Kenya has announced that it will fast-track a law to institute the death penalty for the illegal hunting of wildlife.

This was recently announced by the Kenyan minister of tourism and wildlife, Najib Balala, and will be the most extreme penalty for poaching in the world. “We have in place the Wildlife Conservation Act that was enacted in 2013, and which fetches offenders a life sentence or a fine of US$200 000 (€171 578),” said Balala. “However, this has not been deterrence enough to curb poaching, hence the proposed stiffer sentence."

In recent years, poaching has dropped considerably after new punishments were enacted and enforcement tactics were improved. “These efforts led to an 85% reduction in rhino poaching and a 78% reduction in elephant poaching, respectively, in 2017 compared to when poaching was at its peak in 2013 and 2012 respectively,” said the ministry.

However, because many animal populations were driven to endangered status over the past few decades, any amount of poaching poses an existential threat. According to Save The Rhino, even though rhino poaching has decreased, the population is still dropping, with an estimated three rhinos being poached every day across Africa.

This hard-line motion has been met with mixed reactions. Some in the industry, including leading conservationists, fear that this “violent approach risks aggravating already poor relations between people living in and around protected areas”, and suggest that capital punishment should apply only to leaders of criminal syndicates, who drive the illegal poaching of wildlife and benefit the most from selling animal products.

The United Nations (UN) itself argues that capital punishment is “intrinsically barbaric”, which echoes the concern that such a legalisation would drive Kenya away from its efforts to eliminate the death penalty, according to Amnesty International. It could also put Kenya in conflict with the UN, which opposes the death penalty for all crimes, worldwide. “The death penalty has no place in the 21st century,” said UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres at an event in New York last year, and UN General Assembly resolutions have called for a phasing-out of capital punishment, with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights advocating its universal abolition.

There is also sentiment that capital punishment for those who illegally hunt fails to address the demand for wildlife products.

Supporters of the motion feel this is the only route to tackling what has become an emergency situation in Kenya. More than 1 500 bird species, for example, are endangered, and 50% of all individual animals have been lost over the past few decades. Also, over the past year alone, 69 elephants out of a population of 34 000, and nine rhinos from a population of under 1 000, were killed. This includes two black rhinos and a calf being poached in Kenya’s Meru National Park last month.

The World Wildlife Fund says that the only way to affect the longer-term trends driving animals to extinction is “for animals to be given priority in their environments”.

“I think it is a very courageous move that the Kenyan government is implementing,” says Dean Cherry, managing director of Nhongo Safaris. “Kenya has learned the value of its wildlife, and has decided to do something about it. Sometimes it takes a very drastic move in law to curb this continuous slaughter of our precious wildlife, and especially our rhino.”

Tourism Update attempted to contact the Kenya Tourism Ministry for comment on the way forward, and is awaiting a response.