The increased poaching in the last three years and the rise of terror activities in the country that crowned by the deadly Westgate Mall attack have led experts in concluding that there is a link between illegal ivory and terrorism.
Spearheaded by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) several organizations, both local and international, have raised the red flag on the possibility that al-Shabaab might be getting some of its money from illicit ivory trade.
“Shabaab’s role is not limited to poaching and brokerage, but is a major link in the chain, enabling them to reap huge profits from the mark-up in the trade,” said an 18-month-long investigative report by The Elephant Action League that also claims that up to 40 percent of the terror group’s activities could be funded through poaching. “The harsh environment in which they operate, deprived of natural resources or infrastructure to raid, makes ivory and rhino horn trade that much more important”.
This coincided with an article in Los Angeles Times, by Laurel Neme, author of Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab Is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species that drew the same parallels.
“Our investigation detailed how the Shabaab acts as a middleman, taking orders from agents in Asia or Persian Gulf states and purchasing ivory from small-time brokers to fill those orders,” Neme claims. “The terrorist group, we found, pays better than many middlemen (about $90 a pound in 2012), making it an attractive buyer. The brokers who engage the poachers, pay about $23 per pound, which means they make hefty return in their dealings with Shabaab”.
This, she says, is made worse by the fact that unlike small time poachers, al-Shabaab-backed ivory hunters are more daring and use sophisticated and hi-tech methods that are harder to fight.
In her detailed explanation, Neme traces the bloody path that a piece of ivory follows from the time jumbo is felled, the number of rangers and other personnel that might get killed to the point where the finely polished ivory trinket lands in a collectors trophy board somewhere in an effluent suburb in Beijing.
“What we know is that there are some powerful forces behind the current trade in ivory but whether they are terrorists or not that we are not sure, so we can’t mention names,” Paul Mbugua, Assistant Director and Spokesman for Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), told Extra. “Judging by the huge size of the consignments that have been nabbed in the recent past and the fact that nobody claims them point to somebody somewhere with huge amounts of resources”.
Mbugua says KWS have captured more than 13.5 tonnes of ivory in 2013 whose destination was somewhere in Asia.
The most prominent of these consignments is the 3.8 tonnes that were intercepted at the Mombasa Port in July this year.
“Who is the person with such a huge amount of money that he can risk buying tons of ivory and believe they can compromise our systems to get it through,” Mr. Mbugua poses. “It must be somebody with huge amounts of resources and a maze of international connections”.
By the time we were going to press Kenya had lost 267 elephants in 2013. At this rate, some conservationists claims, the pachyderms might be extinct in the next 12 years.
The statistics worryingly resemble the seventies and eighties where the elephant population in Kenyan was depleted from 160,000 to a paltry 16,000 through a vicious poaching.
Rhinos are not doing any better with 24 of them having been felled by poachers so far this year. Of these killings one of the most prominent was the murder of a white rhino at the Nairobi National Park in August. Besides doubling as KWS headquarters the park, the only one in the world next to a capital city, is the most guarded in Kenya.
The companies under whose names the illegal ivory is transported are usually non-existent at the registrar of companies, making it impossible to their owners.
“For the last one year KWS, Kenya Police and Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) have been working hand in hand to ensure no contraband trophies passes through Kenya,” the KWS official says. “This has drastically discouraged potential smugglers because of fear of losing their loot”.
After the ivory is seized it is usually kept under the custody of Kenya Police until the investigations are done, after which KWS assumes custody. After DNA testing, the ivory is classified into that from within and without Kenya.
Since former President Moi burned 12 million tons of ivory in 1988, the seized ivory stockpile have accumulated to around 80 tons to date according KWS. The cache is stored somewhere the organization is not will to reveal for security reasons.
“According to the law all the wildlife belongs to the government so KWS keeps the ivory for the people of Kenya until such a time that a decision will be reached on what to do with it,” Mbugua says. “We don’t reveal the location to anybody including journalists due to the high value of cargo. It’s like telling Central Bank of Kenya to reveal their currency vaults”.
He cites an example of Zambia where the national ivory bank was raided and several tons lost to unknown individuals.
But why the escalation of poaching especially in the last few years given the huge number of non-governmental organizations and millions of foreign dollars pumped in the country to push the conservation agenda?
“Poaching is like the drug world since there are far too many powerful individuals involved,” laments a local conservationists and wildlife enthusiast who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of her life. “We usually focus on the middle men while the big guns that bankroll the operations remain untouchable. We might shout from here to Moscow and employ everyone in GSU, have our rangers killed left, right and center. But until and unless we address the people who work with, and get paid by poaching big pins, it’s an endless cycle”.
