CSI Wildlife: Kenyan Wildlife Service's wildlife forensic lab

The Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS), the government agency burdened with conserving wildlife nationwide, has a wildlife forensic lab at its headquarters in Nairobi. This laboratory is the first of its kind in Eastern and Central Africa and it is currently expanding in terms of equipment and personnel. For example, a DNA sequencer will be purchased in 2017 with a grant from USAID. The Netherlands Embassy is exploring possibilities together with the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI) to support the work done by the KWS at its state-of-the-art laboratory.

Wildlife forensics

In Kenya, like in many other African countries, poaching of wildlife for ivory, rhino horn but also bush meat, bird feathers and the illegal pet trade has reached an unprecedented level in the past years. Kenya has taken many measures to combat wildlife crime - including scaling up law enforcement and the enactment of the new Wildlife Conservation and Management Act in 2014. Nevertheless, poachers could still elude punishment when scientific evidence that could result in a conviction is not available. Wildlife forensics changes that: with the collection and analysis of DNA samples from recovered specimens, poachers can be more easily linked to the crime scene.

Kenyan Wildlife Service’s laboratory

The facility came into being with the help of several international partners and has been operating successfully for several years now. The laboratory has proven to be especially effective in distinguishing bush meat from regular meat, and has an unparalleled indexing database of rhino DNA. KWS is currently developing a genetic library and monitoring system for elephant populations in Kenya. “Every other day, our work is used in a court case somewhere in Kenya,” says Dr. Francis Gakuya, KWS Head of Veterinary Services. The volume that needs to be tested is huge, which means that the laboratory is currently looking to increase its capacity. Secondly, its equipment requires frequent servicing, which requires additional funding.

“The KWS depends on park revenues - which amount to 60%-70% of the total resources. The rest is covered by the Kenyan government and development partners" says Edwin Wanyonyi from KWS.

The DNA samples in the laboratory are also being used for disease surveillance and certification for export, and is working closely with knowledge institutes such as the veterinary genetics laboratory of the University of Pretoria.

DNA testing kit for rhinoceros

"The biggest challenge is currently increasing knowledge in the whole chain of custody on how to properly handle forensic evidence. Unfortunately, DNA samples are often accidentally contaminated," says Dr. Gakuya. Already, KWS is training rangers and law enforcement officers at its Field Training School in Tsavo West and its Training Institute in Naivasha. Rangers from the whole region, for example Tanzania and South Sudan, attend courses at these institutions.

©Mwangi Kirub
The burning of Ivory in Nairobi National Park

Netherlands Forensic Institute

NFI is one of the world’s leading forensic institutes. It has a laboratory devoted to wildlife forensics, which conducts CITES-oriented research (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) and offers specialized wildlife crime forensics advice to governments worldwide. NFI already works together with rangers in for example Botswana and South Africa, and has previously partnered with KWS.

Following the Wildlife Deal concluded between KWS and NFI during the Save Wilde Conference in The Hague in March 2016, both partners are currently defining how the KWS laboratory can benefit from NFI’s expertise and experience.

Do you have any questions or require more information, please contact NAI-LNV@minbuza.nl.