An international ivory smuggling ring operating locally is behind the unprecedented killing of elephants and rhinos, investigations by the Nation reveal.
Wildlife experts and research scientists estimate that one to two elephants are poached per day — the highest number to be recorded in recent times.
The statistics have sparked outrage among wildlife conservationists and raised fears of the animals becoming extinct.
Kenya Wildlife Service senior assistant director in charge of endangered species Patrick Omondi says there has been an upsurge in poaching in the last five years.
“There has been an upward trend in the poaching of elephants since 2007 where only 45 were killed and last year the number of the animals killed rose to 278,” he says.
More than 360 elephants have been killed this year, according to the official. He adds that a recent national elephant census revealed that the country’s 35,000 jumbo population had suffered a 14 per cent decline due to poaching and drought.
According to Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), international organised crime syndicates behind killing of elephants and rhinos in Kenya and other African states are carrying out detailed planning, use latest technology and have collaborators among communities and security agencies.
According to a Cites report in June, elephant poaching is at its worst in a decade, and recorded ivory seizures are at their highest levels since 1989.
“African elephants are facing their most serious crisis since international commercial trade in ivory was generally prohibited under Cites in 1989,” Mr Tom Milliken, Traffics’s Elephant and Rhino Programme Leader notes.
Inquiries by the Nation revealed that senior government officials and influential businessmen are part of the international syndicate behind poaching and ivory smuggling.
They use proxies in security, clearing and forwarding, and shipping sectors in their covert operations. Currently, illegal trade in wildlife is estimated to cost world economies a staggering US$ 5-20 billion annually, with countries like Kenya being the hardest hit in Africa.
Apart from being a victim of the illegal trade, Kenya is also emerging as a trans-shipment hub for ivory smuggled out of Africa to Asia. Most of the ivory smuggling containers leave the continent through ports of Mombasa and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, according to Cites.
Data by KWS shows that in last three years alone, more than 10 tonnes of smuggled ivory were seized in Kenya. Score of people, including foreigners, are facing charges in connection with poaching and ivory smuggling.
Cites says mass killings of elephants for ivory are increasingly involving organised crime and well-armed militias.
The United Nations Security Council recently linked Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to alleged involvement in the poaching of African elephants and smuggling of their ivory.
Cites secretary-general John Scanlon told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that both Interpol and UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice have recognised the increasing involvement of organised crime syndicates in wildlife trade.
He said the syndicates carry out detailed planning; have significant financial support; understand and utilise new IT, and are often well armed.
“These syndicates engage in the international management of shipments and do not hesitate to use violence or threats of violence against those who try to stand in their way,” he added.
Mr Scanlon that the syndicates exploit rural communities in some of the poorest countries of the world, corrupt officials and kill and injure enforcers.
“These criminals are laundering their ill-gotten gains and in some instances using them to finance armed conflicts and other criminal activities. They must be stopped,” he said.
According to Cites, over the past 18 months, hundreds of rhinos have been killed by poachers in Africa for their valuable horn, which is now fetching up to £40,000 a kilo.
The smuggled ivory is mainly sold in Asian States of China and Vietnam. Experts say huge demand from China and Vietnam in particular is fuelling poaching of rhinos, whose ivory fetches up to £40,000 a kilo— higher than price of same quantity of gold.
Chinese medicine and jewellery are the main markets, but recent claims that rhino horn can cure cancer in Vietnam have seen demand shooting up exponentially.
Combating wildlife crime will be high on the agenda of the 16th meeting of Cites parties in Bangkok, Thailand, from March 3 to 14, 2013.
The 177 Parties to Cites are likely to make serious decisions to protect wildlife, including elephants and rhinos.
To be continued January 1, 2013.