NAIROBI — A famed scientist and founding former chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service urged Kenya's president on yesterday to invoke emergency measures to protect the country's elephants and rhinos from a poaching crisis sweeping Africa.
Richard Leakey also said the Kenyan Wildlife Service has been infiltrated by powerful people enriching themselves off poaching. Kenya's poaching ring leaders are known, he said, but the government has taken no action. He did not give names.
Leakey, whose family has been investigating the origins of man for decades in Kenya's Turkana region, urged Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to overhaul management at the wildlife service.
"I call on him now personally to take the next step and get this under control," Leakey told a packed news conference at a Nairobi hotel. "It's not an impossible task. I think the right leadership, the right management, can get it under control within six months."
The official number of elephant deaths given by the Kenya Wildlife Service does not indicate a crisis. Kenyan Wildlife Service says 302 were killed last year, down from 384 in 2012, out of an estimated population of 35,000. Thirty elephants have been poached this year, it says.
But Leakey and Paula Kahumbu, the chief executive of the group Wildlife Direct, said they believe Kenya is losing many more elephants. Kahumbu said "everyone knows those numbers are wrong." Leakey said: "It's patently not true."
During the news conference, wildlife service spokesman Paul Uduto asked why the pair were "bashing" the group when he said the service is filled with dedicated rangers who risk their lives to protect wildlife. The two acknowledged that many inside the service do good work, but they said impunity for those doing wrong is rampant.
Conservationists attending the news conference approached Uduto afterward and complained that the wildlife service is covering up the extent of the problem. Uduto noted that it publicly published figures from an elephant census in February from the Tsavo ecosystem that counted about 11,000 elephants, down from 12,573 three years ago.
Kahumbu said that is evidence of an average of 500 poaching deaths per year in Tsavo the last three years.
"If we are failing, if somebody believes we are failing, action should be taken," Uduto said in a later interview. "We are doing our best. Our people are working under incredibly difficult conditions, and we want public support, not condemnations. And if there is a crooked character, let him be dealt with."
The Kenya Wildlife Service says 13 rhinos have been killed this year compared with 59 last year. Rangers shot and killed an armed poacher Monday in Lake Nakuru National Park, famed for its pink flamingos.
When Leakey helped create the Kenya Wildlife Service in the late 1980s Kenya also faced an enormous poaching crisis. Leakey sent helicopter gunships and armed rangers into the parks, while he and the then-President Daniel arap Moi burned the country's stock of ivory.
Today, demand for ivory from China's rising middle and demand for rhino horn in Vietnam again are imperiling two of Africa's most treasured creatures.
Wildlife Direct released a study yesterday that found only 4 percent of offenders convicted of wildlife crime in Kenya went to jail between 2008 and mid-2013. Of 743 court cases, 70 percent of the case files were missing. A recent Interpol report found that more ivory is transited through the Kenyan port of Mombasa than any other, but the Wildlife Direct study found no evidence of prosecutions in Mombasa.
Leakey said rangers have asked him to speak publicly about the country's poaching problem. "Someone has to put an end to this outrageous impunity," he said.