One of the most active transit routes for illegal forest products in East Africa is the Kenya-Tanzania border.
A recent study by the Tanzania Natural Resource Forum (TNRF) and the East African Wildlife Society (EAWLS) identified the Holili-Taveta and Horohoro-Lunga border points as the main transit routes for the products.
The Horohoro-Lunga border was found to be the main entry point for timber, charcoal and wood for carvings, while Holili-Taveta border point was used to smuggle poles.
“Some of the trade is illegal as it is either not accounted for, or crosses borders by unregulated and unofficial routes,” says the study titled “The Trade in Forest Products between Kenya and Tanzania.”
Kenya’s Environment Cabinet Secretary, Prof Judi Wakhungu, conceded East African countries are facing a major challenge in fighting complex environmental crimes, but added that the member states will do their utmost best to tackle the menace.
“Illegal trade in flora and fauna is a major challenge in the region given its sophistication, but we believe through cooperation among member states we will succeed in protecting our resources,” added Prof Wakhungu.
The study found that illegal traders falsify documents, undervalue their products or use unofficial routes to evade inspection and taxation both in Kenya and Tanzania.
Information gathered from the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (Kephis) indicated that sandalwood and other valuable wood products from Kenya (especially those falling under presidential decree) are sometimes transported in oil tankers to Tanzania.
However, conservationists concede that it is difficult to monitor the trade in the region as the harvesting of the tree is banned in Kenya but a sandalwood factory is licensed to operate in Tanzania.
The illegal forest products, the study found, were transported on trucks, motorbikes, bicycles, handcarts and donkeys.
To effectively tackle the trade and ensure the region’s forest is protected, Michael Gachanja, the executive director of EAWLS, said East African Community member states need to harmonise their environmental laws.
“Currently our laws are disjointed, each country operating its own set of rules and regulations. This makes the fight against environmental crimes difficult. Harmonisation of laws will also help enforcement efforts,” said Mr Gachanja.
The EAWLS executive director’s sentiments are supported by Unep, which says environmental crimes have remained a threat due to modest enforcement measures and lack or inadequate investigative capacity.
“Prosecution and sentences for environmental crime often reflect petty crimes or minor offences and too often they are limited to low-level impoverished criminals,” said Unep in its Environmental Crimes Crisis Report.
In some places the trade has thrived because of lack of personnel to effectively police protected areas. In many African countries, for example, there are still very few rangers on the ground, who are paid poorly and work under harsh conditions.
According to Unep, over 1,000 rangers are killed annually in service in Africa, Latin America and Asia, while on duty protecting some of the world’s priceless natural resources.
Increasing the presence of frontline rangers and improving their welfare will not only check the increase in environmental crimes, but also reduce the negative impacts on tourism and the welfare of the local population.
“An effective response to environmental crime must therefore include both good governance and enforcement efforts, both in the short and long-term,” adds Unep.