Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Poaching of jumbos, rhinos calamitous

By JAMES ISICHE

A week ago, three members of an elephant family were gunned down by poachers near Amboseli National Park, a one-year old calf abandoned in distress next to one of the carcasses.

Their tusks were hacked off. A six-month-old male calf has since disappeared. Chances are that he may not survive, if not found in good time.

In Nairobi, detectives from the Special Crimes Prevention Unit recently arrested several suspects with 28 elephant tusks.

Similarly, two Kenyans were among several suspects arrested in Tanzania as they prepared to smuggle into Kenya 214 elephant tusks hidden in a coffin and fertiliser bags.

The police are reported to have described the tusks as “really big”, suggesting they were carefully selected for certain customers.

Last month, Hong Kong officials seized 3.81 tonnes of ivory that had been declared as ‘beans’ and ‘plastic scrap’ from Kenya and Tanzania. This was the largest seizure ever in the history of China, and the largest worldwide in two years.

At this rate, it might be a matter of weeks before we get reports of another big ivory seizure implicating Kenya and Tanzania, the two major conduits — or sources, or both — of large consignments of illegal ivory in the last two years.

From the 1990s onwards, Kenya did a commendable job deterring elephant and rhino poachers. The authorities had sealed most of the loopholes at various border points.

And as anti-poaching and law enforcement efforts became red-hot, criminals steered clear of Kenya and started using routes they considered safer.

But the past five years have seen poaching reach unprecedented levels while the trend of ivory seizures globally has been ominous. Have we come full circle? Are we headed back to the 1970s and 1980s when elephant and rhino slaughter reached its peak?

Battling bandits in Tsavo and Meru national parks during that infamous poaching era was tough, to say the least.

The financial and human costs, with wildlife rangers and security officers getting killed by poachers before the international ban in ivory trade and intensified anti-poaching efforts brought the slaughter to a stop, were colossal.

Nationally, we lost over 90 per cent of our elephants and rhinos, and rebuilding those herds has been a major and costly task. How then have we regressed to the extent where each week brings news of elephant poaching and ivory seizures?

The need for Kenyan law enforcement authorities to stamp out poaching and work in collaboration with other African elephant range States to seal off ivory trafficking routes cannot be overstated.

The government owes its citizenry an explanation for the rife poaching and numerous ivory seizures in Asia. Kenyans deserve to know what action has been or is being taken against these criminals who seem to be acting with arrogant impunity.

Beyond doubt, most illegal ivory is destined for Asia, particularly China, where the markets are big. Ivory is now a prime asset for the wealthy and in some quarters, surpasses gold. However, the latter is a recent trend while the (ivory markets in Asia) has traditionally been so.

Kenyans not only wish to hear authorities pointing fingers at the Asian markets, but also to see decisive action taken to stop poachers in their tracks before another elephant or rhino is killed.

Mr Isiche is the regional director, IFAW Eastern Africa.

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