‘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.

This entry was posted in Africa, Conservation, Ivory, Kenya, South Africa, wildlife. Bookmark the permalink.

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