In July 1989, when nearly all else had failed, retired President Daniel arap Moi torched 12 tonnes of elephant tusks in a brave attempt to persuade the world to stop ivory trade.
The dramatic event at the Nairobi National Park demonstrated Kenya’s political will to bring to an end the poaching menace that had reduced the country’s elephant population to 17,000 from 65,000 a decade earlier, while ensuring the contraband tusks did not find a market.
“To stop the poacher, the trader must also be stopped and to stop the trader, the final buyer must be convinced not to buy ivory,’’ Mr Moi said.
Twenty-two years later, in July 2011, Mr Moi’s successor President Mwai Kibaki set fire to more than five tonnes of ivory at the Manyani KWS Training Camp in another dramatic attempt to stem growth of the illegal trade.
The 335 ivory tusks and 41,000 trinkets — all valued at about Sh1.5 billion — had been confiscated in Singapore and shipped to Kenya, although DNA testing later showed that the batch originated from Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia.
Although public burning of ivory was noble, it did little to eliminate the poaching gangs.
The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) data shows an alarming surge in poaching. Last year, Kenya lost 384 elephants and 29 rhinos to poachers, compared to 289 elephants and 25 rhinos in 2011. Conservationists say the number may be much higher since most killings occur in remote areas and the carcasses are never found.
Last December, nine elephants were shot and killed outside the Tsavo East National Park in south-eastern Kenya. A few weeks later on January 4, an entire family of 12 was killed in the same park, touching off a global outcry.
Wildlife activists say that the killings in Tsavo are a stark reminder of the epic elephant slaughter of the 1980s when more than half of Africa’s elephant population was wiped out by poachers.
“Although poaching is currently focused in Tsavo, Samburu and to a lesser extent Maasai Mara, the problem is increasing rapidly and it is perfectly possible that we could reach the same levels as the 1980s,” said Ian Craig, who runs the Northern Rangeland Trust, a community conservation initiative.
The surge in elephant poaching is blamed on the rising demand for ivory in the Middle East and China – where elephant tusks can fetch about Sh78,000 per kilo.
“The key reason for the surge is the increased demand for ivory in Eastern Asia that was fuelled by the two “one off” sales from Southern Africa which re-ignited the demand that had been suppressed for 20 years by the 1989 CITES [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora] ban on the trade in Ivory,” said Craig.
According the CEO of WildlifeDirect Dr Paula Kahumbu, the rising wealth in China has pushed up the price of ivory thus increasing incentives for poaching.
On January 15, some 638 pieces of ivory worth an estimated Sh100 million was intercepted at the port of Mombasa by customs officials. The consignment, weighing two tonnes, was packed in a 20-foot container that was destined for Indonesia. Several people have since been arraigned in court over the contraband ivory.
According to Dr Christian Turner, British High Commissioner to Kenya, proceeds from poaching are increasingly being used by terrorists, militia and organised crime syndicates to finance criminal activities around the world.
“We feel it (poaching) has links to terrorist networks. It is a security issue,” he says.
Last month, police in Lamu arrested a suspected militiaman with more than Sh1.5 million he reportedly obtained from the illegal trade.
Police claim the man was trying to cross to Somalia to meet Al-Shabaab members with the loot when he was arrested.
In addition to the high demand in Middle East and China, conservationists are pointing an accusing finger at the Kenyan government for its failure to deal firmly with poachers and corrupt officials.
“The scale of elephant and rhino poaching and trafficking of ivory and rhino horn through Kenya is at a record high and this suggests a breakdown of law and order, and high level corruption,” said Dr Kahumbu.
“The government must respond by using the full range of criminal offences that could apply to these crimes, including Proceeds of Organized Crime Act and the Corruption and Economic Crimes Act which will result in heavy jail sentences and loss of assets,” she said.
In effort to halt the poaching menace, the government has directed the KWS to enlist the police and military in all parks and reserves.
According to KWS director William Kiprono the wildlife agency, with the help of the government, will embark on seizing assets associated with the illegal trade.
“We are liaising with the Judiciary to see whether we can look for other laws that can be brought in so we can have severe punishment,” Mr Kiprono said.
Conservationists are optimistic the CITES conference to be held next month in Bangkok, Thailand, will be an opportunity for world leaders to strengthen measures against the ivory trade.