Kenya on the global radar over poaching and trade in wildlife products


China today has the largest ivory market in the world, much of it carved from poached African elephant tusks./PHOTO/FROM ELEPHANTS IN THE DUST REPORT BY UNEP, CITES, IUCN AND TRAFFIC


Kenya is on the global radar of wildlife conservationists following fresh revelations that it has become an epicentre of poaching and trade in wildlife products.

A series of studies by different bodies has shown that not only is poaching of elephants and rhinos rampant in Kenya, but it is also a major hub for trade in pangolins, elephants ivory and rhinoceros horns.

The revised Red List of Threatened Species, released by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on March 25, 2021, that classified forest elephants as “Critically Endangered” and the savannah elephants as “Endangered”, is the latest report that puts Kenya on the spotlight.

The Red List Index (RLI) shows trends in overall extinction risk for species, and is used by governments to track their progress towards targets for reducing biodiversity loss.

Data from the IUCN Red List are used as indicators for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly Goal 15: Life on Land, and is also used by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to monitor the progress towards achieving the Aichi Targets.

However, the report has sparked a major row between Kenya and wildlife conservationists, whose decisions it wants rescinded.

Kenya insists that its elephant population has increased at an annual rate of approximately 2.8 percent over the last three decades.

Kenya’s Wildlife Research and Training Institute (KWRTI), while responding to the March 25, 2021 IUCN revised Red List of Threatened Species, that declared the African forest elephant as Critically Endangered and the African savannah elephant as Endangered, said there has been a 96 percent decline in poaching.

“While more than 386 elephants were lost to poaching in 2013, this figure significantly shrank to just 11 elephants poached in 2020,” KWS said.


The African Elephant Specialist Group (AfESG), in its report, had said that at least two species, the forest and the savannah elephants, have suffered a “critical decline in population” due to poaching. It added that poaching remains “a primary threat to the conservation of the species”.

The African savannah elephant has been listed as “endangered,” in response to a population decline of at least 60 percent in the past 50 years, and current estimates suggest that around 415,000 elephants remain in Africa, across both species.

Ms Jacqueline Bubi, a Senior Wildlife Crime Analyst, at International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) East Africa, said corruption has contributed to the trafficking of various trophies within the country and across borders.

“Officials may be compromised and in turn facilitate the trafficking of wildlife products,” Ms Bubi said.

She said wildlife crime is an organised offence and it is currently the fourth most profitable global crime, after the trafficking of drugs, humans and arms.

“With this in mind, Kenya is no exception to the involvement of international syndicates working with locals to facilitate the poaching and trafficking of trophies,” Ms Bubi said.

This writer unsuccessfully sought a clarification from KWS on various issues related to the IUCN revised Red List of Threatened Species, as they did not respond to a questionnaire sent to them. The Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife did not respond to an email on the same by the time of publishing.

However, the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife, Mr Najib Balala, speaking on May 5 during the screening of a documentary film; Living on the Edge, called for collaboration among all stakeholders to tackle wildlife and conservation related issues.

Without referring to the IUCN report that showed Kenya’s elephants were endangered, Mr Balala asked the global community to fully support the conservation efforts in “word and kind”.

Security personnel stand guard at the scene where an elephant had been killed. PHOTO/ELEPHANTS IN THE DUST REPORT BY UNEP, CITES, IUCN AND TRAFFIC

“Mitigation measures are short-term. The dialogue needs to dive deeper in terms of financing, mapping, and taking stern, but crucial decisions, for the conservation of our wildlife,” he said.

However, a study by wildlife conservation NGO Wildlife Direct, says that no area of Kenya is free from wildlife crime as environmental crime cases from 2018–2019 were found in 95 out of 113 courts countrywide.

The report titled, Eyes in the Courtroom, adds that overall, the Tsavo conservation area, which covers both the Tsavo East and the Tsavo West National Parks, emerged as the principal wildlife crime ‘hotspot’ between 2016 and 2019, followed by Kakamega County in the west of the country.

Even before the release of the revised Red List of Threatened Species, studies by other international agencies, that include the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), IUCN, and the wildlife trade monitoring network (TRAFFIC), had shown that poaching and trade in wildlife products were rampant in Kenya.

A report titled, Elephants in the Dust – The African Elephant Crisis, jointly released by IUCN, UNEP, CITES and TRAFFIC, had shown that increasing poaching levels, as well as loss of habitat, were threatening the survival of elephants in Kenya and other African countries.

The report singled out the Tsavo National Park in Kenya as one of the areas hard hit by poaching, adding that East Africa, home to the highest number of elephants prior to 1970, had borne the brunt of poaching since the 1970s.

Interviews with tourism and wildlife stakeholders in the Tsavo conservation area, who talked on condition that they are not named due to the sensitivity of this issue, revealed that a well-organised syndicate was behind the rampant poaching in the area.

“The killing of elephants in the Tsavo conservation area is well-coordinated and it means the international syndicates involved in ivory trafficking and trade have collaborators among locals here,” one tourism investor in the area said.

According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), ivory trafficking routes in Africa include Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique.

A 2019 United Nations report, says one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction mainly due to human activities and climate change.


A joint report by the conservation group, Born Free USA and C4ADS, a non-profit organisation that conducts data-driven analysis of security and conflict issues titled, Ivory’s Curse, shows that ivory poaching funds most of war and terrorism in Africa.

In 2013, roughly 400 tonnes of ivory was trafficked, representing the tusks of 50,000 elephants – a billion dollar a year business. The price of ivory in China, which is by far the largest market, has sky-rocketed from $6 a kilo in 1976 to $3,000 today – far more than most Africans earn in a year.

