Najib Balala, Kenya’s Wildlife Minister, wants the death penalty for convicted poachers. That’s a really bad idea

On 11 May 2018, Xinhua reported that Najib Balala, Kenya’s Minister for Tourism and Wildlife, had announced that Kenya plans to fast-track laws to make wildlife crimes punishable by the death penalty.

Balala made the announcement during the launch of the northern white rhino commemorative stamps at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia County. The stamps are issued in honour of “Sudan” a rhino euthanized at Ol Pejeta on 19 March 2018. (The story of “Sudan” is in itself an extraordinary tale of conservation gone wrong – you can read more about it here and here.)

On 16 May 2018, Balala confirmed in a tweet that, “the government will push for poachers to be handed the severest punishment possible within our judicial system”.

Balala explains his proposal to fast-track changes to Kenya’s laws on poaching as follows,

“We have in place the Wildlife Conservation Act that was enacted in 2013 and which fetches offenders a life sentence or a fine of 200,000 U.S. dollars. However, this has not been deterrence enough to curb poaching, hence the proposed stiffer sentence.”

Is CITES in favour of the death penalty for poachers?

Several people and organisations were quick to criticise Balala’s proposal.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), on the other hand, re-tweeted a link to the Xinhua article, with the hashtag “#SeriousAboutWildlifeCrime”:

Francis Massé, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sheffield, writing on The Conversation website, argues that CITES’ tweet, “sends the message that the death penalty is a legitimate way to be serious about wildlife crime”.

Massé writes,

As a global authority on protecting biodiversity CITES’s position matters. It’s ambiguous stance is worrying because how poaching is tackled is a hugely divisive issue with growing calls for countries to move beyond an enforcement focused approach.

Leading conservationists have warned for some time that violent approaches to wildlife trafficking are not “politically feasible” and that killing poachers risks aggravating already poor relations between people living in and around protected areas.

Most importantly, killing those who hunt illegally fails to address socio-economic injustices or the demand for wildlife products.

Conservation Watch has written to the CITES Secretariat to ask whether the tweet (which has now been deleted) was intended as an endorsement of the death penalty. CITES’ response will be posted in full when it arrives.

Vegan victory?

The vegan website One Green Planet declares Balala’s announcement as a “Victory”:

The article notes that,

While this measure may seem extreme, it is a last resort attempt to deter people from slaughtering Kenya’s rapidly decreasing wildlife population.

The comments following the article are all in favour of the death penalty for poachers. Someone called Jeff Biss writes, “Actually, everyone involved in wildlife trafficking should be executed.” And Pamela Tate adds, “I hope they do get the death penalty, they don’t deserve life.”

Ironically, One Green Planet describes itself as “a platform for the growing compassionate and eco-conscious generation”.

The death penalty is a really bad idea

Jeremiah Ogonda Asaka is a lecturer in Global Studies at Middle Tennessee State University. In an article on The Conversation website, he gives three reasons why the proposal to execute convicted poachers is a bad idea:

  1. “It goes against the global trend away from using the death penalty.”

    The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights advocates for the abolition of the death penalty, arguing that, “The death penalty has no place in the 21st century.”

    Kenya still has the death penalty on its books, but the most recent execution was in 1987. In 2016, president Uhuru Kenyatta commuted the death sentences of 2,747 people to life in prison. And in 2009, then-president Mwai Kibaki did the same for 4,000 death row inmates.

  2. “Poachers are already willing to risk their lives, so it won’t work as a deterrent.”

    Kenya already has a shoot to kill policy for poachers. Asaka notes that it “has been largely ineffective”. Poachers already risk their lives, so the death penalty is unlikely to deter them, he argues.
  3. “Rather than putting in new laws, the government should address what’s wrong with the current laws which offer sufficient penalties.”

    Kenya’s 2013 Wildlife Conservation and Mangement Act has been in force for less than five years. “This isn’t enough time to gauge its effectiveness,” Asaka points out.

Asaka concludes that,

Ultimately, tackling Kenya’s poaching problem requires a multi-layered, comprehensive approach which involves all stakeholders including government, non-governmental organisations, local and global communities and ensures the protection of human rights and dignity. An approach that involves the death penalty as a quick fix for convicted poachers doesn’t fit this bill.


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