Ton of Illegal Ivory, Hippo Teeth Seized in Kenya

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(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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