New tricks paralyse efforts to end illegal wildlife trade

Tuesday, July 26th, 2022 05:53 | By
Elephants in Maasai Mara. PHOTO/Courtesy

Efforts to stem the tide of elephant poaching in Kenya seem to be far from over despite there being no major seizure since 2015 when two major consignments containing ivory were transited through Kenya’s port were seized in Asian countries.

The two containers declared as tea leaves were seized in Thailand and Singapore having being trafficked through the port of Mombasa.

 Since then, Kenya has been reporting small quantity seizures and arrests, making it believable that the country has finally been able to curb poaching.

However, wildlife enthusiasts say although at a low rate, maiming of elephants is still a thorn in flesh in Kenya’s wildlife.

Research scientist, Justus Nyamu of Elephant Center, a grassroots collaborative research organisation that focuses on enhancing the capacity of communities living with wildlife says poaching is still rife, but such cases go unreported.

 “We should not get comfortable just because we are not seeing any major seizures. Arrests are being made of people possessing small amounts of ivory, meaning poaching is still ongoing in Kenya,” Nyamu says, adding that it is likely that the nabbed pieces of ivory are just a small percentage of the real number being traded in the country.

Mistrust between communities neighbouring wildlife reserves and the authorities is one of the reasons poaching cases continue to go unreported.

“Communities feel authorities care more for the wildlife than humans. They say the government rarely responds to their pleas when encroached by the wild animals, but the response is instant when the other way round happens. The fight against poaching needs to involve communities, because we rely on communities for information,” he says.

 Nyamu’s sentiments are echoed by Dan Stiles, a Kenyan-based illegal wildlife trade expert, who maintains poaching is still happening in Kenyan parks even though the country’s wildlife service does not appear to be keen on releasing the information.

For example, in 2020, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) stated only 11 elephants were poached, yet several arrests of people possessing ivory pieces were made.

KWS is yet to publish any elephant or rhino poaching numbers for 2021.

They have also remained mum on what happened to 62 elephants that allegedly died due to drought between August and December 2021.

According to Stiles, records from NGOs on the ground tell a different story and he estimates, 32 small seizures were made in 2021 totaling 890 kilogrammes of ivory, which suggests that around 89 elephants were poached in Kenya yet no official records from KWS have been released.

Efforts by People Daily to reach KWS to respond to our queries were futile.

Mary Rice, the executive director of Environmental Investigations Agency (EIA), says it is impossible for any country to completely end poaching.

“Kenya can only curb or reduce the cases and not end it,” she says.

How Ivory is leaving Kenya

Experts say trafficking criminal organisations are getting clever and innovative in the ways they are smuggling ivory out of Africa.

Some of the ways include frequent shifting of transit ports, means of concealing among others.

Rice says after years of sustained efforts against wildlife crimes in Kenya, including numerous arrests and prosecutions, convictions and the implementation of more stringent policies, the goalpost seems to have shifted to West and Central Africa where trafficking cartels seem to have found a safe haven.

Rice says the transporting routes changed after Kenya invested heavily in strengthening its laws by imposing more serious sentences, setting up an inter-agency, which collaborates on wildlife matters, strengthening its exporting requirements and training teams on the practices and trends of cartels.

“With these huge investments, Kenya began to seal the gaps, which traffickers exploited in smuggling ivory through her port thus pushing them out,” Rice says.

The recent seizures point to Nigeria being the new trafficking hub for ivory leaving Africa for the East.

This year alone, about 1.4 tonnes (1,400 kilogrammes) of ivory linked to Nigeria were nabbed at the port of exit or destination.

In January 2022, Vietnamese customs officials discovered 6.2 tonnes (6,200 kilogrammes) of pangolin scales and 456 kilogrammes of ivory trophies, which had passed through the port of Nigeria and declared to customs as cashew nuts.

On February 2, an operation by the Nigeria Customs Service in the Lekki area of Lagos led to another seizure of 839.4 kgs of pangolin scales and 145 kgs of ivory tusks packed in 15 sacks ready for shipment, probably to an Asian market where demand for wildlife products is extremely high.

The February seizure was the fourth major interception of ivory among other assorted wildlife parts in Nigeria in less than a year.

Ivory trade has been illegal since 1989 when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) abolished its trade over rising cases of poaching.

By 2021, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of threatened species listed the African forest elephant as critically endangered while the Savannah elephant was listed as endangered; meaning both species face extinction.

But despite the ban, illegal trading of ivory has been rampant, with reports revealing a kilogramme of ivory is sold for anywhere from US$92 (Sh11,000) to US$597 (Sh71,000). An average tusk weighs 23kgs.

With the seemingly shifting of trafficking route from East to West and Central of Africa, experts cite the new routes as the exit routes for ivory leaving Kenya.

An investigator at the KWS who is not authorised to speak to the media said that even though poaching has reduced, poachers and traffickers have become smarter in how they handle the ivory.

He says there has been development of new routes used in trafficking, and how they conceal these illegal goods.

The investigator says the authorities are aware of poachers and wildlife brokers attempting to smuggle the ivory in small quantities to neighbouring countries using panya routes (unofficial routes) and using bodabodas to cross to other countries. 

And with the trafficking syndicate having blessings from some of top government officials, it is easy for them to bypass any obstacles while ferrying wildlife trophies.Due to their efficiency and lesser security-checks, illegal goods are transported from country to country through road or water.

Cartels network

  Samuel Wasser, a lead biologist at the University of Washington carried out research in 2022 that shows that while the transiting channels change, the trafficking cartel syndicates behind the smuggling of Africa’s ivory seem to be one and the same operating across the continent. 

The biologist was able to link majority of seized shipments to the same few transnational criminal organisations. 

 “Ivory is being trafficked out of Africa by less than six cartels who are interlinked to each other and probably have other criminal activities, such as drugs and human trafficking, arms dealing and much more,” he told People Daily.

 He says the trafficking syndicates keep shifting base whenever one of the exit points gets murky with seizures. 

 “With such close connections between trafficking networks, whenever a particular cartel is cornered, they can easily seek assistance from their colleagues in other crime syndicates and use their networks to ship ivory to its destination,” says Wasser.

 With brokers in every country, the cartels can easily transport ivory in small quantities to ‘friendly countries’, which have less stringent policies or more easily corruptible authorities where they containerise and conceal them before smuggling them to the country of transit, where they are then smuggled out of Africa.

This story has been produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN).

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