East Africa: A look inside The illegal wildlife Trade

By Wanjohi Kabukuru – Mombasa, Kenya’s second most important city and coastal resort capital is a place of hedonism, business and history all rolled in one.

A carver in Cairo making ivory walking sticks

A carver in Cairo making ivory walking sticks

Elephants captured Royal Thai Customs Royal_Thai_Customs-1

Regarded as east Africa’s sea gateway Mombasa adamantly refuses to let go the one crucial history it has stuck to for over 600 years. That history is of trade in ivory. These aspect plays to anecdotal proportions as one of Mombasa’s well known landmarks of four giant aluminium tusks spelling the letter ‘M’ criss-cross the dual-carriageway Moi Avenue. This monument was built in 1952 to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Mombasa as it is the direct route from the port into the main town. This monument aptly referred to as “Mombasa Tusks” supersedes other archaeologically rich monuments such as the Fort Jesus built by the Portuguese in 1593 and Gede Ruins in popularity.

While for centuries elephant tusks were traded openly to Arab, Indian, Chinese and later European traders at Mombasa, today they are concealed and the customs and excise duty forms distorted with mis-declarations thanks largely to the changed legal circumstances. One aspect however remains unchanged Mombasa and ivory are still closely related and today Kenya holds the unenviable position of being in the second spot of illegal ivory exports in the world.

In the last three years environmental conservation civil society agencies and government authorities in Nairobi have been keen to publicly condemn poaching by holding press conferences and media campaigns to dissuade poachers and the illegal wildlife products trade. But all these have not had any effect as the statistics have continued to illustrate marked increases and even gruesome slaughter of elephants and rhinos not to mention faunal destruction.

According to the Kenya Revenue Authorities (KRA) records, recoveries in the last three years paint a gloomy picture for elephants not just in Kenya but in East and Central Africa.


NovemberNovember 20112011 46587 MombasaJKIA Far EastHong Kong
December 2011 727 Mombasa Dubai
May 2012 359 Mombasa Colombo Uganda
June 2012 345 JKIA Lagos
June 2012 62 JKIA Kuala Lumpur













Three Indonesian companies have been identified as part of the wider ring involved in ivory smuggling between African coast and the Far Eastern coast. PT Kundur Prima Karya, PT Alam Daya Cammo and PT Sumber All Company were alleged to be linked to Afro-Asian ivory racket. Currently investigations are ongoing on PT Kundur Prima Karya as the other two companies registered in the port city of Batam in Indonesia were found to be fictitious.

A large display of ivory items in Cairo

A large display of ivory items in Cairo

It is these seizures that recently forced the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to give Kenya a six-month ultimatum to rein-in poaching or get blacklisted. CITES has good reasons to warn the Kenyan authorities. For decades now Kenya has been the harbinger of conservation’s best practices thanks to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) successes. Kenya too is recognized as the land that invented the world famous word Safari  signifying the wild, free outdoors and went further and ushered the world into the “Big Five” of conservation namely lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo.

To cap it all Kenya is home to the Lusaka Agreement Task Force (LATF) an inter-governmental wildlife security and intelligence agency bringing together covert operatives from seven African nations namely; Congo-Brazzaville, Kenya, Liberia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Lesotho.

In his book ‘Wildlife Wars: My Fight to save African Treasures”  Dr. Richard Leakey recalls KWS early history borne out of elephant poaching. Kenya’s second President, Daniel Moi recruited him in 1989 to set up KWS and gave him full rein to curtail elephant poaching which had become a national disaster. The entire 80s decade was a blotch to Kenya’s wildlife history and the slaughter of elephants had gone haywire.In the 1960s Kenya had over 167,000 elephants, by the time Leakey was setting up KWS the population had dwindled to 16,000.

At the time conservation matters were overseen by the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department (WCMD) which was a minor section within the ministry of environment. When Leakey was head-hunted he was given leeway to determine and alter the complete management of the nation’s wildlife future. Leakey set up KWS as an autonomous state agency with a vast mandate and consigned WCMD to the archives. He then fashioned the Wildlife Protection Unit (Ranger Force) into an elite fighting force by securing the elite British Special Forces, SAS and Kenya’s paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) commandos to train KWS Rangers. To inspire his staff Leakey adopted the elephant and its cub as KWS’s official symbol and logo. This choice of the elephant which at the time had been decimated by poachers, as the flagship protection species by Leakey became a mantra of success.

In less than a year poaching was contained and KWS became the envy of many winning accolades and attracting heavy funding from the World Bank, USAID, French aid agency AFD and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) among other major donors. In all of East African Community (EAC) bloc nations KWS stood out as the premier wildlife agency. In fact the only equal to KWS was South Africa National Parks (SANParks). However owing to political machinations Leakey was hounded out of KWS and the country’s principal wildlife agency systemic management failure began.

It has never recovered to this day. KWS current director William Kiprono denies that the present poaching overshadows the 1980s trend.

“We are experiencing worrying trends in wildlife crime though this must be understood in its global context.” Kiprono says. “It is not true that poaching is worse than it was at the peak of poaching in the late 1980s”.

The current poaching menace has similar echoes to that of the 1980s and investigations reveal almost a similar pattern of collusion. Just like in the 80s when fingers were pointed at small-time poachers and game-meat hunters it is the same today ignoring the reality on the ground. Initially there was little attention on the wildlife agencies and authorities until the rhino and elephant casualties continued to swell and the wildlife crime scenes began giving clues of well organised criminal networks with insider collaboration from wildlife rangers. Official statistics now reveal that Kenya’s elephant population has declined by 85% in the last 40 years. Today Kenya has some 37,000 pachyderms.

