The Kenyan government has seized $1 million worth of elephant ivory and black rhinoceros horns which were on their way from southern Africa to Asia. As Alan Boswell reports from Nairobi, illegal poaching of elephants and rhinos is on the rise to meet climbing Asian demand.
The incident on Tuesday came on the heels of a report last week from conservation groups that illegal rhinoceros poaching is at a 15-year high.
According to the groups, three times as many rhinos are now being poached per month in South Africa and Zimbabwe than was averaged per month across all of the continent between 2000 and 2005.
The elephant ivory and rhino horns from southern Africa are shipped to Asia, where they fetch handsome sums on the black market.
A kilogram of elephant ivory can bring in $3000, and rhino horns can be sold for $5000 a kilogram.
The increased poaching of rhinos is attributed to a rising demand from Asia, where the horns are highly valued for use in traditional medicine. Ivory from elephant tusks has long been prized for its ornamental value.
Ngugi Gichaga, a spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service, partly attributes the recent rise in elephant poaching to a decision made a year ago at an international convention in Geneva to allow China to re-open a limited legal ivory trade with countries in southern Africa. Kenya opposed the deal.
"As Kenya told them that is not the way to go because that was going to send the wrong signals, because what it was going to signify is that there has been a resumption of trade with ivory," Gichaga said. "And therefore we have said very clearly that we are definitely going to see an upside in the poaching of ivory because now the signal that has been sent out is that the ivory trade has been resumed."
The poached ivory and rhino horns were discovered by Kenyan authorities at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. The cargo flight had originated in Mozambique and was bound for Laos.
Authorities discovered the illegal items after one of the wooden coffin-shaped boxes containing ivory fell and broke open. Sniffer dogs were then used to find the other boxes.
Blood on pieces of the ivory and horns showed that the animals had been killed recently. One of the horns had a bullet hole through it.
The rise in poaching has led to an "intensified" working relationship with the international police organization INTERPOL over the last year, according to officials at Kenya Wildlife Service.
The sniffer dogs have been a recent addition to Kenya's strategy to curb the illicit trade. But as the incident Tuesday suggested, some of the ivory and rhino horns still slip through. If the box containing the ivory had not fallen and broken, it is likely the cargo would have arrived at its destination undetected.
Kenyan authorities speculated that even though the cargo was on its way to Laos, the final destination of the poached goods was China.
Only 18,000 black rhinos exist in the world, and they are only found in eastern and southern Africa.
The cargo intercepted in Kenya contained 280 kilograms of elephant ivory and 18 kilograms of rhino horns.