Why Ivory Burns Like Kenya’s Are Still Necessary

Poaching has declined thanks to stepped-up conservation efforts, but the country’s ports and airports remain wildlife trafficking hot spots.
Elephants walk through a swamp in Amboseli National Park, southeast of Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo: Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)
May 10, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

The elephants and rhinos roaming Kenya’s low plains and central highlands benefit from some of the strongest wildlife protections and strictest poaching laws on the continent, but the country continues to be a top transit hub for ivory and rhino horn trafficking, according to a new investigation.

TRAFFIC, the nonprofit wildlife monitoring network, found that since 2009 more ivory has been transported through Kilindini Port in Mombasa, Kenya, than along any other trade route in Africa. The port acts as a thoroughfare for countries such as Tanzania, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to transport illegal wildlife goods to Asian markets.

Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, was also listed as a key exit point from the continent for ivory and rhino horn.

“Corruption among government and private sector officials is a key enabling factor of the illegal wildlife trade,” according to the report, which was released Monday. “The fact that wildlife contraband, especially rhino horn and elephant ivory, has been exported from Kenya only to be seized in transit or in destination countries means that wildlife traffickers are able to exploit security loopholes in the country’s law enforcement network.”

Still, the report praised Kenya’s recent efforts to curb poaching. The killing of elephants and rhinos declined in 2015, while poaching figures for the sought-after species either rose or stayed steady across the rest of the continent.

The report also said that after years of recovery, Kenya’s elephant population is undergoing a marginal decline, with around 32,500 animals left in the wild—still well below the estimated population of 167,000 in 1973. Similarly, since 1970, Kenya’s rhinoceros population has fallen from around 20,000 to just 650 black and 381 white rhinos in 2014.

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“The decline of rhino poaching rates in Kenya shows that concerted conservation efforts based upon strong political will and increased expenditure can work,” Jo Shaw, rhino program manager at the World Wildlife Fund, said in a statement.

Kenya’s 2013 Wildlife Conservation and Management Act puts the punishment for killing an endangered or threatened species at a minimum of $200,000 and/or life imprisonment.

According to TRAFFIC’s report, only 4 percent of convictions of wildlife crimes between 2008 and 2013 resulted in jail time for the perpetrators. But in recent cases, convictions have ended in fines of more than $200,000 or significant jail time. Such was the case in the 2014 conviction of a Chinese ivory smuggler on his way from Mozambique through Kenya, and the 2015 conviction of a woman found with five pieces of elephant tusk. In May of this year, two Kenyans were convicted after being found in possession of three elephants.

TRAFFIC said the next step is to root out corrupt government and private sector officials and cooperate on an international level to arrest traffickers and go-betweens higher up the trade chain.

“Future enforcement interventions in Kenya and elsewhere in the region need to be internationally coordinated and focus on targeting the middlemen and kingpins of large-scale trafficking, rather than easily replaceable low-level poachers and transport mules,” Steven Broad, TRAFFIC’s executive director, said in a statement.

In a bid to limit elephant ivory that corrupt insiders could smuggle, Kenya set fire to the country’s entire stockpile of rhino horn and elephant tusk on April 30, eliminating more than 100 tons that might have ended up on the black market.

Critics of the burn said the stocked ivory could have been sold to lower international market demand and raise funds for conservation efforts. They said the burn also won’t stop poachers from killing elephants in the wild. But conservation groups such as the Wildlife Conservation Society argue that if history is any indication, selling stockpiles won’t help the elephants either.

A Kenya Wildlife Services ranger stands guard near illegal stockpiles of burning elephant tusks, ivory figurines, and rhinoceros horns in Nairobi National Park on April 30. (Photo: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

Since the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species’ temporary lift of the ivory trade ban in 2007, elephant poaching has only increased. At the time, CITES allowed some African countries to sell off their stockpiles of ivory from elephants that had died naturally in an attempt to lessen the lure of poaching elephants in the wild.

Resson Kantai Duff, program manager at conservation group Save the Elephants, said the burn solidifies Kenya’s stance that ivory should never be bought or sold, and no legal ivory market is sustainable for the species.

“It is a symbolic memorial to all those that have been killed,” Duff said in a statement. “We hope that this fire marks the beginning of the end of the ivory trade and that from here on, Africa’s ivory can stay where it belongs: on elephants.”