Kenya is losing about two elephants every week to poaching with some of the proceeds said to be used to finance Al-Shabaab and other criminal groups.
The situation is so bad that Kenya Wildlife Service director Julius Kipng’etich recently took the fight to the US Senate.
At an African poaching crisis hearing held on May 25, the US was blamed for its lax rules on shell companies that are allowing foreign nationals to set up vast money-laundering operations that are being used by wildlife traffickers.
Mr Kipng’etich revealed the link between the surging illegal trade in high-value wildlife products and transnational criminal networks that are creating instability and funding militant insurgencies.
“Poached ivory travels through the same channels as drugs and people who are being trafficked. Terrorist organisations like Al-Shabaab have been linked to poaching in Kenya,” he told the hearing.
Expensive than gold
According to the KWS assistant director for education and conservation Paul Mbugua, a kilogramme of rhino ivory is costing up to $65,000 (Sh5.5 million) with one animal producing between 6-to-7 kilogrammes.
“This is more expensive than gold. A kilo of elephant ivory is fetching about $2,000 (Sh170,000) on the black market.”
The huge amounts of money involved have led to a rise in poaching. Last year, the country lost 278 elephants to poachers compared to 171 the previous year.
The illicit activity picked up to dangerous levels in December when Kenya was losing an average of four elephants a week.
But due to enhanced surveillance, we have brought the deaths to about two animals per week, said Mr Mbugua who is also the KWS spokesman.
The problem, says Mr Mbugua, is the relatively new poaching grounds in northern Kenya, where unlike in the traditional poaching areas of Tsavo and Amboseli where poachers mainly used spears and arrows, rangers have to contend with poachers using highly sophisticated weapons.
Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based militia group, is said to be crossing the Kenyan border and killing elephants in Arawale National Reserve.
There have also been reported gunfights between rangers and the group in the Meru National Park.
“We will soon display the kind of weapons we have captured from poachers in the north, which include such sophisticated guns like the M16,” the spokesman revealed.
According to Mr Mbugua, the same Somali gangs killing elephants in northern Kenya are suspected to be responsible for poaching in other more vulnerable countries like South Africa.
“South Africa is losing one rhino every 18 hours to poachers suspected to be organised gangs financing terror activities in east Africa,” Mr Mbugua said in an interview with the Nation last week.
At the height of the poaching last year, Mr Kipng’etich told wildlife investigative writer Alex Shoumatoff that ivory, like the blood diamonds from other African conflicts, is funding many rebel groups in Africa.
“Kenya is in the unenviable position of sharing over 1,700 kilometres of border with three countries that are awash with illegal firearms: Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan.
Nothing less than a full-scale military operation is going to stop poaching in the north,” Mr Kipng’etich told the writer.
At the US hearing, Senator Chris Coons warned of the harmful secondary effects of the ivory trade: “It is financing terrorism, guerrillas and organised crime.”
The committee chairman John Kerry cited evidence presented separately last year by the Independent, a British newspaper and Vanity Fair magazine indicating that Al-Shabaab has connections to the illicit poaching and trafficking of both ivory and rhino horn.
Some conservation groups and even the KWS are blaming the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (Cites) for the escalation of poaching in Kenya and Africa.
“The decision by Cites to allow a one-off sale of ivory stockpiles by Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe in 2008 without the countries having an effective regulatory system is responsible for the heightened poaching,” Mr Mbugua says.
These sales, say a report released by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) last week, have spurred production and trade of ivory products in China and stimulated the demand for ivory from a growing class of wealthy consumers that covets ivory products both as collectible items and investment vehicles.
The government’s move to build roads in previously hard to penetrate areas is also a doubled-edged sword. It has made it easier for poachers to reach the animals and transport their loot.
“There had been almost no poaching around Amboseli for 30 years before a Chinese company got the contract to build a 70-mile-long highway just above the park,” writes Mr Shoumatoff.
But Mr Paul Udoto, the communication manager at KWS says it is not the presence of Chinese construction workers that is necessarily fuelling the poaching, but the opening of new transportation corridors by the new roads.
The IFAW report, however, says the increasing number of Chinese nationals on the continent may have a direct influence on increased poaching.
“An increasing number of Chinese nationals (workers, businessmen and visitors) are reaching every corner of Africa — and a rising number are implicated in illicit ivory trade,” the report says.
IFAW says Chinese authorities are working hard to reduce trade in illegal ivory including educating its nationals travelling to Kenya and other elephant range countries in Africa about illegal wildlife trade.
“It is warning them against the purchase of ivory through educational materials displayed at African embassies in China, ports and via the media.”
The appearance of Mr Kipng’etich at the Congress briefing was part of Kenya’s strategy to drum up international support for its position on elephant and rhino protection at next year’s Cites meeting in Beijing.
“Our position has not changed. There should be no trade in ivory from the two animals,” said the KWS spokesman Mr Mbugua.
Dr Francis Gakuya, the head of veterinary services at KWS, said the biggest drawback in fighting poaching is proving the crime in court.
“It has been difficult to prove the source or type of game meat or trophies, which has seen many cases dismissed ” say Dr Gakuya.
To bridge this shortcoming in evidence, KWS is preparing to launch a Sh100 million forensic and genetic laboratory at its headquarters in Nairobi.
Already, some of the equipment is in and funding has been secured. The ground-breaking ceremony could be carried out this week.
The facility — the only one in the east and central African region — will be able to identify the source of bush meat or game trophy and will also be able to identify from which community a particular dead animal came from.
This will assist KWS build a strong case against suspects accused of poaching mostly in parks.