How safe are the ivory, rhino horn stockpiles in EA vaults?

Monday January 12 2015

An illegal ivory stockpile is burned at the Tsavo National Park on July 20, 2011. PHOTO | FILE |

Conservationists fear that elephant tusks and rhino horns stored in strong rooms and other protected areas in some African countries could be finding their way into the black market, which could complicate the war against poaching.

The worry comes in the wake of a new study by the Save The Elephants organisation, which shows that prices for illegal ivory have increased tenfold in the recent past.

In China, for example, the organisation says the retail prices have increased 13 times between 2002 and 2014 in Beijing shops. The demand, the report adds, is driven by wealthy Chinese buying more carvings made from ivory and whole elephant tusks as status symbol.

The theft of more than a tonne of ivory from the vaults of Uganda’s wildlife protection agency has left conservationists concerned about the safety of seized ivory in elephant range states.

Officials carrying out a routine check at the agency found more than 1,335 kilogrammes of ivory stockpile valued at over $1 million missing, a pointer to an inside job. This led to the suspension of Uganda Wildlife Authority’s executive director Andrew Seguya.

READ: Uganda suspends top officials following stolen ivory scandal


Most of the ivory seized in the country originates locally and from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Poaching is rampant in DRC due to the war between the government and rebels, in addition to the weak wildlife regulations.

Elephant and rhino populations have continued to decline in Africa and environmentalists worry that corrupt government officials might be tempted with the attractive prices to steal stockpiles held in strong rooms and sell them in the black market.

“We do not understand why Kenya and other African governments continue to keep stockpiles of ivory. The move only increases the temptation among some security officers and other officials to sell, given the growing demand in Asia,” says Paula Kahumbu, the chief executive officer of WildlifeDirect Kenya, a conservation organisation.

The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a UK-based conservation agency, accused Tanzanian officials of helping VIPs in a Chinese delegation to buy and ship out a massive consignment of ivory during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Tanzania in March, 2013.

READ: Tanzania, China on the spot over ivory

Though both the Chinese and Tanzania authorities dismissed the claims as a fabrication of desperate conservationists out to tarnish the reputation of the two countries, some environmental organisations argue that part of the ivory shipped out was stolen from stockpiles held by the East African country.

In Kenya, in 2013, unconfirmed amounts of ivory was stolen from State House, Mombasa, one of the most guarded government facilities in the country under unclear circumstances.

At first only three pieces of ivory were believed to have disappeared but further investigations revealed more were missing. Some of the lost trophies were believed to be part of a consignment intercepted at the port of Mombasa the same year.

“Most of the ivory and rhino horns seized are contraband and hence should be destroyed the way seized consignments of cocaine, heroin and marijuana are normally dealt with. Given our weak security system there is always a risk of the animal products being stolen and sold in the black market,” James Kiyangah, a conservationist working with communities in Kenya’s Rift Valley and Coast to promote ecotourism, concurs with Dr Kahumbu’s sentiments.

“We are asking East African governments to enhance security of our stockpiles to ensure they are not sold by corrupt officials out to make quick money because such an act will compromise our fight against poaching,”  says Mr Kiyangah.

Other countries outside East Africa have also reported incidents of tusks disappearing from strong rooms or facilities that were hitherto considered secure for storage.

In 2012, at least three tonnes of ivory was stolen from a strong room in Zambia’s Wildlife Authority leading to the arrest of two officers.

As a result, some conservationists are now pushing for the burning of the stockpiles held by the elephant range states to prevent corrupt government officials selling them hence further stimulating the illegal wildlife trade.

Kenya is one of the few African countries that has in the past burned its ivory stockpiles as a way of creating global awareness against the negative effects of the illegal trade in animal products.

The most memorable one was in 1989 when then president, Daniel arap Moi, burned 12 tonnes of ivory worth millions of dollars, following increased cases of poaching. At that time Kenya’s elephant population had declined to a paltry 16,000 from 167,000 in less than two decades as poachers took advantage of the country’s weak laws and lacklustre response.

The most recent burning was in 2011 by then president, Mwai Kibaki, who set on fire nearly five tonnes of ivory worth $16 million. The ivory was seized in Singapore and sent to Kenya where DNA tests showed the consignment originated from Tanzania and Malawi.

