Ukraine’s environmental conflict

The recent upsurge in violence in eastern Ukraine has focused attention on the serious risk that the fighting between Ukrainian government forces and separatists could trigger serious environmental and humanitarian consequences.

Abstract from ‘The Toxic Remnants of War Project report:

‘Three factors have mediated the ongoing environmental risks from the region’s industrial sites; the first relates to where armed confrontations take place; where the use of explosive weapons risks damage to facilities and where operations may be interrupted by fighting.

The second factor is an unfolding “trade blockade” on the transport of goods and supplies across the line of contact, which is being organised by veterans of volunteer battalions from the Ukraine-controlled side. The third factor is access to electricity. It should also be noted that many of the region’s industrial facilities are in close proximity to urban areas.

Since 2015, when the environmental consequences of a conflict in such a heavily industrialised region as Ukraine were first becoming apparent, the Ukrainian government has repeatedly raised the issue at the UN level. Firstly, in September 2015 at the UN General Assembly; then at the Paris climate-change conference; and in December 2015 through the tabling of a resolution on the Protection of the environment in areas affected by armed conflict, ahead of May 2016’s meeting of the UN Environment Assembly. The resolution eventually passed by consensus after months of difficult negotiations, although as tradition dictates, it did not specifically address the conflict in eastern Ukraine’.

To read the full report:

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Soviet space dogs

Space exploration became a key aspect of Soviet propaganda, especially as space dogs were some of the first animals to survive space flight.

The most famous examples are Laika, Belka and Strelka who have been immortalised in popular culture in cartoons, comic books and writing, although altogether over 40 dogs went to space.

Following the revolution of 1917 that established the Soviet Union, pet dogs were considered to be a relic of a bourgeoisie past and citizens were encouraged to dispose of them. However, eventually dogs returned to their role in society as “man’s best friend” as communist dogs. These new dogs were expected to fulfil a role in society through working as guard dogs, hunters or by pulling sleighs.

Belka and Strelka were sent into space in 1960 and safely returned to earth the next day.  In the USSR these canine cosmonauts occupied multiple roles in society as heroes and professionals.

Laika was also represented as a hero, as well as a martyr for scientific progress in the Soviet Union. Laika’s death was incorporated into the idea of dying for the advancement of the Motherland, which was well established in the Soviet psyche, allowing her to continue fulfilling her role as an ideological hero.

Read more about Soviet space dogs:


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Kenya’s ‘killing fields’

Denying sanctuary’ or ‘draining the swamp’ is classic counter-insurgency strategy, which in Kenya also involves wildlife conservation as part of the ‘hearts and minds’ strategy.

The Kenyan security ‘sweeps’ involve not only an escalating back-drop of brutality against indigenous Kenyans as well as Al Shabaab but also murky land-grabs and American and British ‘special forces’ assistance set against the drum-beat of Kenya’s vital tourist economy.

How Kenyan wildlife conservation is being dragged into this deepening pool of security and human rights issues is little discussed but has wide-ranging implications for conservation, not least making wildlife rangers legitimate targets for Al Shabaab and undermining the credibility of conservation efforts.

Reporter, Margot Kiser, treads bravely to untangle the threads here:

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Protection plots in Stalin’s day

Abstract from: ‘Everyday Environmentalism: The Practice, Politics, and Nature of Subsidiary Farming in Stalin’s Lithuania’. By Diana Mycinte

Subsidiary farms in Soviet Lithuania during the years of intense collectivization and political repressions between 1948-1953 were a locus through which local peasants carved out a niche in the territorial, social, and political structures of the Soviet state.

In addition to the direct requisition requests from the Soviet government for three-quarters of everything they grew on the subsidiary plots, demands were also made on the peasants by the armed resistance troops located in the forests. Some sources suggest that until 1956 the Lithuanian forests hid up to 90,000 of the Lithuanian Freedom Army and their associates who were fed, clothed, and provided other necessities by collecting what they need from the impoverished peasants.

