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08 July 2008

Kenya wildlife rangers pursue poachers to curtail ivory trafficking

NAIROBI – Elephant tusks completely fill two rooms of the basement storage facility of the Kenya Wildlife Service. In the raw, it is hard to see why anyone would risk his life to get them, or protect them. They resemble little more than pieces of driftwood.

To the criminals who traffic in them, they might as well be gold – once cut, carved and polished, they become ivory name stamps, jewellery and decorative objects coveted throughout the world for their beauty and durability. To law enforcement, the tusks represent violent disregard for human and animal life.

“More than 25 of our agents have been shot and killed while pursuing poachers and maybe another 25 have been seriously injured,” said Julius Kimani of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), which stands at the forefront of wildlife-protection efforts in Africa.

The elephant population in Kenya has fallen from 170,000 in 1963 to only 30,000 today.

Ivory trafficking may be the most visible form of wildlife crime, but criminals have found ways to exploit almost anything in nature for profit – whether indiscriminately killing animals for bush meat, smuggling rare orchids, harvesting caviar illegally or trafficking in protected corals.

For wildlife crime investigators like Kimani, protecting plants and animals is a matter of urgency, beyond the usual arguments that they are beautiful or defenceless against well-armed humans, or out of a principled case against killing another living thing for profit. It is also an issue of public security.

'Poachers may have travelled, say, 1,000 kilometres through the bush. They are not going to stop at anything. They came for a purpose. If they can’t get an elephant, they can rob and kill tourists or villagers,' said Kimani.

For wildlife crime investigators, poachers are first and foremost criminals who target animals because of the relative ease in catching them and of the huge potential profit. Trafficking rings recruit poachers, buy their weapons, even pay their fines if they are arrested.

International community responds

Tracking and understanding the modus operandi of criminals is at the heart of INTERPOL’s’ efforts to tackle wildlife crime. One of its main tools – its international colour-coded notices system for gathering criminal intelligence and aimed specifically at advising on modus operandi – therefore includes the Purple Notice, issued in relation to environmental crime.

A Purple Notice was issued in July 2006 to alert law enforcement officials worldwide about the criminal techniques used in a major wildlife smuggling case in Hong Kong involving ivory.

The seizure was notable in that it involved the seizure of four tonnes of ivory, Hong Kong’s largest-ever since 1990, and a series of crimes which enabled the container housing the contraband ivory to travel from Africa to Asia without incident.

What alarmed law enforcement was the transportation method, which if not for a keen customs officer, would have allowed the shipment to make it to its destination, probably China, where contraband tusks can be readied for sale in underground markets in Hong Kong within a week.

The container, which originated in Cameroon, was filled with lumber but had a false back wall, behind which were elephant tusks with an estimated value of US$1.5 million. The contraband cargo was detected using an X-ray machine.

Investigators found two more containers, which had already been emptied but still contained tusk fragments. They believe this was not the first time the containers were used.

'The scale of the operation, which required transporting tonnes of ivory across an ocean, falsifying documents and paying bribes, had the hallmarks of highly sophisticated, well-connected criminals,' said Peter Younger, INTERPOL’s specialised officer in environmental crime, who was behind the issue of the Purple Notice.

By issuing the notice, Interpol alerted police officers in all of its 186 member countries to this transportation method, enabling customs officials worldwide to watch out for this type of activity in the future.

Challenges facing wildlife officers

The KWS leads Kenya’s efforts to protect its diverse plant and animal species. In 2007 it generated almost 90 per cent of its own budget, mostly from entry fees to the 65 national parks, reserves and sanctuaries under its jurisdiction, which comprise about eight per cent of Kenya’s land mass.

So it is not surprising that many consider the KWS to be one of the wealthiest, most powerful wildlife agencies on the continent. It is independent, with broad powers to conduct investigations, recruit informants and arrest criminals.

Interpol singled out the KWS for a best practice award in 2005, particularly for its vigilance in informing other countries about major seizures of rare, endangered or illegally traded plants and animals. The KWS used the award money to train 32 officers.

However, there are challenges about which the KWS can do very little; ci vil war, political instability, urbanisation, human encroachment and poverty have done their share to decimate animal populations or habitats in Africa. Low penalties and weak legislation also exacerbate the problem.

Co-operation key to closing in on criminals

One driver of efforts to harmonise investigations, legislation and penalties in the region is the Lusaka Agreement Task Force (LATF), created by governments in the region to fight illegal trade in plants and animals . Before its founding in 1994, there was no mechanism for regional co-operation. Once a criminal had crossed a border into a neighbouring country, he was unlikely to be caught.

'An elephant in Kenya is the same as an elephant in Uganda or Tanzania. But there is a discrepancy in penalties; most are not punitive. In some countries, they just receive a fine and the next day they are back in the bush, doing it again,' said Clement Mwale, an intelligence officer with the LATF.

'We had to go through established protocols and bureaucracy to get assistance from neighbouring countries, which gave criminals time to run free,' added Elema Halake, deputy head of intelligence at KWS.

Located on the premises of KWS headquarters, the LATF was launched to supplement wildlife crime-fighting activities in the region. It has six party states, which each contribute financial and human resources.

The LATF signed in 2006 a memorandum of understanding with INTERPOL, which maintains a regional bureau in Nairobi. The formalisation of ties with INTERPOL is expected to significantly enhance the task force’s ability to exchange information with law enforcement in other countries.


What to do with the seized tusks?

The average elephant tusk weighs 15 kilograms, so the two rooms of tusks in the KWS storage facility amount to some 36 tons of ivory, seized over the past 10 years. Previous seizures of tusks were burned; then-President Daniel Arap Moi presided over two mass burnings of seized tusks in 1990 and 1997 to ensure the tusks stay out of the hands of traffickers.

But questions remain about how to handle the seized goods. Is burning them the best solution?

'Some people say if you destroy this, this is national wealth, this is money,' said Clement Mwale.

But tusks cannot be legally sold because of national and international bans on ivory sales.

'There is no legal mechanism to monitor the sale of ivory. And the law enforcement capacity is not there in some countries,' said Mwale.

In 1997, party states to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which regulates international trade in plants and animals, voted to lift the total ban on ivory imports, allowing limited trade in some southern African countries. The KWS, which advocates a total ban, says this has stimulated poaching in Kenyan elephant ranges.

The tusks are emblematic of the challenges and seeming paradoxes of fighting wildlife crime. Criminals are employing increasingly sophisticated methods to poach rare plant and animal species. Law enforcement has made great progress in catching poachers, but there is no consensus – and a lot of controversy – about how to handle seized items.

Wildlife crime is one of the most lucrative illegal activities in the world, although quantifying it is guesswork at best.

'We can only guess based on what we seize. Some sources estimate that what is seized at the border constitutes only 10-15 per cent of what is traded,' Younger said.

For Kenya, protecting its diverse plant and animal species is not merely an ethical issue, but also a practical one – 12 per cent of the country’s GDP comes from tourists going on safari and visiting its national parks.

'It’s also important to remember that you have to look at the effect poaching has on economies. People don’t go to Africa to visit cathedrals,' said Peter Younger.

And in the absence of clear legal frameworks or policy, the tusks remain at the storage facility, joined by stacks of black-and-white Colobus monkey pelts, mounted leopard heads and thousands of other animal skins and trophies seized by the KWS.

Clement Mwale said he would like to see the items put into a special museum.