NAIROBI, Kenya, Jan 26 – Poachers have slaughtered a rhino in the Kenyan capital’s national park, officials said Sunday, a brazen attack flouting tough new laws designed to stem a surge of such killings.
Amid a wave of rhino and elephant killings across the country, the shooting of the rhino in the heavily guarded Nairobi park — the headquarters of the government’s Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) — illustrates how easily poachers are decimating the country’s large animals.
“Nairobi National Park is one of the best-protected areas, so it is a really shocking thing for us,” KWS spokesman Paul Udoto told AFP.
“The rhino horns were hacked and taken away…. Investigations are under way.”
Kenyan courts have for years had their hands tied by laws that limited punishments for wildlife crimes, but a new wildlife act signed into law this month has provided far stiffer penalties.
Previously, punishment for the most serious wildlife crimes was capped at a maximum fine of 40,000 Kenyan shillings ($465, 340 euros), and a possible jail term of up to 10 years.
Some smugglers caught in Kenya with a haul of ivory were even fined less than a dollar (euro) apiece.
New laws have massively increased the punishment, with poachers now facing fines of as much as 20 million shillings ($230,000, 170,000 euros) and possible life in jail.
“People should fear the law, it is a serious punishment, and we are just as serious about stopping the poachers,” Udoto said.
Nairobi’s national park, which lies just seven kilometres (four miles) from the tower blocks of the bustling city centre, is described by KWS as “a unique ecosystem by being the only protected area in the world close to a capital city”.
Poachers killed a rhino in the park in August in a similar attack, escaping with the horn, the first such attack for more than five years.
The park is a major rhino sanctuary, and its supposedly secure environment — fenced in for much of its 117 square kilometres (45 square miles) — was seen as ideal for breeding to restock other parks.
Poaching has risen sharply in Africa in recent years, with rhinos and elephants particularly hard-hit.
Asian consumers who buy smuggled rhino horn — which is made of keratin, the same material as human fingernails — believe that it has powerful healing properties.
Kenya is also a key transit point for ivory smuggled from across the region.
A Chinese man was arrested last week while on transit from Mozambique to China via Nairobi, carrying 3.4 kilogrammes (7.5 pounds) of ivory in a suitcase.
Tang Yong Jian, 40, is due to appear in court in Nairobi on Monday, the first to face charges under the new laws.
Last year Kenya started inserting microchips into rhino horns. Wildlife officials plan eventually to microchip all rhinos in the country, just over 1,000 animals altogether.