Small, semi-private land allotments are strange imbroglios in the history of collectivized agriculture in the Soviet Union. From an ideological stand-point, they are the remnants of the bourgeois regime that are not amenable to planning and, therefore, always to be condemned, attacked, and closely supervised.

While often overlooked in the analyses of Soviet environmental and agricultural histories, these land plots played a central role in the peasants’ daily lives by providing them with food and a source of social power in the villages, as well as by serving as sites through which peasants could claim a place in the Soviet state.

Because the peasants’ physical survival in this period in Lithuania depended on the harvests from the subsidiary farms and because local officials defined the peasants as ideologically malleable and suspicious “elements” to be monitored, they constructed themselves primarily as subjects of land and nature, rather than as subjects of the Soviet state.

Full article: ‘Everyday Environmentalism: The Practice, Politics, and Nature of Subsidiary Farming in Stalin’s Lithuania’

Author: Diana Mincyte

Source: Slavic Review, Vol. 68, No. 1 (Spring, 2009), pp. 31-49

Posted in Agriculture, Soviet Union | Leave a comment

The toxic legacy of Tanzania’s ivory

The roots of Tanzania’s ivory poaching crisis are deep and historic

By Professor Keith Somerville

The recent staggering decline in Tanzania’s elephant numbers, down by 60% in less than ten years (please see previous blog), has horrified conservationists: it demonstrates the dangers facing the 400,000-600,000 elephants remaining in Africa.

Prior to the start of European colonial occupation in the closing decades of the 19th century, what was then colonial Tanganyika (becoming Tanzania in 1964) held over 20 million elephants. The progressive decline in numbers results from shrinking habitat, massive growth in human populations and use of land for agriculture, and the killing of elephants for their tusks.

The commercial trade in tusks was at its height in the 19th and early 20th century; ivory trade expert, Esmond Bradley Martin, has estimated that between 1850 and 1914, 44,000 elephants were killed annually for ivory (1).

For much of the 19th century, Tanzania the epicentre of the ivory rush to feed markets in Europe, North America and India; it had a well-established ivory trading network which was originally established along the East African coast, from Lamu in northern Kenya to Sofala in Mozambique, run by Omani Arab traders who settled on the coast to trade in ivory, spices and slaves. They traded with African peoples such as the Nyamwezi of central Tanzania and the Yao of Mozambique, who supplied ivory and slaves in return for imported goods.

The demand for ivory led to the depletion of herds near the coast and the mounting of costly expeditions into the interior, staffed by hundreds of porters and armed retainers. The Arab merchants, and the community of what became known as coastal Swahilis (descendants of inter-marriage between the Arabs and local peoples) organised the caravans, hired porters and bought ivory from inland – or took it by force of arms.

Indian, British, German and American merchants all operated in Zanzibar buying ivory to meet growing demand from the newly prosperous capitalist class in industrialising Europe and the United States, as well as existing demand in Asia. The export of ivory from Zanzibar went up from around 24,000 tusks in 1860 to more than of 100,000 pa in 1894, by which time mainland Tanzania was under German colonial rule and Zanzibar was part of the British empire.

The colonial occupation of East Africa meant that the British in Zanzibar and the Germans in Tanzania (until it was mandated to Britain by the League of Nations after WWI) became the new overlords of the ivory trade. While Arab, Swahili and Indian traders bought and exported ivory, the colonial authorities ensured they also got their share of the proceeds.  Gradually, the role of indigenous hunters declined as European sports and commercial hunters used colonialism to get priority access to big game in Africa.

Game departments were established by the British to control hunting, particularly by Africans, and provide ivory income for the colonial administrations. The establishment of protected reserves and national parks under colonialism served to further alienate local people from control over wildlife: Europeans could hunt legally, most Africans could not and were criminalized if they did, creating the divide between the white hunters and black poachers.