In June 2013, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) suspended 30 of its senior officers alleged to have helped and participated in poaching activities. This was expected as earlier on the top security officials in charge of park security had been sent home too. Insider information now reveals that low morale and poor wages contributed to the poaching crisis. The monthly salary of a KWS ranger in the field is $160 while a kilo of ivory fetches a handsome $2000 from middlemen. The price increases as the chain rises. The fertile ground for connivance by wildlife officials was exploited by middlemen and wildlife traffickers. This is confirmed by multiple sources within KWS and officials in the conservation circles. A similar pattern emerges in DRC, Uganda, Tanzania and South Sudan. These four nations are said to be actively using Kenya as a transit point to the lucrative Far Eastern markets thanks to Kenya’s communication hub status.

Other than connivance by state officials weak anti-poaching laws and discrimination on the basis of status in society have also helped the elephant slaughter. While small time poachers have been arrested and jailed, the same has never been the case for financiers of poaching. In July this year conservationists in the region were shocked when David McNevin, a former US defense attaché was caught with ivory in his luggage at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). McNevin was fined $350 and set free. The only sigh of relief to environmental defenders came in mid-August when 30-year old Chen Biemei, a Chinese national was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Several wildlife NGOs have accused Far East nations of Singapore, Thailand and China for the upsurge of poaching. The increase of Chinese nationals in East Africa has been used as the main link. Chinese officials have on several occasions come out strongly denying this accusation.

Yan Xun a scientist with China’s wildlife service denies these claims. “Has China’s legal ivory trade caused the poaching of wild elephants?” Xun poses. “I don’t think there is necessarily a connection. The reasons for poaching wild elephants around the world are very complex including competition for resources between people and elephants, livelihood issues for local people, war and the mistaken belief ivory generates huge profit margins.”

Xun’s claims on war have some traction. In May this year rebels of the ruling Seleka group in the war-torn Central African Republic (CAR) killed 26 elephants in the country’s Dzanga-Ndoki National Park. Other rebels groups in Africa notably Janjaweed in Darfur and Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have also been accused of engaging in poaching to finance their activities.

These claims linking Far Eastern nationals reveal a scenario with concordant echoes of over a decade ago.

Exactly 11 years ago when it was first suggested that illegal trade in wildlife products had joined gun-running and drug trafficking as one of the three most lucrative illicit commercial concerns in the world few took notice.

Indeed in 2002, Dee Cook, Martin Roberts and Jason Lowther of the University of Wolverhampton supported by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) authored a damning report “The International Wildlife Trade and Organised Crime”. The study illuminated how organised criminal networks notably Russian Mafia, Japanese Yakuza, Chinese Triads and the Central American Medellin cartels were all turning their tentacles into wildlife crime. Organised crime lords were all said to be changing their operations in favour of wildlife trade for two reasons. Illegal wildlife trade had immense profits and it also served as a cover to other illegal activities.

At the time the study had suggested that the global trade in animals, plants and their by-products was an annual US$159 billionn trade. Presently the annual estimate of the ivory trade stands at between $7 billion and $10 billion per year. 11 years later and the situation has degenerated and spawned and it is not only associated with organised crime but is now associated with terrorism. Hardcore criminal organizations are using the highly profitable wildlife by-products by converting existing routes for illegal businesses in arms, drugs and human trafficking for those seeking a better life in the West.

“There is compelling case study evidence that major organized crime groups are engaged in the caviar trade, and that the drugs trade is linked with wildlife trade in terms of: sharing common range states; parallel trafficking of drugs and wildlife along common smuggling routes; the use of wildlife shipments to conceal drugs; and using wildlife species and products as an alternative currency to ‘barter’ for drugs.” The report says.

Desire for luxury goods, fashion, traditional medicines (mostly aphrodisiac demands associated with rhino horns), and obsession of possession or rare items still remains to be the major reasons fuelling demand of wildlife products.

Records from Interpol and CITES indicate that some of the most trafficked species other than ivory and rhino horns, includes tropical birds, reptiles, primates, insects, amphibians and orchids. A cross-continental intelligence operation conducted earlier in the year reveals that this pattern is still the same with organised criminal networks still actively involved in wildlife trade as they have been in the last 10 years.

Earlier this year, wildlife enforcement agencies in Africa, Asia and the US from 11 different security organs carried out a month long sting-operation code-named “Cobra”.  The operation coordinated from Bangkok, Thailand kicked off on January 6th and by the time it closed on 5th of February it was clear little has changed from the patterns established slightly over a decade ago. Operation Cobra recovered 2600 live snakes; 22 rhino horns; 6500 kilogrammes of ivory; 860 pangolin scales; 102 pangolins; 42,000 kilogrammes of red sander wood; 324 hornbill beaks and various plant species. The success of “operation Cobra” was described as “an international intelligence driven operation aimed at dismantling organised wildlife crime syndicates with significant results and the prospects for more.”

Indeed what ‘Operation Cobra’ revealed is an amalgam of lessons. First is that illegal wildlife crime transcends borders. Secondly wildlife rangers are inadequately funded to effectively monitor wildlife and stop wildlife decimation. This state of affairs has encouraged easy dalliance with organised criminal gangs. On the other hand preference for the usage of Mombasa Port by the criminal gangs to smuggle out bulk caches of illegal wildlife products appears to be influenced by cheap sea transport and its ideal location putting pressure on Kenyan security agencies.

KRA customs commissioner Wambui Namu calls for more joint cross-border collaborative security efforts between countries to save wildlife species. “It is not possible for a single country located at the transit point to curb the flow of ivory as long as huge demand exists in some markets.”.

Supported By The Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR)