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New KSW boss aims to get Agency back on track

23 March 2016, 11:42

Nairobi- The new Kenya Wildlife Service(KWS) chief must overhaul a national agency described in a recent government investigation as having "lost its way".

Conservationists welcomed the February appointment of Kitili Mbathi as director general of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) hoping the 57-year old former banker will revive the organisation responsible for protecting the country's world famous parks and reserves as well as its threatened populations of elephant, rhino and lion.

"KWS has been going through some challenges, mainly of a financial nature," Mbathi told AFP during an interview in his breezy corner office at KWS headquarters, squeezed between a new dual-lane highway and the 117 square kilometre (29,000 acre) Nairobi National Park.

"The challenges are ones that any chief executive faces: declining revenues, increasing expenditure, a deficit situation. It's how to balance the books."

Mbathi has spent almost his entire professional career in financial services and banking -- most recently as chief executive of Kenya's CFC Stanbic Bank.

But he was persuaded to apply for the KWS job by his old friend Richard Leakey, a renowned Kenyan palaeoanthropologist and conservationist, who was last year appointed chairman of the board.

Read Also: Expert: Road construction pushing lions out of Nairobi National park

'Dream Team'

The two men have worked together before. In 1999, during the waning years of President Daniel Arap Moi's rule, Mbathi was part of Leakey's "dream team" of experts drafted in from the private sector to revive Kenya's moribund economy.

But they were stymied and after just 20-months Leakey quit his job as head of the civil service and Mbathi and his colleagues were dismissed.

Mbathi returned to banking but now Leakey has persuaded Mbathi to join him again.

"This certainly wasn't on my career plan, but working with Richard [Leakey] presented a great opportunity," he said. "I did enjoy working in the public service before, it did end horribly, but that just reinforced in my mind the need to try to bring private sector expertise into the public sector to have an impact."

Nor was it a financial decision. "The pay cut was huge," said the formerly well-paid executive.

The challenges ahead are great too. A 2014 Task Force on Wildlife Security report painted a damning picture of KWS as an incompetent and bloated bureaucracy, a "top-heavy organisation" whose "core business... has become shrouded with confusion".

It said 57 directors and assistant directors drew good salaries for filling office space at the Nairobi headquarters, while thousands of rangers in the field lived in appalling conditions, poorly equipped and earning as little as $123 (109 euros) a month. The report also cited examples of corruption with KWS officials embroiled in poaching and the illegal wildlife trade.

KWS, it concluded, required "a major overhaul... to deal with the enormous security threats and the wildlife decline Kenya is facing."

Read Also: WATCH: Stray lion pounces on man at Cabanas, injures him

Huge ivory burn

Mbathi said that overhaul is underway. He is working to restructure and streamline the convoluted organisation and said "ranger welfare" is a priority. So is choking off corruption.

"I come from a background in the banking sector where there's zero tolerance for corruption so you can be sure that any incidents of corruption that we come across we will tackle with a very heavy hand," he said.

Mbathi pointed to an ex-KWS employee recently arrested in the Kenyan port of Mombasa for selling ivory and four police officers arrested with ivory in Nairobi.

One area where Kenya is already seeing improvements is wildlife protection. In 2015, 93 elephants were killed, down from 164 the year before.

Read Also: Four policemen busted while trafficking illegal ivory in govt vehicle

"It is a constant battle," Mbathi said. "Our challenge is to increase our preparedness to deal with poachers, which means better equipment and better intelligence capabilities."

It also means tackling demand in the Far East, where raw ivory fetches $1,100 (980 euros) a kilo.

Next month, Kenya is set to burn the vast majority of its ivory stockpile -- as much as 120 tonnes -- in a highly publicised display led by President Uhuru Kenyatta and attended by a gaggle of celebrities, conservationists and heads of state.

An audit last year showed Kenya holds a total of 138 tonnes of ivory -- mostly stored in a padlocked low-ceilinged, musty cellar at KWS headquarters. But some of the tusks that are evidence in ongoing criminal investigations will not be destroyed.

"We don't believe there is any intrinsic value in ivory, and therefore we're going to burn all our stockpiles and demonstrate to the world that ivory is only valuable on elephants," said Mbathi.

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