Blame archaic laws for thriving ivory trade

Saturday July 06 2013

Ciku Kimeria

Most Kenyans will never forget the 1989 burning of 12 tonnes of ivory by the then president Daniel Moi, and Kenya’s erstwhile head of wildlife conservation and avid conservationist, Dr Richard Leakey. 

The smouldering ivory signified Kenya’s strong stance against the illegal ivory trade — an activity that had reduced the country’s elephant population by over 80 per cent in under two decades.

The 12 tonnes of ivory represented 2,500 elephants, laughtered in the quest for ivory.

More than two decades after this symbolic event, elephant poaching levels are at their highest in the past 10 years and ivory seizures are at the highest level since 1989. In 2011, officials confiscated an estimated 23 tonnes of ivory in 17 large-scale (at least 800 kilogrammes) seizures. In 2012, Kenya lost 384 elephants, up from 289 in 2011.

Despite the strong stance signified in 1989, the number of elephants in Kenya has declined from 167,000 in 1973 to 38,000 today. If urgent action is not taken, our generation could be the one that pushes the elephant into extinction.

It seems inconceivable that elephant extinction is an imminent threat, given the lessons learned in the 1970s and 1980s when elephant populations drastically decreased and extinction was in the foreseeable future. How did the situation become so dire?


Some people blame a 2007 decision made at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), which approved controlled export of ivory from three Southern African countries.

This decision has been blamed for increasing demand for ivory consuming nations (mostly in Asia), thereby increasing poaching in other African countries to serve a growing consumer market.

Others blame the rise in poaching on the consumer nations for not taking punitive measures to curb the sale of ivory in their countries, while others blame corrupt high-level government officials in supplier nations, who turn a blind eye to poaching in their countries in exchange for bribes.

To understand the complexity of the issues and to come up with actionable strategies to preserve our national heritage, we need to analyse issues both on the supply and demand side.

On the supply side, challenges leading to the rise in poaching and wildlife trafficking include underfunded enforcement efforts, trivial penalties that do not match the severity of the crime, and lack of a systematic and co-ordinated approach to dealing with the issue across borders.

In February 2012, hundreds of elephants were slaughtered in a single incident in Bouba N’Djida National Park in Cameroon by poaching gangs on horseback armed with military ammunition.

The gangs are believed to have originated from Chad and Sudan. One challenge to enforcement is that poachers are generally better equipped than park wardens.

Enforcement efforts are underfunded, in part because wildlife trafficking is seen as an environmental issue, putting it low on government agendas.

The trivial punishments don’t help. Derived from archaic wildlife laws, their lack of deterrent power also contributes to low success in the fight against poaching and wildlife trafficking.

Kenyans were outraged recently when a Chinese national in transit from Kinshasa was arrested in Kenya with 439 pieces of ivory weighing 16.6 kilogrammes and valued at close to $20,000, only to be fined $375 and released to travel onward to Hong Kong.

Kenya’s current fines are based on the Wildlife Act of 1976, last revised in 1989. A new Bill with harsher penalties was drafted in 2006 but has not been passed by parliament.

On the demand side, consumers are generally uninformed about how the trade impacts on wildlife, and in many markets, cultural “urban legends” that attribute miraculous powers to wildlife products are rampant.

Rhino horn, for example, is marketed as a cancer medication and sometimes as an aphrodisiac among affluent people in some Asian countries.

As a result, rhino horn now fetches around $60,000 per kilogramme (according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime) — twice the equivalent weight value of gold and platinum — and it is now more valuable on the black market than diamonds and cocaine.

Yet the penalties associated with trafficking rhino horn are not aligned to its value.

Even if some consumers would oppose in principle the senseless killing of wildlife, they lack knowledge that might lead them to eschew purchasing ivory and rhino horn products.

Ciku Kimeria is a consultant at Dalberg Global Development Advisors in Nairobi