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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