Kenya Wildlife Service director William Kiprono and his deputy Patrick Omondi, who are the custodians of the country’s wildlife, have lately been spending sleepless nights.
Poaching, especially of elephants, has exploded in the parks and reserves and, as they try to deal with the menace, Kenya and neighbours Uganda and Tanzania have been put on the “Gang of Eight” list by conservationists.
This is the global list of countries at the heart of the unprecedented rise in the killing of African elephants and the illegal ivory trade.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) has cited eight countries that it says are responsible for the increase in elephant deaths and the thriving illegal ivory trade.
The eight are the source countries Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, transit countries Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, and destination countries Thailand and China.
“Wherever we go, people are asking us why East Africans are killing the beautiful animal. It is really embarrassing,” said Mr Omondi, who is in charge of wildlife conservation.
Concerned about the increased killing of African elephants, Cites has warned the eight countries to stop the trade or face sanctions. They have up to March 2014 to prove that they have taken the necessary measures.
The three East African countries are required to submit specific action plans on how they intend to tackle the problem of poaching and the illegal ivory trade.
The mandate of Cites, which brings together 178 countries, is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. For a long time now, Cites has been lobbying the eight countries to help curb the illegal ivory trade.
And rather than dangle the carrot, this time round the body is considering using the stick of sanctions to ensure that the “gang” toes the line.
“The majority in the East African region are not poachers,” said Mr Kiprono. “It is only a few individuals who are spoiling it for everybody.”
But statistics on the African elephant are grim. The slaughter of the animals in the three East African countries has soared in the past decade, as poachers strive to meet the demands of an insatiable market in Asia.
According to conservationist John Hemingway, a recent survey by National Geographic in different cities in China of individuals earning $32,000 and above a year found that 8 per cent owned ivory products and 83 per cent of them intend to buy more.
Sixty-eight per cent of the owners admitted that they were aware the products were made from illegal ivory.
The major problem is that the multibillion-dollar business has been aided by a chaotic wildlife protection strategy in the East African region.
Tanzania, which has one of the largest elephant populations in the world, has recorded a nearly 42 per cent decline in the number of elephants in its two leading sanctuaries, Selous Game Reserve and Mikumi National Park.
A recent census by the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute revealed that elephant populations in the two sanctuaries had declined to 43,552 in 2009 from 74,900 in 2006.
Tanzania remains a leading source of ivory and the elephant population, which stands at around 70,000, is destined for further decimation.
It is closely followed by Kenya, in whose backyard poachers have outmanoeuvred security personnel in many instances.
KWS spokesman Paul Mbugua said the country has lost more than 1,000 elephants in the past three years.
“In 2010, we lost 289 elephants, in 2011, we lost 289, and in 2012 we lost 384. As at mid July, we had lost 172 elephants to poaching. Tsavo has recorded more elephant loss to poaching than any other area,” Mr Mbugua said.
In Uganda, a similar trend has been reported. The elephant population stands at about 5,000, down from 20,000 in the 1960s.
Environmentalists have accused powerful, well-connected individuals in the three countries of involvement in the illegal trade.
Early this year, conservationists accused the Uganda People’s Defence Forces of involvement in elephant poaching in the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, an allegation the government vehemently denied.
In Tanzania, both conservationists and Members of Parliament from the opposition party Chadema have accused the government of aiding and protecting influential people involved in illegal ivory trade.
Recently, the Kenya government was embarrassed after ivory was discovered in State House Mombasa. Two security officials accused of colluding with outsiders to smuggle ivory worth millions of shillings were sacked.
Some of the stolen ivory was believed to have been part of a consignment seized at the Mombasa port. The security officials are yet to explain why ivory was being kept in a tightly guarded state lodge, and who took it there.
According Mr Kiprono, the illegal ivory trade is an elaborate network that involves poor herders at the bottom of the supply chain and rich individuals at the top.
“Herders who use poisoned arrows to kill elephants are paid peanuts — between Ksh200 and Ksh20,000 ($2.29-$229) for the ivory. The tusks then move to dealers who are paid by their financiers, who then organise exportation of the ivory,” he said.
But why should the three East African countries take the Cites warning seriously?
Tourism is a major foreign exchange earner in the region and elephants are a major attraction for African safari lovers.
In Uganda, tourism earnings rose to $805 million last year from $662 million in 2010, while Tanzania’s revenues increased to $1.56 billion, from $1.35 billion in 2011. Kenya earned $1.13 billion, down from $1.15 billion over the same period.
Foreign exchange earnings may decline sharply if Cites decides to impose sanctions. In fact, the three East African countries could be banned from all wildlife trade, including the lucrative exports of orchids and crocodile skin.
To redeem the image of East Africa and ensure the elephant population in the region has a brighter future, conservationists have now launched a campaign dubbed “Hands off our Elephants.”
The campaign, organised by the charitable organisation WildlifeDirect, founded by renowned conservationist Richard Leakey, plans to create awareness about the poaching menace in the eight countries.
The campaigners have already won the support of First Lady Margaret Kenyatta and Kenya Airways chief executive officer Titus Naikuni.
Paula Kahumbu, chief executive officer of WildlifeDirect, said the campaign is a partnership between the government and NGOs.
“We will not only educate the public on the importance of preserving our wildlife but also work with the judiciary. Magistrates are important partners in this fight and it is imperative that they are brought on board,” Dr Kahumbu said.
Apart from the campaign, the Kenya government is reviewing its wildlife laws to come up with stricter penalties, as weak laws have been the country’s Achilles heel in wildlife conservation in the region.
According to Environment Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhungu, the new Wildlife Conservation and Management Bill, which proposes stricter punishment for wildlife-related crime, will soon be tabled in the National Assembly for debate.
“We have been working hard to have this Bill out, and I am happy that it has finally been gazetted and will soon be debated in parliament,” she said.
The good news is that under the new Bill, wildlife-related crimes will be considered as economic crimes and will carry stiffer penalties of up to five years in jail, a million shillings plus fine, or both.
The Cabinet secretary said Kenya had established canine units at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and Moi International Airport, Mombasa, and further plans were under way to set up another one at the Eldoret International Airport to check trafficking in ivory.
Prof Wakhungu said since the establishment of the units, security officers had seized up to eight tonnes of ivory destined for foreign markets.
KWS has also promised to employ more personnel to beef up security in the protected areas.
The organisation’s spokesman said 500 rangers will be recruited from the National Youth Service by the end of this month.
“The second group of 500 will be recruited from among the members of the public, once the first group has been trained and equipped,” he said