By George Omondi
Kenya’s campaign to protect the Sh100 billion-a-year tourism sector is set for a major boost today when China publicly destroys 6.1 tonnes of confiscated ivory and other animal products.
In a letter addressed to the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) last week, China invited representatives from foreign embassies, international organisations, and government departments to witness the event.
The Department of International Co-operation and the State Forestry Administration announced the intention to burn illegal ivory and other wildlife products in Guangzhou — a major hub for ivory trade — after concerted international pressure to close its market for animal trophies.
“We are happy that at last the markets for this illegal business are being dealt with and this is going to be a major blow for poachers. We hope that China is serious in this campaign,” said Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) senior assistant director of security Julius Kimani.
The burning of the 6.1 tonnes of ivory stockpiled over the years marks the first major commitment by the Chinese government to publicly fight the multi-billion-dollar illegal wildlife trade.
READ: Poachers thrive on Asia’s growing demand for ivory
In Kenya, the elephant and the rhino — the key targets of poachers — are important drivers of the safari-driven tourism industry where together with the buffalo, the lion and the leopard, they form the Big Five that attracts 1.7 million visitors annually.
Kenya has been leading a coalition of African countries in championing a ban on trade in ivory under the United Nation’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
In 1989, then president Daniel arap Moi burned 12 tonnes of elephant tusks in a gesture meant to persuade the world to halt the ivory trade. Poaching was then largely linked to the reduction of Kenya’s elephant herds to 17,000 from 65,000 in 1979.
“To stop the poacher, the trader must be also be stopped and to stop the trader, the final buyer must be convinced not to buy ivory. I appeal to people all over the world to stop buying ivory,’’ Mr Moi said.
Kenya has about 40,000 elephants at the moment. The coalition has frequently identified China as the last bastion of ivory trade with campaigners interpreting Beijing’s reluctance to take drastic action as tacit support for the illegal trade that feeds a segment of its economy.
China’s change in attitude comes just days after President Uhuru Kenyatta signed the Wildlife Conservation and Management Bill. The new law imposes life imprisonment and a fine of more than Sh20 million on poachers and dealers in animal parts, especially the elephants and rhinos.
READ: Why poachers have defied torching of ivory
Despite several campaigns at the national level to strengthen regulatory and enforcement regimes, experts see the tough action by the Chinese government as a watershed moment in the fight against international trade in ivory.
In a statement issued on Friday, African Wildlife Foundation’s CEO Patrick Bergin described the move as “courageous and a critical first step” by China to tackle wildlife trafficking and elephant poaching among its citizens and around the world.
“As the largest market for ivory in the world, China has a very important role to play in helping end the elephant slaughter in Africa,” Mr Bergin said.
In Kenya, poachers killed at least 137 elephants and 24 rhinos between January and May last year with KWS rangers managing to arrest 123 suspects.
Over the period, 5,842 kilogrammes of ivory and rhino horns, 22 firearms and 1,141 bullets were confiscated according to KWS records.
The spate of attacks at the game parks forced the government to recruit more rangers and push through the new wildlife law that has elevated such crimes to capital offence. Experts say China’s gesture will now address the demand pressures that have driven the illegal trade.
“China will be joining a number of other countries — including the United States, Kenya, Gabon, the Philippines, and Great Britain — in condemning, at the very top levels of government, the illegal wildlife trade and its consequences,” said Mr Bergin.
The US government took a similar step in September, incinerating six tonnes of confiscated ivory to send a message to poachers.