Kenyan, Tanzanian poachers now gang up with Chinese criminals

Saturday February 14 2009

A herd of elephants graze in the Amboseli National Park, with Mt Kilimanjaro in the background. Photo/ANTHONY KAMAU

A herd of elephants graze in the Amboseli National Park, with Mt Kilimanjaro in the background. Photo/ANTHONY KAMAU 

By JOHN MBARIA

Gangs of poachers bringing together Kenyans and Tanzanians with business links to Chinese nationals appear to have invaded a number of Kenyan parks.

The gangs have been responsible for killing 18 elephants in Amboseli and a further 80 in the Samburu and Laikipia areas over the past one year, says a report released by a wildlife body that is backed by information from the Kenya Wildlife Service.

The Amboseli Trust for Elephants says that ivory from nine of the 18 elephants killed in Amboseli disappeared without trace and that the fate of 22 more is not yet known. It says that some of the ivory was sold to Chinese nationals working in the country.

The Kenya Wildlife Service concedes that poaching has been on the increase in Amboseli as well as in the Laikipia and Samburu ecosystem.

“During the past year alone, a total of 80 elephants were killed,” said KWS Head of Elephant Programme Patrick Omondi.

At Amboseli, KWS says poachers killed only six of the 18 elephants while the rest were victims of human-elephant conflict.

It attributes this to a decision made by the UN Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) two years ago to allow the Southern African countries — Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana — to sell ivory to China and Japan.

The Trust’s Report on Elephant Poaching and Ivory Trade in the Amboseli Area says local Maasai people act as ivory brokers while Tanzanians and Kenyans from elsewhere in the country do the actual trading.

On at least four occasions in 2008, Chinese nationals were reported to have been arrested at Nairobi’s international airport while attempting to smuggle ivory out of the country. The latest such arrest was last Saturday.

Contacted by The EastAfrican, the press attache at the Embassy of China in Nairobi, Liu Bo, revealed that the embassy had been contacted by KWS and the police over the matter but denied the involvement of any Chinese nationals based in Kenya.

“No Chinese based in Kenya is involved in ivory smuggling,” Mr Liu said, adding that most of those arrested at the airport are usually on transit from other African countries and that the embassy had issued notices to all Chinese nationals in Kenya to abide by Kenyan laws.

But writing to the KWS Director, Dr Julius Kipng’etich, on January 29, the head of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, Cynthia Moss, said, “It [the report] presents alarming data indicating that elephant poaching and ivory trade are rapidly becoming established along the border and possibly in other places as well.”

The letter continues, “During 2008, 40 elephants were wounded or killed by spearing, poisoned arrows or bullets... Of these, we know that 18 have died.” She also says that her organisation does not know the fate of another 22 that were reported wounded.

KWS confirms that 18 elephants were killed in 2008, but the wildlife body denies that poachers killed all of them.

KWS head of communications Kentice Tikolo told The EastAfrican, “Within the past year, the ecosystem has witnessed an upsurge in elephant poaching and illegal ivory trade... elephant poaching and human-elephant conflicts are currently some of the major causes of elephant mortality within the Amboseli ecosystem.”

Poaching, she said, contributed to the death of six of the elephants, while natural causes accounted for four deaths.

Further, the wildlife body says three of the deaths were due to human-wildlife conflict while KWS personnel killed one animal on problem animal-control.

However, the KWS has not arrested any of the poachers at Amboseli.

“We have not made any arrests yet, but our investigation team is on the ground,” said Mr Omondi.

However, he did not say how many of the tusks from the 18 elephants were recovered nor how deeply any Chinese nationals are involved.

Elephant Trust says some of the tusks were stolen; “Some of the individual [elephants] known to be dead have disappeared and we do not know if their tusks were taken,” says its report, which also claims that of the 18 elephant carcasses that its personnel recorded, the tusks of nine were taken by unknown people. “This is the first time ivory has been stolen from carcasses in Amboseli,” it adds.

In a telephone conversation with The EastAfrican, Ms Moss said, “We have information that some foreign nationals working in Kenya have been enticing local Maasai people to bring them ivory, bush meat and dogs.”

She further said that since her organisation did the report in January, one more elephant has been killed while three more have been speared.

On July 16 last year, the media reported that three Chinese men had been seized with illegal ivory at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport at three different times.

The report said the suspects — Yu Zhong, Zhngle Chen and Liu Songlu — were also found with lion’s teeth, ivory bracelets and necklaces and later charged with illegal possession of government trophies at Makadara law courts in Nairobi.

Before that, on January 24, Customs officials at the same airport seized an assortment of ivory products weighing 83.5kg; on May 14, police at JKIA reportedly arrested two people who were in possession of elephant tusks weighing 110.5kg and valued at $6,400.

The Kenya Airports Authority also seized two pieces of raw ivory on July 13 last year. A newspaper report said the suspect had attempted to smuggle the ivory to China through Doha.

However, the seizures of ivory being smuggled out of the country have raised concerns over whether KWS is up to the job of protecting the country’s elephant population from poachers.

“If a population that is as well known and protected as the Amboseli elephants can be killed by poachers, one wonders what is happening to elephants in other Kenyan parks,” said a former head of the Born Free Foundation, Winnie Kiiru.

Talking to The EastAfrican from South Africa, Ms Kiiru said she feared that elephants in Tsavo, Meru and other national parks could be in even more danger because they are not as well protected as those in Amboseli.

“It is a really big issue… this is the beginning; if this trend is not checked, Kenya could lose its elephant population,” said Ms Moss, pointing out that Kenya lost 85 per cent of its elephants between 1974 and 1989. “This could happen again, particularly because poachers target big bulls for their large tusks, thus affecting the breeding of the affected herds.”

Ms Moss says KWS is too financially handicapped to effectively conduct anti-poaching operations in the park.

She has indeed offered to help raise funds to enable KWS to protect the beasts.

“We are aware that there is a tremendous financial constraint on KWS because of the lack of revenue from tourists. We are offering to help in any way we can in raising funds for KWS to send the necessary anti-poaching forces to the area.”