19 July 2013
When Kenyan customs officers on July 8 confiscated about 3,500kgs of elephant ivory alleged to have been smuggled into the country from Uganda, the ministry of Wildlife and related organisations in Kampala reacted with unusual quiet.
There was nothing of the usual quickly assembled briefings to journalists over an incident that has obviously put the country on the spot. Instead Tourism Minister Maria Mutagamba and the Uganda Wildlife Authority Executive Director Andrew Seguya have, according to inside sources, opted to conduct a quiet internal investigation.
Among the lines being investigated is the assertion by Kenyan authorities that the ivory was from the so-called ‘big elephants’, which points to the Democratic Republic of Congo as the origin.
If the DR Congo was indeed the origin of the illicit cache, how did it clear through Uganda and end up in the Kenya port of Mombasa? Which officers, if any, on the Ugandan side were complicit in the smuggling racket?
There have been a series of ivory seizure in Kenya but the July 9 cache was the largest. The consignment was of some 770 pieces, hacked out of elephants.
Export documents showed that the ivory had come by vehicle from Uganda on 12 June.
The vehicle was then “parked” at a petrol station in Mombasa, until the consignment was brought into the port.
“The ivory was stashed in 69 bundles of several pieces and had been disguised as sun-dried fish,” said Paul Utodo, the Communications Manager of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).
“Some bags had worked polished pieces of ivory, while others had raw ivory,” he added. Kenya Wildlife Service spokesman Paul Mbugua said the 3,287 kilogrammes of ivory were hidden in a shipment of groundnuts in Mombasa.
Some tusks were so big they weighed almost 60 Kgs which shows they were from really mature animals.
According to Mbugua, preliminary investigations by Kenya police point to the ivory being “packaged locally” in Kenya.
Earlier in July, another cache of ivory, weighing about 1,500kgs, was netted by Kenya police. It was hidden underneath dried fish to put the port sniffer dogs of the spoor. Both shipments were destined for Malaysia.
In January, KWS officials said that 3.8 tonnes of ivory were seized, also at Mombasa, apparently on transit from Tanzania to Indonesia. Ivory trade is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
On July 12, a court in Arusha, Tanzania, charged a businessman with smuggling more than 1000 elephant ivory tusks.
SelemaniIsanzu Chasema, in his 50s, is believed to have exported 781 tusks through Malawi in May according to the prosecution. He denied the charges.
Poaching has risen sharply in Africa in recent years. Besides targeting rhinos, whole herds of elephants have been massacred for their ivory.
The illegal ivory trade, estimated to be worth between US$7 billion and US$10 billion a year, is mostly fuelled by demand in Asia and the Middle East, where elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns are used in traditional medicine and to make ornaments.
The value of the ivory seized on July 9 has not yet been determined, Udoto said, but the two tonnes of ivory seized in January were estimated to be worth US$1 million.
On his recent three-nation visit to Africa in June ending July, U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order launching a US$10 million bid to cut wildlife trafficking in Africa, with US$3 million in assistance earmarked for Kenya.
Akankwasah Barirega, the Prinicipal Wildlife Officer and acting spokesperson of the Uganda Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, the government is still investigating the origin of the ivory seized in Kenya.
He says the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) together with the Nairobi-based Lusaka Agreement Taskforce–a regional group charged with controlling and eliminating the illegal trade in wildlife products are spearheading the investigation.
“We haven’t got conclusive evidence but we suspect the ivory came from Congo [Democratic Republic],” Akankwasah told The Independent on July 13. Although, the intercepted ivory’s origin is said to be Uganda, Akankwasah said, it cannot be from Ugandan elephants because the sheer volume confiscated would mean that Uganda remained without any elephants.
“We have about 4000 elephants in Uganda,” he said, “We are quite sure this ivory is not from our elephants.” However, he said the government is doing everything possible to stop Uganda’s territory acting as a transit route for the illicit trade in wildlife products.
Akankwasah said that beside the recent establishment of an intelligence and investigation department at UWA, they have also beefed up their surveillance at the border points by working closely with the Uganda Revenue Authority.
He added that an amended Uganda Wildlife Act which is aimed at making the penalty of trading in wildlife products more punitive will soon be tabled before Parliament to tackle the problem which has re-emerged across the continent.
He said the recent interception of the two containers of ivory in Kenya is part of a wider continental syndicate that stretches from Nigeria, through the Central African Republic, Congo, way up to South Africa.
Akankwasah noted that although most African countries had contained the problem about 10-20 years ago, the vice had made a come-back mainly because of the proliferation of wars in Congo.
“Congo is the biggest driver of illicit trade in endangered species products like ivory,” he said.
Late last year, game rangers in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo alleged they had spotted a Ugandan military helicopter flying very low over the park, on an alleged unauthorised flight in an area where poachers had killed 22 elephants and carried off their treasured tusks.
In the most quoted report of the incident, from the U.S. newspaper The New York Times, the UPDF was portrayed with suspicion.
African Parks, the South Africa-based conservation organisation that manages Garamba, said it had photographs of the Ugandan military transport helicopter.
Then-Army and UPDF Spokesman, Col. Felix Kulayigye, told The Independent there was no evidence to prove the game rangers allegation.
He said it was not unusual for a UPDF chopper to fly over Garamba because that is the route the aircrafts of the Uganda army to Nzara and Obbo, where they are hunting the internationally wanted criminal warlord, Joseph Kony.
At the time, Ugandan media was awash with stories on the plight of elephants after the Uganda Wildlife Authority confirmed the September 2012 slaying by poachers of two elephants, including Baraka, a 40 year old male elephant believed to have been the oldest and most peaceful in Semliki wildlife reserve in western Uganda.
At the time, minister Mutagamba said a 2010 UWA large mammal census had revealed that the elephant numbers for Queen Elizabeth National Park had increased from 400 in 1988 to 2,959 in 2010. The minister praised the UPDF for supporting the Uganda Tourism Police to combat poaching.
In June 2012, 36 tusks were seized at the Entebbe airport in Uganda. Eighteen of the 22 elephants killed in Garamba in March were adults that had their ivory hacked out, which would usually mean 36 tusks.
Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, the Islamic rebel militia al-Shabab and Darfur’s Janjaweed, are all accused of hunting down elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons and sustain their mayhem.
Organised crime syndicates are linking up with them to move the ivory around the world, exploiting turbulent states, porous borders and corrupt officials from sub-Saharan Africa to China, said a New York Times story that quoted law enforcement officials.
In 2011, the New York Times story said, poaching levels in Africa were at their highest since international monitors began keeping detailed records in 2002. It said worldwide, 38.8 tons (equaling the tusks from more than 4000 dead elephants), had been seized.
Uganda lost 25 elephants in 2011 and an investigations report by the Auditor General’s Office described the killings as the “worst ever reported scenario in a single conservation area, considering that Uganda was previously losing only 3 elephants annually.”
The smugglers are “Africa-based, Asian-run crime syndicates,” said Tom Milliken, director of the Elephant Trade Information System, an international ivory monitoring project, and “highly adaptive to law enforcement interventions, constantly changing trade routes and modus operandi.”
Conservationists say the mass kill-offs taking place across Africa may be as bad as, or worse than, those in the 1980s, when poachers killed more than half of Africa’s elephants before an international ban on the commercial ivory trade was put in place.
“We’re experiencing what is likely to be the greatest percentage loss of elephants in history,” said Richard G Ruggiero, an official with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
Some experts say the survival of the species is at stake, especially when many members of the African security services entrusted with protecting the animals are currently killing them.
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