By Tesfa Mogessie
Ethiopia has long been a favorite destination for foreign wildlife traffickers who buy endangered animals and ivory from local poachers, enjoying a loophole in the Ethiopian law.
"Between 2011 and 2014, nearly 560 foreign wildlife traffickers were caught engaged in illegally transiting ivory and live animals including birds," Daniel Paulos of the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA) told The Anadolu Agency on Monday.
The number of Ethiopians involved in this illegal trade, meanwhile, stood at 64, which is much less than the number of foreigners involved in the years between 2011- 2015, he said.
"Over the last eight months alone, 28 people from China, Nigeria and the U.S. were caught red-handed while transiting ivory through Ethiopian air and border posts," he added.
This is because, Paulos said, the Ethiopian law enacted to prosecute illegal wildlife traffickers and poachers does not see foreign nationals as perpetrators while only stipulating legal action against domestic offenders.
"This is the major factor for the overwhelming involvement of foreigners [in the illegal trade\," Paulos said.
Lions, black rhinos, elephants and different kinds of birds are among wild animals that are highly exposed to illegal poaching and trafficking in Ethiopia, he said.
"Ethiopian wolves are also critically endangered while elephants are also at risk," he said.
To curb this trend, Paulos said, the EWCA has enacted a raft of stringent rules last year to hold involved perpetrators responsible, whether they are local nationals or foreigners.
Under the new rules, a person who tries to tame, poach or traffic wild animals or their products illegally without the consultation of the authority shall be fined between $250 and $1500 or given a five-year prison term.
"The proclamation is being implemented in collaboration with the federal police, customs authority, the national intelligence service and the public at large," Paulos said.
According to the official, fines amounting to $ 300,000 were collected from illegal poachers and traffickers between 2011 and 2015.
"But following coordination between the authorities, stakeholders and neighboring countries, trafficking via border areas and airport is on the decline,” he said.
Paulos said the authorities have identified the chain through which live animals and their products are transported from Ethiopian forests into the capital Addis Ababa where foreign traffickers uses money to coax poachers to do poaching on large scale.
The chain starts with local poachers killing elephants and extracting teeth and ivory in the western and southern parts of the country before supplying them directly to handicraft shops in Addis Ababa, where they are changed into different ornaments and jewels.
"The time has gone in Addis Ababa where ivory bracelets were openly displayed in shops of handicrafts," he said.
The handcraft shops, in turn, sell the products to souvenir shops which would sell them to foreigners, he said, noting that the souvenir shops keep the ivories hidden and only produce them to foreign traffickers.
As people become more aware of the matter and give tipoff to the police against illegal poachers and traffickers, dealing in such products has become more difficult, Paulos noted.
Recently, the government has burned to ash six tons of ivory to discourage poaching and wildlife trafficking.
Apes, monkeys, birds and lions are the most wild animals exposed to poaching.
Local residents even cage them in their homes to tame them before moving them to neighboring countries, Paulos said, citing the case of six cheetahs that had been illegally transported to Somaliland.
In order to save the animals captured by poachers, the EWCA in collaboration with Born Free, a UK-run and funded foundation, opened the Wildlife Rescue, Conservation and Education Centre (Ensessakotteh), around 35km away from the capital Addis Ababa in 2008.
"The center has played a pertinent role in wild life conservation and protection," Paulos told AA.
On an area of 77.8 hectares, the center shelters different animals, including lions, cheetahs, tortoises, apes and monkeys - all captured from different corners of the country by illegal poachers.
"After poached animals become ready to live with their kinds in the wild, the center releases them in their home areas," Mulugeta Mekonnen, who works with Ensessakotteh, told AA.
According to him, the center thus far has released monkeys and apes to the wild. However, lions would not be released as their wild counterparts may be hostile to them.
Currently, Mekonnen said, the center is giving refuge to about 91 illegally poached animals.