NAIROBI, KENYA - Wildlife protection in Kenya has improved dramatically in recent years, thanks to widespread anti-poaching efforts, including some help from the United States. But as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits Kenya, conservationists there say the U.S. lifting a ban on imports of some African animal trophies sends the wrong message.
Tillerson praised Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) officials Sunday as he toured a U.S.-supported forensics laboratory just outside of Nairobi National Park.
The laboratory, opened in 2015 with help from USAID and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, performs DNA analysis of illicit wildlife products and weapons used in animal poaching.
Tillerson told reporters with him on his first trip to Africa that the U.S. considered wildlife conservation vitally important.
"You know Kenya's really a leader in preventing trafficking in particular, and illegal poaching," said Tillerson. "This is very interesting in terms of what this lab now allows them to do, and to also track outside Kenya where the trafficking networks are going. That's really the key is to shut it all down out there as well so people are not going to -- just because you get it out of Kenya doesn't mean you're safe. And so, extremely important."
Laboratory officials told Tillerson their work led to fifty prosecutions in their first two years of operation.
Much of the poached and smuggled animal parts throughout Africa make their way to Kenya's port in Mombasa, known as the world's hub for ivory smuggling. But, Kenya has made fast progress cracking down on domestic poaching.
Elephant poaching for ivory in Kenya has been reduced from a recent high of 103 killed in 2012 to eight killed last year, says Tom Lalampaa with the Northern Rangeland's Trust, a USAID-supported program.
Lalampaa credits stepped-up community policing, rangers, and mobile response teams for cracking down on poachers.
"And then also the legislation, the current wildlife law, is quite strong in terms of penalties-unlike before, which is good," said Lalampaa. "I think Kenya Wildlife Services has also sort of geared up their efforts, improved their efforts. So, things are working. But, it's not yet time to celebrate."
Just ahead of Tillerson's arrival on the continent, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service overturned Obama-era restrictions on imports of some African hunting trophies-including parts of lions and elephants such as ivory.
The agency was acting on a court's ruling on a lawsuit brought by Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in December found the Obama administration did not follow proper procedure when implementing its ban.
The decision lifts a blanket ban on imports of lion and elephant trophies from six African nations-Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Imports of the endangered animal parts will be decided instead on a case-by-case basis.
Kenya has banned trophy hunting since 1977 and many conservationists, like Lalampaa, oppose the U.S. decision.
"That sends a very wrong signal in this country. Because the communities are working tirelessly to try and stop poaching from the source. To try and ensure that there's no poaching," said Lalampaa. "And, then all of a sudden when such a policy announcement is made, it really hurts, it really discourages those communities who are taking care of this wildlife 24 hours a day."
The U.S. move on wildlife imports expands a November decision to lift the ban on elephant trophies from Zambia and Zimbabwe, which U.S. President Donald Trump had indicated he planned to reverse.
Trump at the time tweeted it would be very hard to change his mind that trophy hunting - what he called a "horror show" - in any way helps conservation of elephants or any other animal.
Paula Kahumbu, a Kenyan conservationist with Wildlife Direct, notes the U.S. was instrumental in pushing China to ban the trade in ivory. But the U.S., she says, is sending confusing messages that started when it expanded the ivory trade with Zambia and Zimbabwe.
"These two countries are renowned for corruption. They're renowned for their ivory disappearing from their national stockpiles and ending up in China and Thailand and other countries," said Kahumbu. "So, that's one big problem-they've created a loophole. But, secondly, the idea that it's okay to hunt these animals, and that you're helping those countries through hunting, is an idea that should be questioned rigorously."
Big game trophy hunting advocates argue the high fees they pay - up to $100,000 per safari - directly benefit conservation efforts.
But critics of trophy hunting like Kahumbu say most of that money goes to organizers of the hunts while little reaches the local level.