An earlier investigation by this writer revealed how some state officials colluded with ivory smuggling rings that used  briefcase import and export and clearing and forwarding companies in Kenya and Uganda to facilitate their illicit trade.

In 2013, two security officials colluded to smuggle ivory worth millions of shillings from State House, Mombasa, in one of the most intriguing theft cases involving government employees.

A national wildlife census, conducted in 2012, revealed that Kenya’s 35,000 elephants had suffered a 14 percent decline due to poaching and drought. A new wildlife census is currently underway.

The release of the revised Red List of Threatened Species came at a time Mansur Mohamed Surur, a suspected mastermind of elephants and rhinos poaching and trafficking of ivory and rhino horns, had been arrested in Kenya and extradited to the US.

Surur was a member of the Kromah Network, an international rhino horns, ivory and drug-trafficking syndicate, with presence in Kenya, Uganda, Somalia and Senegal.

Surur was among four suspects indicted in the US over poaching and ivory and rhino horn trafficking. The others were Moazu Kromah, Amara Cherif and Abdi Hussein Ahmed, who is still on the run.

They have been indicted on alleged conspiracy to smuggle at least 190 kilogrammes of rhinoceros horns and at least 10 tonnes of elephant ivory, valued at more than $7 million into the US.

US authorities allege that the Kromah Network was responsible for the illegal slaughter and trafficking of the horns and tusks of dozens of rhinos and more than 100 elephants in Kenya and other African countries, both endangered species. The trade in ivory and rhino horn has been linked to drug trafficking.

A security policy expert and analyst, Mr Mwenda Mbijiwe, who is currently said to be missing, had told this writer that revelations that the Kromah Network was responsible for the illegal slaughter and trafficking of the horns and tusks in Kenya and other African countries, showed that an international syndicate had a base here.

Mr Mbijiwe, who is the chief executive officer of the consultancy firm, Eye On Security (K) Ltd, said Surur was a member of what is known as the Transnationally Organised Crime (TNOC).

“This means that members of such outfits exchange, not just ideas and strategies, but also personal and financial resources, and have boots on the ground in all areas where they operate,” the ex-Kenya Air Force officer added.

Mr Mbijiwe observed that the arrest of Surur in Kenya by the US’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, and his subsequent extradition to the US, was an indictment on the local criminal justice system.

“It is humiliating to our justice system that we cannot prosecute such a suspect. This shows that our criminal justice system is not effective in fighting wildlife crime,” he said.

However, Mr Mbijiwe noted that the import of the extradition of Surur to the US for prosecution was that even if locally we were not taking wildlife crime seriously, we had partners who can effectively deal with such complex crimes.

The 2016 IUCN African Elephant Status Report provides the most recent reliable estimate of the continental population of the two species combined, at around 415,000 elephants.


Kenya is also emerging as a major hub for trade in the critically endangered pangolins that are being trafficked for their scales. Recent studies in trade in pangolins shows that Kenya is among the hot spots for illegal trade in the pangolin scales.

A report by wildlife trade monitoring lobby TRAFFIC titled, The Global Trafficking of Pangolins, indicates that Kenya is among the hubs in Africa involved in ‘large-quantity shipment’ of pangolin scales.

Another report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), says seizures of pangolins cargo originating in Africa and intended for Asian markets have increased tenfold since 2014.

The World Wildlife Fund – WWF-Programme Manager – Species, Dr Yussuf Adan Wato, says Kenya is one of the exit hubs for pangolin trafficking.

“A few seizures have been made at Kenya’s airport, thanks to the tightened security to curb trafficking of wildlife contraband, especially through the use of sniffer dogs. In 2016, about 1,500kg of pangolin scales were seized at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) and $10,000 fine imposed on the traffickers,” Dr Wato notes.

A UNEP–INTERPOL strategic report shows that abuse of the environment is the fourth largest criminal activity in the world. Worth up to $258 billion, it is increasing by 5-7 per cent every year, and converging with other forms of international crimes.

Statistics indicate that Kenya and Tanzania are currently the major exit points for illicit ivory and the 34 large-scale ivory seizures that occurred between 2009 and 2011, were exported from these two nations.

The illegal trafficking of wild animals and plants is not only damaging biodiversity around the globe, but it is also being linked to spreading of diseases from wild animals to humans.

The trade in animals and their products is linked to the spread of “zoonotic disease” caused by germs that spread between animals and people.

A year after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a pandemic, scientists are linking the coronavirus that causes the killer disease to bats and have theorised that a second, still-unknown species, helped the virus make the evolutionary adaptations that allow it to infect humans.

Dr Wato adds that studies show that the availability of international market – the rising price of ivory and rhino horn on the black market, combined with centuries-old traditions of valuing these products as either status symbols (in the case of ivory) or traditional medicine (in the case of rhino horn), perpetuate the lucrative illegal trade.

Mr Jim Nyamu, the founder and Executive Director of Elephant Neighbours Center , said to deal with reports of emerging increased poaching in the Tsavo conservation area; the government should among other things introduce trans-border mechanisms to deal with the problem.

“The government need to enhance cross-border policies on poaching as our elephants are cross-border species as they travel between Kenya and Tanzania and poachers can go and kill them in Tanzania if the law there is lenient,” the man who has acquired the nickname, Elephant Man, for his efforts in drawing global attention to the plight of elephants says.


Tomorrow we look at available solutions to tackle poaching, trade in wildlife products and human-wildlife conflict

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