With Tanzanian independence in 1964, there was no major change in wildlife or hunting regulations. National parks and reserves became sources of tourist income, while in Tanzania legal hunting by commercial safari operators continued and trading ivory was still largely in the hands of the old, coastal trading communities. In 1970, the Tanzanian government declared a state monopoly over ivory, at a stroke cutting out legal commerce by the established traders, who simply took advantage of poor wages paid to government wildlife officials, the police customs and ports staff to set up networks of corruption that enabled them to continue in the trade as smugglers.

The officials retained a strong role in the ivory trade – but what was now an illegal one, teaming up with corrupt politicians to establish new, criminal syndicates to control the trade and profit from the growth in ivory prices in the 1970s and 1980s. They commissioned poachers to supply tusks to supply lucrative foreign markets.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s poaching continued with impunity which brought about by corruption at the highest levels of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party, and local and national government institutions. This system of graft continues today, with the added problem of the growing Chinese involvement in the Tanzanian economy and the presence there of Chinese businessmen, technicians, workers and even diplomats, who play a role in the smuggling networks that now take ivory from Tanzania to buyers in East Asia.

Although there are periodic seizures of ivory and prosecution of syndicate ‘king-pins’, like the Chinese “Ivory Queen”, Yang Feng Lan, the system of corruption that enables poaching to continue is alive and well – which is more than can be said for tens of thousands of Tanzanian elephants killed for ivory.

  1. E.B. Martin, ‘The Great White Gold Rush’, BBC History, August 2001.

Professor Keith Somerville is a Research Associate at the Marjan Centre for the Study of War and the Non-Human Sphere at King’s College, London, and a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent. Professor Somerville is author of ‘Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa’ (London, Hurst, 2016) and ‘Africa’s Long Road Since Independence: The Many Histories of a Continent’ (London, Penguin, 2017).

Posted in Conservation, East Africa, Illegal Wildlife Trade, Ivory | Leave a comment

– 60%: a figure that stains Tanzania

Tanzania’s elephants suffer a staggering decline as corruption-driven poaching bites

By Professor Keith Somerville, author of Ivory. Power and Poaching in Africa (Hurst, 2016)

Tanzania has one of the largest savannah elephant populations in Africa with an estimated 42,871 elephants, according to the Great Elephant Census report released in 2016, which is about 12% of the continent’s population.  This makes it all the more worrying for the future of elephants that since 2007, Tanzania’s elephant population has suffered a catastrophic decline of 60% in numbers – double the rate of decline of Africa as a whole.

Why such a staggering fall in numbers?  The answer is simple and is an indictment of  the country’s wildlife authorities, law enforcement system and government – corruption and poverty.

The killing of elephants, harvesting and smuggling of tusks is a complex but flexible network that operates with political protection and impunity from arrest for the king-pins of the criminal syndicates that work with international smuggling rings (that also trade in drugs, guns and people) to export poached ivory.  Added to this is the role of Chinese workers, diplomats and businessmen in exploiting the elephants and the opportunities for corruption to feed high demand for ivory in China and elsewhere in East Asia.

Underfunding of conservation, poor pay for wildlife department staff and ubiquitous corruption in the police, public bodies and among the political elite have created an environment in which the illegal ivory trade has thrived.  The criminal syndicates have bought political protection by bribing senior politicians and government officials, which has enabled them to commission poaching, supply guns and ammunition to poachers, make “safe” the smuggling of ivory within Tanzania and then work with corrupt port, customs and airport officials to smuggle the ivory out.

One recent Tanzanian Natural Resources and Tourism Minister, Khamis Kagasheki, tried to combat this naming by MPs from the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party as among those helping poachers and accusing a former party secretary-general and Defence Minister, Abdulrahman Kinana of involvement in poaching and smuggling. Far from being applauded by the then president, Jakaya Kikwete, he was sacked as minister.

