By Paula Kahumbu, Andrew Halliday
A huge seizure of ivory at Kenya's main port, Mombasa, tests the will of political leaders to apply the law on wildlife crime
The announcement of the seizure on Thursday (June 5th) of more than 200 elephant tusks in a motor vehicle warehouse in Mombasa was a rude but necessary awakening for us in Kenya.
This huge haul, following a tipoff to local police authorities, confirms Mombasa’s pivotal role as a transit point for smuggling ivory out of Africa.
The photographs show some gigantic tusks, undoubtedly from Kenya’s greatest tuskers. One enormous tusk in particular stood out; it can surely be linked to an individual elephant.
These can only have come from killing fields in Kenya’s flagship National Parks, like Tsavo, Marsabit, Samburu and Masai Mara.The last refuges for these magnificent animals are no longer safe havens, and are under siege by increasingly well-armed and equipped poachers.
Recent TV reports in Kenya have exposed the sophisticated organization of the poaching gangs, whose leaders are well-connected to Kenya’s ruling elite. In many cases their identities are known, but nobody dares to name them.
Media confusion around the circumstances of the latest seizure raises fears that once again the big fish will slip through the net. Reports initially indicated that two people had been arrested. Then the police further disclosed that the people arrested had tried to bribe them with Ksh 5 million (Kenyan shillings, about £34,000). By the end of the day, the two arrested had somehow transformed into just one.
Oddly – or perhaps not surprisingly – the main person apparently behind the trafficking could not be traced. Identified only as a “Mombasa tycoon”, aged 52, possibly of Arab heritage, closely linked to the political elite, his identity remains shadowy. After a whole day, officials claimed they “could not find him”.
Latest reports indicate that two people have been charged. The prosecutor has asked for time to conduct investigations and hearing for bail will be heard on Monday. On task is the new Wildilfe Crime Division of the Directorate of Public Prosecutions. This was set up recently in an attempt to fast track wildlife crime prosecutions and bypass local courts that were seen as more susceptible to bribery.
Prosecutors have many options, including seizing properties, bank accounts and anything that could be deemed the “proceeds of crimes”. They can also charge the offenders with tax evasion, attempted bribery, organized crime and other serious offences.
But so far, prosecutors have been unwilling to use these powers in cases of wildlife crime, or to seek the maximum sentences – a fine of Ksh 20 million or life imprisonment – stipulated under Kenya’s stringent new Wildlife Act.
The language in the Wildlife Act is rather vague and leaves open the possibility of imposing much lighter sentences. In this case the suspects might even get away with a charge of illegal possession of a government trophy, which carries a minimum fine of Ksh 1 million or just over £7,000. Not much for a cache of ivory worth over a million pounds.
Kenyan conservation organizations including WildlifeDirect and the African Network for Animal Welfare have begun lobbying parliament to amend the new law to raise the maximum fine to Ksh 100 million, with life imprisonment as the only alternative. Parliamentarians seem keen on the idea, but laws are only as effective as their implementation.
Like so many other high profile arrests, things in this case seem to be going cold horribly fast as the “untouchable” Mombasa businessman uses his influence, networks, cash and friends to get him out of the sticky situation.
The whole episode might sound like a plot from the TV series “Law and Order” but this is for real and the stakes are high. In reality Kenyan is at a crossroads. All the elements to successfully combat wildlife crime are in place: informants are supplying leads to the police, the police are making arrests, the prosecution service is organized to press charges, and the law allows for appropriate penalties.
The Kenyan public is fed up with seeing the nation’s wildlife disappear before their eyes and wants to see action. All that is lacking is the will of political leaders to set the machine they have built in motion, and let it run, no matter who gets caught up in the cogs.
For those of us agitating for change, this high profile case is the opportunity for Kenya to demonstrate its seriousness in combating wildlife crime. According to WildlifeDirect: “This is the moment for the government of Kenya to demonstrate that there are no sacred cows. No matter how high the perpetrators of these crimes are they must be brought to justice.”
The Kenyan government has been vocal at CITES and other big events. But it’s time to do more than talking and put our money where our mouth is. If we don’t have the courage to take on the big men and women who run the wildlife crime syndicates, we should shut up.
At the end of June, Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta will open the UNEP Governing Assembly meeting in Nairobi. In a speech to Ban Ki-moon and other dignitaries, he will be expected to demonstrate Kenya’s achievements in combating wildlife crime. Right now, Kenya has very little to show.
UPDATE 7 June: More evidence has emerged here of the people behind the crime and how it was organized, from the courageous testimony of one of the police officers who took part in the seizure. A Mombasa businessman, a local politician, and a high-level police chief are all implicated.