice been served? We all agreed it had. But something still pricked our conscience.
Rumors abound that nomadic pastoralists, mostly from the North-Eastern parts of the country, supply poachers in the Tsavo National Parks with smuggled guns concealed on the animals’ underbellies as they migrate southwards looking for pasture. Surely, the magistrate was also aware of this candid rumor, why was he letting the pastoralists scram so easily? We expected to see more, maybe the confiscation of all the livestock that had been impounded in the park and the expatriation of the park trespassers to wherever they had come from. But justice works in an entirely different way and only provable crimes, as opposed to hearsay, are punishable by law, which brings me back to the case of the novice rabbit poacher.
If you project the image of the rabbit hunter and imagine him as tomorrow’s gun-slinging Big Game Poacher, you’d agree with me that slamming a fine of ten thousand shillings is neither retributive nor deterrent on crimes against wildlife, and three years behind bars probably means nothing to his overall game plan. But the judiciary does not have solid evidence that the small-time poacher will graduate into the full blown merciless poacher who poses not only a threat to the Big Five but also to tourists and the whole community in general. So, the court’s ruling stands, for now. The rabbit chaser walks, almost scot-free, and only time can tell whether he is another Big Game Poacher waiting to happen.