Kagasheki’s disclosures and investigative work by the Environmental Investigation Agency revealed a massive spider-web of corruption linking poachers, criminals, smugglers and Chinese gangs, with the latter having gradually taken over the export end of the operation pushing out the existing networks of indigenous smugglers, especially those in the large Tanzanian Asian and Afro-Shirazi business community in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar (for more details of the networks please see below).

The catastrophic decline in elephant numbers in Tanzania has seen numbers fall from about 109,000 in 2009 to just under 43,000 when the census took place there in 2015. Taking into account an annual birth rate of 5%, this means over 85,000 elephants have died – the majority of these were poached.  Natural mortality will have made up a couple of per cent of deaths a year, legal trophy hunting a little more and shooting of ‘problem’ elephants a relatively small number.

This shows that in the last ten years, scores of thousands of elephants have been poached for their tusks.  The majority have been killed in the Ruaha-Rungwa, Malagarasi-Muyovosi and Selous-Mikumi eco-systems, where two-thirds of the elephants have been killed. A very high rate of killing is also evident in northern Mozambique’s Niassa-Ruvuma area, bordering Tanzania and where Tanzanian gangs operate with little let or hindrance from the Mozambican security forces and Tanzanian border officials.

There were over 34,000 elephants in Ruaha–Rungwa region in 2009; however, this fell to 20,000 in 2013 due to poaching before plummeting further to just 8,000 in 2014. The famed Selous Game Reserve, billed as Africa’s largest game reserve, is actually a shadow of its former self; its once thriving population has fallen from 45,000 to15,00 in the same period and UNESCO had added the reserve to its ‘World Heritage in Danger’ list.

(For more details of the networks please see Keith Somerville, ‘Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa’, London: Hurst, 2016; and Environmental Investigation Agency, ‘Vanishing Point: Criminality, Corruption and the devastation of Tanzania’s Elephants’).

Professor Keith Somerville is a Research Associate at the Marjan and a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent. He is also author ‘Africa’s Long Road Since Independence. The Many Histories of a Continent’ (London, Penguin, 2017).

The second part of Professor Somerville’s examination of poaching in Tanzania will look at the historical background.

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‘White gold’: Kenya’s black tale of greed

The three ‘C’s – commerce, colonialism and criminalisation of indigenous hunting – created the illegal poaching and smuggling networks in Kenya

In the first blog on Kenya’s role in the international ivory trade, I concentrated on the current picture and examples of how corruption enables wildlife crime to flourish there. Now I will show how the trade developed, became criminalized and became a form of political patronage and criminal activity: Professor Keith Somerville, author of  ‘Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa’, (Hurst, 2016)

The killing of elephants by humans goes back millennia in Kenya. Communities that lived either by hunting (such as the Waliangulu) or by a mixture of hunting, trading and subsistence farming (like the Wakamba) had long hunted elephants to provide meat and hides. However, few communities in Kenya or the rest of East Africa placed much value on the tusks until demand for ivory from outside the region, especially from India, China, the Middle East and later Europe, created a market for ivory. Foreign merchants brought cloth, manufactured goods and other commodities in exchange for ivory.                                                   

This commerce drove the demand for ivory and the killing of elephants. By the 7th century BC, elephants living in North Africa, along the fringes of the Sahara and the Red Sea littoral had been wiped out. Trading fleets began to move down the Red Sea to present-day South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and then Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique to buy ivory. Those communities in eastern Kenya that hunted elephants for food now found a market for tusks; furthermore, the arrival of Omani Arab traders at ports like Lamu and Mombasa led to an expansion of the trade.

In the closing decade of the 19th century, colonialism changed everything as the British saw ivory as a source of wealth that could tide its colony over until cash-crops like coffee and tea brought in revenue. Indigenous Kenyan communities were banned from hunting elephants and the colonial government encouraged settlers and European hunters to harvest ivory for export which led to the criminalization of local hunting as well as the alienation of local communities from wildlife resources and the marginalization of the Omani Arab and Indian coastal Swahili traders who controlled the trade. However, the bans failed to stop hunting by the communities or trading outside the British-controlled system, leading to networks being established that were ‘illegal’ in the eyes of the British authorities but merely perpetuated long established trading patterns.

