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Disaster in the wild as poachers go for tusks

Originally Published: August 30, 2008

Poachers are at it again; killing elephants in national parks and game reserves to feed an ivory demand in China, the world’s most populous country.

So far this year, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service, 46 elephants have fallen prey to poachers and, in the last six months, more than 50 poachers have been arrested. Between June and August 23, KWS statistics show, 600 kilogrammes of ivory have been seized.

In July 1989, then President Moi made a bold anti-poaching statement when he set ablaze hundreds of tonnes of elephant tusks worth millions of shillings at the Nairobi National Park.

In less than 20 years, poachers had run riot in Kenya; reducing the elephant population from more than 130,000 (in 1973) to a paltry 16,000 (in 1989).

Disturbed by the memories of the loss, KWS and other conservation organisations in the country hoped that a 1989 worldwide ban on trade in ivory and ivory products by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) would be upheld.

Last year, Kenya and other African countries spearheaded a campaign against a one off ivory sale proposal by Southern African countries during the annual Cites conference held at The Hague. Kenya lost the fight.

The ban was lifted for four African countries, which were allowed to have a one off sale of government owned ivory stocks.

The two buyers are Japan and China. The four sellers intending to auction 108 tonnes of ivory are South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.

“There is only one logical outcome of the move by Cites to allow China into legal ivory trade. Unfortunately, it is bound to hurt us as a country,” said Mr Patrick Omondi, a senior assistant director of biodiversity, research and monitoring at KWS.

Faulting the decision to allow hina to buy ivory, Mr Omondi said that a report by the Elephant Trade Information System presented at last year’s Cites meeting implicated China in 80 per cent of all cases of illegal ivory trade worldwide.

Among countries against the one off sale were Senegal and Sierra Leone, which have less than 20 elephants between them.

“Our anti-poaching unit is one of the best the world over and poachers are still getting away with killing elephants. I shudder to think of what will happen to elephants in countries with less advanced defence programmes,” said Mr Omondi.

He said that allowing China into the legal ivory trade will open an easy passage of illegal ivory from Africa, considered the largest black market for ivory products.

The senior warden at Tsavo East Game Reserve, Mr Yusuf Aden, shares the same sentiments.

“Trophy hunters have already begun invading our parks. So far this year, we have lost more elephants in comparison to a similar period last year,” he said. “Most of those we have managed to arrest indicate that they kill the elephants on order. The (ivory) market is already there, and poachers are willing to do anything to supply.”

In July this year, three Chinese nationals, two women and a man, were arrested at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport with 2.2 kilogrammes of ivory in form of bangles and chopsticks en route to Zimbabwe. In June, 11 elephants had been felled by poachers.

Trophy hunting

“Previously, poaching was a preserve of Somali gangs that crossed our porous borders with rifles, other heavy weapons and snares to trap elephants. Now, communities around game reserves are also in it,” said Mr Aden.

He attributed this to the rise in the price of ivory over the last three months. Last month, KWS agents arrested a Kenyan man in possession of 46 kilogrammes of raw ivory.

Mr Omondi said that this increase in prices is what is driving local communities to poaching. In Nairobi, the price has doubled from Sh1500 to Sh3000 per kilogramme.

In other areas like Mombasa and at border towns, prices are as high as Sh5000. The tusks of a fully matured elephant can weigh up to 90 kilogrammes.

Going by the highest market price, one grown elephant can fetch a poacher nearly half a million shillings. On the other hand, the penalty for poaching pales in comparison.

“Unless the laws are revised to increase the penalties for trophy hunting, Kenya will still be an ideal location for poachers since one gets a jail term of six months or less. At times, one is fined between Sh500 and Sh2000,” said Mr Aden.

Before China’s criminal law was reviewed in 1997, the penalty for killing a Panda, thought to represent Chinese pride, was execution.

Locally, the KWS is participating in drafting a Bill that aims to increase the fine to a minimum of one million shillings or lengthy prison terms without the option of a fine.

In the 1980s and early 90s, poachers used an array of weapons to kill the elephants including rifles and grenade launchers. Today, they have gone back to the old ways which are not as sophisticated as the grenade launchers, but equally devastating.

“They now use poisoned arrows which are a more cruel way of killing the animal,” said Mr Aden. He said that the struck elephant may at times take days to die.

During this period of suffering, poachers trail it like vultures, waiting for it to drop dead before descending on it with saws and pangas.

Wildlife conservation group Born Free believes that elephant poaching in Africa has reached crisis levels and that the approval of China and Japan to purchase ivory stocks would only worsen the situation.

“As a conservation group we were strongly opposed to China being allowed to buy stockpiles of ivory. So far this year, poaching incidents are almost double the number recorded during the same period last year,” said Ms Alice Owen of Born Free.

A senior scientist in charge of the elephant programme at KWS, Mr Moses Litoroh, said that as a major specie, a reduction in the number of elephants would cause an upset in almost all food chains.

“The elephant is among the few animals that can transform one habitat to another. Through its, at times, destructive nature, it can strip down a forest area into a bush land, turn a bush land into grassland and convert a grassland into a desert. It creates unique habitats for different kinds of species to thrive,” said Mr Litoroh.

Currently, Kenya has 35,000 elephants. The KWS believes that state-owned parks and reserves can hold an additional 15,000 elephants.

“We are still far from our target. Getting to this number will mean preventing illegal killing of the existing animals. Even with a fool-proof system, this will take generations to achieve partly because of their long (four years) gestation period,” said Mr Omondi.Image

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