It started on August 14th with a quick-witted Kenyan customs official and some bags of macadamia nuts that seemed just a tad too heavy. It ended eight days later when Chen Biemei, a Chinese woman, was found guilty of smuggling ivory and was sentenced to two years and seven months in jail. It was a rare custodial sentence at a time when the rate of poaching African elephants and rhinos has shot up alarmingly. The woman’s punishment has raised hopes among conservationists that the authorities are at last ready to get tough.
James Isiche of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, an international lobby founded in Canada, hopes that the conviction may frighten smugglers, especially in Asia, where growing prosperity has increased the demand for ivory and rhino horn. The price paid to Kenyan poachers for ivory has jumped fivefold in the past two years. Last year at least 360 elephants and 19 rhinos are known to have been killed in Kenya alone.
In the first six months of this year more illegal ivory was seized than in the whole of 2012. The jailing of Ms Chen, who might have expected a fine under anti-poaching and smuggling laws that had hitherto been only laxly enforced, has been put down to public anger in Kenya at the loss of valuable wildlife. A campaign called “Hands off our elephants” has caught the attention of urban Kenyans and is being supported by the wife of the country’s new president, Uhuru Kenyatta. The fact that the sentence was handed down while he was in China negotiating trade deals has encouraged conservationists all the more. New laws calling for longer sentences and stiffer fines are in the offing. The government has also promised to deploy another 1,000 wildlife rangers to combat the poaching gangs, who are often sophisticated and well armed.
But more guns and tougher laws will not stem the tide on their own. Juliet King, a conservationist in northern Kenya, says that social pressure is just as influential. Recently four rhino poachers were persuaded to hand themselves in when tribal elders threatened to curse their families. The suspects admitted spearing a black rhino to death; a bond was set at the unusually high price of nearly $12,000. Alas, the magistrates later lost their nerve and let the men be bailed for one-fifth of that amount. In some Asian markets the horn they hacked off the rhino can fetch up to $100,000 a kilo—or three times as much for a decent-sized horn.