With Kenyan independence in 1963 there was a change of guard politically but local people were still banned from hunting; however, the government set out not only to monopolise the ivory trade but also to enrich themselves through the illegal networks, thus in a back-handed way actually institutionalising the illegal trade. A similar counter-factual process of institutionalisation occurred in South Africa after the Apartheid government ended, when a ‘blind eye’ was turned to the vast ivory and rhino horn smuggling networks that had been previously established by the former South African army.

The new government of Jomo Kenyatta used ivory as a form political patronage and wealth creation; Kenyatta issued permits which allowed Kenyans to trade in what was supposedly natural mortality ivory, but the permit system was abused on a massive scale to launder poached ivory with even Kenyatta’s daughter Margaret (Mayor of Nairobi 1970- 76) benefitting from the system by using export permits issued by her father to legalise ivory she had illegally obtained.

A massive network of corruption developed that went right to the heart of the political, civil service and business elite: when Richard Leakey was appointed head of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in 1989 he found it riddled with corruption, with poaching, incompetence and corruption having reduced Kenya’s elephants from 40,000 to 5,000 in 20 years.

A few months before Leakey’s appointment, four Kenyan police officers were arrested transporting poached ivory in a government vehicle; at the time of the arrests KWS said it was working hard to combat corrupt officials and policemen who were assisting poachers and smugglers. The problem, though, is that the KWS itself is not above suspicion; in an interview in 2013 before he returned as head the KWS, Leakey told the East African Wildlife Society journal Swara that while graft was widespread in 1989 ‘not much seems to have changed’.

The long and dark history of the trade in Kenya and the extent of corruption within the political system and government administration give little hope that for all the government’s protestations about fighting corruption and ending the ivory trade there is any prospect of that in the near future.

Professor Keith Somerville is a Research Associate at the Marjan Centre and is a member of the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent.

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Kenya’s criminal ivory tower

Behind the ivory burning and fine words lies corruption and smuggling. (Part 1 of 2).

By Professor Keith Somerville, author of recently published ‘Ivory: power and poaching in Africa’.

On 30th April 2016, President Uhuru Kenyatta set fire to over 100 tons of ivory – which had cost the lives of over 6,000 elephants. Most of the ivory had been seized from poachers in Kenya or from smugglers using the country to illegally export ivory from elsewhere in Africa.

Staged as a huge media event during an international summit in Nairobi organised by the Giants Club (an organisation linking global businessmen, heads of state and animal welfare NGO’s), the burning of the tusks was supposed to send a message that that the campaign against poaching would be stepped up and that the illegal trade must be stopped.

President Kenyatta used the event to try to improve the image of a country beset by problems of smuggling, poaching, incompetent management of wildlife resources and massive political and civil service corruption that has aided and abetted criminal activity of all kinds, especially the illegal ivory trade

As he lit the ivory pyre Kenyatta said: ‘t his will send an absolutely clear message that the trade in ivory must come to an end and our elephants must be protected.’ He pledged to press for an absolute ban on ivory trading at the upcoming CITES conference and to encourage other countries to burn ivory stocks.

At the CITES conference held in Johannesburg that September, Kenya pushed hard but failed to get the elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe listed on CITES Appendix 1, which would have  blocked those countries from applying to CITES for permission to trade legally in ivory.

However, it perhaps would have been better for Kenya to have put its own house in order before trying to tell states that have expanding elephant populations how to manage their ivory.

While Kenya has achieved some success in reducing ivory poaching, it still has a major problem: The Great Elephant Census, released in August 2016, said Kenya’s elephant population was 25,959, down on an estimate given by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in 2014 of 28,000 elephants.