She claims that over the years senior people within KWS, NGOs and other organizations with easy access to security details and information on game reserves and parks are known to work with poachers.
“Best wishes as you write, and please remember if your story is aimed at curbing poaching in this country you have to do a jicho pevu (a popular KTN investigative segment by Mohammed Ali) of sorts,” she warned. “All these advocacy stunts are just to make money and close people’s eyes from the real issue at hand. The real rot is deep within this intricate system of vested interests”.
More than 32 KWS personnel were interdicted early this year for allegedly collaborating with poachers in killing animals in national reserves and game parks.
Soila Soiyale, a senior researcher at Amboseli Elephant Research Project (AERP) and her son Robert Ntawasa were arrested at Emali town in May allegedly trying to sell six pieces of ivory with a street value of Sh1.9 million.
She denied the allegations and claimed that KWS officials implicated her by planting the trophies in her car in a bid to deter her from exposing the poaching syndicate inside Amboseli National Park.
The fact that poaching could be funding activities that threaten national security like the Westgate incidence have compelled foreign governments to increase their efforts on the war against poaching.
In July, the US President Barack Obama issued an executive order establishing the cabinet-level Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking worth $10 million dollars, with £3million earmarked for Kenya.
But this is dwarfed by the annual returns from this dark trade estimated to be between $7 to $10billion. The bloody enterprise is sustained by an unrelenting ivory demands from Asia and Middle East where tusks and rhinoceros horns are used to make decorative ornaments and traditional medicine.
“We must address the perception that everyone is poaching and stop those people from becoming engaged in poaching or ivory trafficking because everyone else is doing this,” explained Dr. Paula Kahumba, a Kenyan conservationist and Executive Director of WildlifeDirect, wrote in The Guardian. “By applying behavioural lessons to the problem, we can recognize and empower traditional African courts to honour African values, change perceptions and grow a community that defends elephants despite economic incentives”.
She went on to cite the incidence where a rhino named Omni was killed in Ilingwesi and the culprits caught using local elders networks.
Poaching is not a problem affecting Kenya alone but the whole of the Great Lakes and Southern Africa regions. In September, poachers in Zimbabwe killed more than 90 elephants by poisoning water holes and salt pans with cynide inside Hwange Park.
More than 11 million tons of ivory arrested in Kenya this year is from the surrounding country, mostly Democratic Republic of Congo, Central Africa and Cameroon.
KWS in conjuction with several corporate entities launched a highly publicized campaign dubbed Hands Off Our Elephants that was a trending topic a few months ago.
KTN anchors donned black armbands and did sections of prime time broadcasts from Nairobi National Park to show their solidarity with the war against poaching.
But experts and key players in the conservation sector says that this passionate campaign will be of no good if key policy issues are not addressed locally and abroad where rise in ivory demands have raised the stakes.
Harsher penalties for culprits, tougher fight against corruption and persuading China, Kenya’s newest economic partner with President Uhuru Kenyatta having received Sh425 billion aid pledge during a recent visit, to ban poaching since it provides the biggest single market in the world are some of the recommendations by experts.
Many experts agree that if contents of the Wildlife Conservation and Management 2013, which was approved by the cabinet but is yet to be passed by parliament, are enacted it could provide a huge deterrent to the current poaching tide.
Article 79 under offenses and penalties it states thus “Any person who commits an offence in respect of an endangered or threatened species or in respect of any trophy of that endangered or threatened species shall be liable upon conviction to a fine of not less than ten million shillings or to imprisonment of not less than fifteen years or to both such fine and imprisonment”.
Despite ivory trade being banned globally by the Convention on International Trade in endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITE) way back in 1989, in China and Thailand the trade is still legal.
This combined with the fact that ivory ornaments are status symbols in the now economically endowed Asian giant explains the huge demand.
“The demand for ivory has never been this high in the history of mankind,” Dr. Kahumba told KTN during one of special coverage on the state of poaching. “The first step will be to compel China, where trade in ivory is legal, to ban it since illegal ivory is being imported in the country and then laundered”.
Even with World Wild Fund ranking China as the biggest market in the world for illegal ivory the country still denies that its unquenchable hunger for elephant tusks is fuelling poaching in Africa.
Chinese authorities claims that only 37 companies, whose annual ivory consumption should not exceed 5,000 kilograms, are allowed to work with ivory and 145 to sell the finished products.