The splashing of the iconic Mombasa ‘tusks’ with red paint and graffiti on Friday morning has drawn mixed reactions from Kenyans with some terming it plain vandalism.
But there are those who saw it as a statement by wildlife activists to the government to take serious action that would stop, once and for all, poaching rings from using the Port of Mombasa for trafficking in ivory.
The activists have told the government to deal with the customs officials at the port, who they accuse of constantly sabotaging container scanners so that they do not detect illegal ivory passing through the port.
That Mombasa is such a key exit point for illegal ivory is underscored by a recent report by the Born Free Foundation that says the port leads in ivory export in the world.
The Out of Africa: Mapping out the Global Trade in Illicit Elephant Ivory report, says Mombasa is currently the continent’s single most active ivory trafficking hub for contraband heading to China, Thailand and Vietnam.
It is apparent that although the government has publicly stated its intention to stem poaching and ivory trafficking, conservationists are not convinced it has put its best foot forward to attain this.
They accuse government officials and politicians of colluding in the trade. The Born Free Foundation report says that “a significant amount of evidence” affirms this collusion.
Investigations have revealed how meticulous the operations of vicious poaching rings are and that they might be having the protection of influential politicians, the police and senior civil servants.
There are those who give orders for elephants and rhinos to be killed. Then there are those whose work is to locate and target the animals. In addition, there are informers who are said to be unsuspected insiders working mainly in the private game ranches and conservancies.
In this group too, are trekkers who pose as local livestock herders and whose role is also to identify the target animals.
This lot hands over the information to another specialised group - the killers whose ‘docket’ includes deciding on when it is safe to do the killing.
After laying down the strategy, they seek guns from people who are suspected to be retired Kenya Wildlife Service rangers, policemen or those currently serving in the country’s security and ranger forces.
The latter work closely with trusted security officers in the wildlife facility to ensure the killing and detachment of the highly priced trophies is done without any hitch.
The poached animal parts are then stored in safe houses where they are packaged, mostly, in containers. Later, the loot is shipped to selected destinations in the Far East mainly through Mombasa Port.
LINKED TO POACHING
To get to the port, some road construction companies are said to render a hand by allowing the trophies to be transported in their containers.
This elaborate organisation ensures that very little of the poaching operations is given away particularly during the planning, killing and shipping of the animal parts to international destinations.
Intriguingly, some of the top conservationists, particularly those owning or managing expansive game ranches, have been linked to poaching.
Acting KWS Director General, William Kiprono recently accused some of them of collaborating with poachers to kill wildlife. “We have enough proof that some of the poachers are actually aided by the so-called conservationists.”
They allegedly provide poachers with powerful weapons to kill the animals and “later use photos of the dead rhinos and elephants to solicit funds globally” under the guise of fighting poaching in the country.
Those who have seen the elaborate security arrangements in place at the ranches, tend to agree with Mr Kiprono.
They say that it is almost impossible for poachers to penetrate them without insider assistance.
A good number are surrounded by electric ring-fencing systems that offer “maximum” protection against poaching. This is backed by an extensive monitoring and security systems which allow wildlife to migrate through it “whilst still prohibiting movement of rhino.”
Behind the tremendous upsurge in poaching appears to be a sharp increase in ivory prices over the past five years.
When he testified before the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs last year, the founder of Save the Elephant NGO, Mr Iain Douglas-Hamilton, said that local black-market ivory prices around Samburu, Kenya had more than doubled since 2007.
“A year ago, we calculated that ivory (from) the largest male elephant poached in the Samburu population was equivalent to 1.5 years’ salary of a wildlife ranger, or 15 years’ salary of an unskilled worker.”
He said: “The prices have been so attractive that criminals are willing to target even well protected, closely monitored populations.”
Other sources show that a kilo of rhino horn has been fetching $65,000 (Sh5,720,000) in the international black market. This is largely what has lately fuelled the illicit trade in ivory.
Indeed, data from TRAFFIC’s Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS) shows that though volumes of illegal ivory have been increasing since 2004, the years 2009, 2010 and 2011 saw the greatest volumes being seized over the last 23 years.
TRAFFIC is a joint programme of the World Wide Fund (WWF) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) while ETIS is a system that tracks illegal trade in elephant ivory using records of ivory seized in different parts of the world since 1989.
Former KWS director Julius Kipng’etich had said that with US assistance, KWS was modelling the training of rangers along the lines of US Marine Corps besides building a forensic and DNA laboratory to help in the fight against wildlife crimes.
Mr Douglas-Hamilton requested the United States government for drones, helicopters, planes, more trained tracker teams as well as un-manned drones.
“To defeat poaching, the use of remote sensors, gunshot indicators and drones would help to give an edge over well-armed and highly-motivated criminal gangs,” he said.