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Why poaching should get us worried

Saturday June 1 2013



May I return to the grim topic of the poaching of the elephant and rhino, which I wrote about on May 12.

Four reasons account for this: one, a mother and son, both employees of the world-famous Amboseli Trust for Elephants (ATE), were arrested for what amounts to be smuggling, or trafficking in, ivory.

Two, Dr Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep), weighed in on the matter with an important question: who is benefitting from the poaching of the twin endangered species? Three, British Prince William, who proposed to his wife at a game sanctuary in Kenya, is alarmed by the poaching menace.

Four, a reader, Mr Daniel Njaga of Menengai Holidays, wrote to me arguing that poaching is not about conservation but about national security. Njaga’s take is that poaching is closely tied to the rising tide of insecurity and, therefore, if Kenyans are not secure, then their wildlife will not be.

I agree with Mr Njaga which is why I argued that checking poaching must involve all Kenya’s security agencies. My take is that the security of our wildlife cannot be left to conservationists alone. That is also why I say the sentences handed down by Kenya’s courts to smugglers of, and traffickers in, ivory and rhino horns are insignificant.

This is so because a kilo of rhino horn costs more than a kilo of gold. This brings us to the arraignment of the ATE employees. Programme director Cynthia Moss, commenting on the arrest of deputy director Susan Soila and technical support assistant Robert Ntawasa, said ATE was facing some of its most challenging times ever.


True. Her colleagues face charges of possession of six ivory pieces without an ownership certificate, dealing in game trophies without a licence and failing to report possession of the same to the police.

The question Kenyans will want the court to answer is simple: did professed protectors of the elephant turn predatory poachers? The charge sheet says the two were arrested by a Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) covert team in a sting operation. It puts the weight of the ivory trophies at 19 kg and their worth at Sh1.9 million.

Sounds familiar but this case will be different from previous ones.

For example, in 2012 authorities made 18 seizures of wildlife trophies at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and two at the port of Mombasa. Eight were unaccompanied luggage while 12 were claimed by lone foreigners. The arrest of the ATE duo took place away from ports of entry and the accused are locals who – please note – work with elephants.

More importantly, ATE is among 31 conservation groups that on March 30, 2013 wrote to Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, Attorney-General Githu Muigai and Director of Public Prosecutions Keriako Tobiko protesting against what they called gross violation of anti-poaching laws.

Four days earlier, Chinese national Tian Yi had been fined a paltry Sh30,000 after he pleaded guilty to possessing 439 pieces of worked ivory.

The conservationists wrote: “Given the investment on wildlife, the current wildlife poaching situation is a national embarrassment.

The poaching and dealing in ivory and rhino horn cannot be treated as a wildlife matter alone but as an intertwined syndicate of organised crime, corruption and money laundering activities. This letter is a plea for your intervention to protect our heritage and the future of our tourism sector.”

This brings us to Dr Steiner’s question. Put another way, why those lone individuals or why the unaccompanied luggage? Look, there are at least six players in the ivory or rhino horn smuggling chain. These include the poacher, broker, dealer, financier, exporter and consumer.

The poacher is usually a local person who is paid a pittance to carry out the most dangerous, most violent and bloodiest work.

The consumers are in China or Hong Kong, which makes trade in ivory and rhino horn the work of organised international networks. Gun runners are involved. It is highly likely that drugs and human traffickers share routes, information on how to beat law enforcement and even contraband with poachers.

Hear the International Union for Conservation of Nature: “Rampant poaching and illegal wildlife trade nurture international criminality and undermine the economic and social prospects of Central African states. It is in the economic interest of these countries to vigorously combat this scourge.”

Is Nairobi listening? Poaching should worry it more than it does the heir to the British throne.

Kwendo Opanga is a media consultant [email protected]