Ton of Illegal Ivory, Hippo Teeth Seized in Kenya

Zoe Alsop in Nairobi
for National Geographic News
November 18, 2008
Africa's largest-ever investigation of wildlife crime has unearthed a ton of illegal African elephant ivory, several animal pelts, and hippopotamus teeth, the Kenya Wildlife Service and INTERPOL announced this week.

The undercover operation, coordinated by INTERPOL—the world's largest international police organization—booked more than 60 alleged criminals in five African countries.

Among those caught were four Chinese nationals attempting to smuggle ivory curios out of Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

The rapidly growing presence of China in Africa is seen as a major driver of the ivory trade, experts say.

Massive infrastructure and oil projects across the region have boosted the continent's Chinese population from roughly 200,000 to around 800,000 in just five years.

"This is an international problem, not just a local problem," said Esmond Bradley Martin, an independent expert in illicit wildlife trade.

"The advent of the Chinese in Africa in much larger number is very important and directly related to their buying of illegal ivory."

Since 2004 global trade in ivory has been climbing steadily, with China as its number one destination. (Watch a video of Africa's ivory wars.)

Between 1998 and 2006, Chinese authorities seized an average of 39 tons of ivory each year, according to the United Nations Elephant Trade Information System.

Little Impact

Conservation experts warn that the recent arrests will have little impact on the killing of elephants.

Estimates for the annual number of elephants killed illegally in Africa and Asia for ivory range from 4,800 to 20,000.

(Related: "17 Elephants Butchered for Ivory in African Park" [May 5, 2008].)

"Poachers are totally expendable," Martin said. "There is so much poverty that if you take one guy another guy is going to move in. The main thing to do is to knock out the buyers and the middlemen."

Conservationist Richard Leakey also suggested that such undercover investigations are not enough.

"It's a drop in the bucket," Leakey said. "There's got to be some sense of urgency injected. The indications are that ivory poaching is on the increase."

Bigger Players

But wildlife authorities who participated in the sting—code-named Project Baba for Gilbert Baba, a Ghanaian ranger killed in the line of duty—say small-time traffickers arrested in recent weeks will lead them to bigger players.

These could be people who have never felled an elephant or skinned a cheetah, but who launder cash and keep the poachers going.

"We were able to know a lot of information from these arrests," said Paul Udoto, corporate communications manager with the Kenya Wildlife Service.

"Wherever they run, we have a lot of information shared across countries. However far they run, however long it takes, we will catch up to them."

Profitable Crime

The wildlife service will also work with other law enforcement agencies to hunt for those orchestrating the trade.

"Wildlife crimes are not just crimes by themselves," Udoto said. "They are linked to money laundering, to drugs—there are all kinds of relationships."

Middlemen fetch high profits for wildlife trafficking.

While a poacher in Kenya takes in just U.S. $35 for each kilogram of poached tusk, that same ivory can sell for $100 in neighboring Ethiopia—and as much as $800 if it reaches China, Martin said.

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