There are conflicting figures on the amount of ivory stockpiles held in the region since governments are normally reluctant to disclose the exact figures.

“The amount held cannot be disclosed for now. This is a security matter but we are assuring Kenyans that the ivory in our custody is safe,” says Paul Gathitu, the Kenya Wildlife Service spokesman.

Mr Gathitu says Kenya has an established system of managing and securing government trophy stockpiles, adding that conservationists should not worry much.

“The trophies seized are promptly weighed and appropriately marked with a unique number and information entered into a register for safe keeping,” he adds.

According to the KWS spokesman, if the country decides to dispose the stockpiles in future, the mechanism would follow the procurement and disposal procedures of both Kenya and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites).

Michael Gachanja, the executive director of the East African Wildlife Society, has no problem with stockpiling so long as the countries concerned ensure the products stored are secure.

“Countries must ensure that adequate security is in place so that ivory is not stolen and sold in the black market. It is what East African countries and others must do,” says Mr Gachanja.

Though burning confiscated ivory sends a clear message to the world on the government’s stand against poaching, the executive director argues that setting them ablaze frequently shows a country’s inability to secure its stockpiles.

“Countries must ensure their security apparatus is operating well. If this is done we would not worry about ivory being stolen from strong rooms,” he adds.

Tanzania is one of the countries with the largest caches of ivory not only in Africa but also in the world. However, the country has never burned its stockpiles.

In 2012 investigative journalist, Aidan Hartley, gained rare access to Tanzania’s warehouse, which held 90 metric tonnes of ivory valued at about $50million at that time. The amount in store has, however increased since 2012.

Unlike Kenya, Tanzania has always pushed for the sale of seized ivory and rhino horns, arguing that the money received could help in conservation efforts. Though the Tanzanian government has resisted pressure to burn its stockpile voluntarily, its officials have repeated that the country was ready to sell to any environmental organisation that wants to burn it.

In 2010, for example, the country unsuccessfully applied to Cites to be allowed to sell 90,000kg of its stockpile, then valued at $20 million.

At that time Tanzania teamed up with Zambia to push for a one-off sale arguing that their elephant populations were healthy and money received would be used for wildlife conservation. Their application was however rejected by Cites Conference of the Parties held, the same year, in Doha Qatar.

The rejection came after Kenya led other countries in putting up a spirited campaign to shoot down the Tanzania/Zambia request. The move by Kenya irked its neighbour, which accused it of betrayal. Countries wanting to sell their ivory stockpiles must garner the support of at least two-thirds of the 176 Cites member states.

In 2012, Tanzania again applied for a one-off sale of more than 100 tonnes of ivory to China and Japan, saying it would use the proceeds for elephant conservation. The application was, however, not discussed by Cites since the East African country withdrew the request, the following year, after heavy criticism from conservationists.

It seemed Tanzania was seriously considering burning its stockpiles, when President Jakaya Kikwete spoke strongly against illegal ivory trade at the London Conference on Illegal Wildlife Trade early last year. At the conference, Tanzania and other elephant range states made a commitment to ensure that stockpiles seized are put beyond economic use. The push to burn the stockpile have since weakened.

Despite the differences in opinion on how to deal with seized ivory, Mr Gathitu, says East African countries are collaborating well in the fight against poaching,  adding that the cross-border initiative, which uses regional and international arrangements such as the Lusaka Agreement Taskforce and Interpol, has recorded success.

Cross-border initiatives aside, Dr Kahumbu maintains it is time East African countries seriously considered burning their ivory stockpiles to maintain the tempo in the global campaign against poaching.

Though challenges remain, Mr Gathitu maintains that Kenya is making progress in the fight against poaching, adding that elephants and rhinos killed by poachers are on the decline. As at the end of last year, the country had lost 142 elephants and 30 rhinos to poachers compared to 302 elephants and 50 rhinos killed in 2013.

Poaching aside, other challenges Kenya faces in conserving its wildlife are habitat loss and land fragmentation due to population increase. The problem has led to increased human-wildlife conflict, which has led to more animal deaths.

However, East African countries will have to do more in ensuring ivory and rhino horns stockpiles are safe and away from unscrupulous individuals to win over sceptics.