With census figures showing a ratio of carcasses to live elephants of 13%, ‘carcass ratios of more than 8 percent are considered to indicate poaching at a high  enough level to cause a declining population’, added the census report.

Even more worrying is the level of corruption, underfunding and incompetence in the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) as well as the ports and customs services that all enable huge quantities of ivory to be smuggled out of Kenya.

Despite promises by the Kenyatta government to crack down on graft, it remains massive: Tom Milliken of TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring group, said in late 2015 that Mombasa port was an example of the tie-up between international smuggling syndicates and the Kenyan political elite, with the latter protecting and then benefitting financially from the activities of the former.

A recent example was reported by Kenya’s Star newspaper in November 2016, when the role of senior Kenya Ports Authority and Kenya Revenue Authority officers in ivory smuggling was revealed after customs officials in Vietnam seized an ivory consignment in two containers from Mombasa labelled ‘timber’.

A few weeks earlier, Interpol announced that it had issued an international arrest warrant for two smugglers behind the shipping of ivory in a consignment of tea from Mombasa worth Kenyan Sh570 million that was seized in Singapore in April 2015 – again with the collusion of port and customs officials.                                                                                                                                             (Part 2 will look at the history of the ivory trade in Kenya and the origins of the networks of corruption, political graft and crime).

Professor Keith Somerville is a Research Associate at the Marjan Centre and is a member of the Durrell Institute for Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent.

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Stalin’s ‘green’ gamble,204,203,200_.jpg

The Soviets are often viewed as insatiable industrialists who saw nature as a force to be tamed and exploited.

Song of the Forest counters this assumption, uncovering significant evidence of Soviet conservation efforts in forestry, particularly under Josef Stalin. In his compelling study, Stephen Brain profiles the leading Soviet-era conservationists, agencies, and administrators, and their efforts to formulate forest policy despite powerful ideological differences.

By the time of the revolution of 1905, modern Russian forestry science had developed an influential romantic strand, especially prevalent in the work of Georgii Morozov, whose theory of “stand types” asked forest managers to consider native species and local conditions when devising plans for regenerating forests. After their rise to power, the Bolsheviks turned their backs on this tradition and adopted German methods, then considered the most advanced in the world, for clear-cutting and replanting of marketable tree types in “artificial forests.”

Later, when Stalin’s Five Year Plan required vast amounts of timber for industrialization, forest radicals proposed “flying management,” an exaggerated version of German forestry where large tracts of virgin forest would be clear-cut. Opponents who still upheld Morozov’s vision favored a conservative regenerating approach, and ultimately triumphed by establishing the world’s largest forest preserve.

Another radical turn came with the Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature, implemented in 1948. Narrow “belts” of new forest planted on the vast Russian steppe would block drying winds, provide cool temperatures, trap moisture, and increase crop production. Unfortunately, planters were ordered to follow the misguided methods of the notorious Trofim Lysenko, and the resulting yields were abysmal. But despite Lysenko, agency infighting, and an indifferent peasant workforce, Stalin’s forestry bureaus eventually succeeded in winning many environmental concessions from industrial interests. In addition, the visionary teachings of Morozov found new life, ensuring that the forest’s song did not fall upon deaf ears

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Ivory Wars


Joanna Lewis, Assistant Professor, Department of International History at the London School of Economics (LSE) writes:

‘Anyone who believes that China’s recent pledge to ban the ivory trade by the end of 2017 will make a difference to the threat hanging over African elephants will have a rude awakening after reading Keith Somerville’s devastating and majestic history of the supply chain from Africa.

Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa is a gripping, bloody and scholarly narrative dedicated to two groups of brave people: those who risk their lives to save elephants; and those who argue that banning the ivory trade is not the answer.’

Read more here of the review:

Posted in Africa, Illegal Wildlife Trade, Ivory, poaching | 1 Comment