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Kenya Authorities Probing Illegal Shipments of Elephant Tusks

Wildlife authorities in Kenya are investigating reports that a large illegal shipment of elephant tusks recently discovered by customs officials in Vietnam originated in Kenya. A Nairobi-based conservationist says elephant poaching in the east African country has reached critical levels in recent years.

Last week, customs officials in the northern Vietnamese port city of Haiphong said that they had seized nearly two metric tons of illegal ivory on April 28. The officials said the shipment was from Kenya destined for China.

A spokesman for Kenya Wildlife Service, Paul Udoto, tells VOA that efforts are under way to determine whether the shipment contains the tusks of Kenyan elephants.

"We want to get the export documents to determine the exact origin, after which we will also do DNA tests on the ivory to determine if indeed they came from Kenya," said Paul Udoto. "It is possible that the ivory may well have just passed through Kenya in transit."

The founder of Save the Elephants organization, Ian Douglas-Hamilton, says it is equally possible that the seized ivory came from the carcasses of illegally hunted elephants in Kenya.

"We have been monitoring the illegal killing of elephants in the north of the country and there has been a huge increase over the last few years," said Ian Douglas-Hamilton. "So, I am afraid this big seizure is a very bad indication of the direction that things are going. And if we are not careful, we will end up with the same situation that we had for elephants in the 1970s and the 1980s, when we lost something like three-fourths of our wild elephants in that time."

International ivory trade was banned in 1989, but it has done little to curb demand largely from Asia.

The black market price for elephant ivory is about $20 per kilogram and rising, making poaching a sought-after job among poor rural Kenyans. Conservationists say as many as 35,000 elephants throughout the country may be at risk.

In 2008, for the first time in a decade, poachers began targeting elephants in Kenya's famed Amboseli National Park, near the border with Tanzania. Last year, police in Kenya caught a Kenyan and a Tanzanian trying to smuggle more than 500 kilograms of tusks out of the country.

Douglas-Hamilton says increased poaching in Kenya may be related to a legal ivory auction held late last year. In the first such auction in nine years, more than 100 metric tons of elephant tusks from southern African countries were sold to buyers in China and Japan.

"It seems that when some ivory is sold or when even some discussions take place that some ivory might be sold, the poachers and the middlemen all get excited about it and start killing elephants in other places with the hope that they can start selling the ivory," he said.

Kenya has long opposed the sale of ivory, and its rigid stance on the issue has raised tensions with its east African neighbor Tanzania.

Tanzania, along with Zambia, had lobbied the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species to allow a one-time sale of stockpiled ivory. Both countries promised to use the profits to boost wildlife conservation.

When the convention turned down their request in March, some parliament members in Dar-es-Salaam angrily accused Kenya of spreading negative information that helped sabotage Tanzania's efforts.