Nairobi - Kenya is losing about two elephants every week to poaching with some of the proceeds said to be used to finance Al-Shabaab and other criminal groups.
The situation is so bad that Kenya Wildlife Service director Julius Kipng’etich recently took the fight to the US Senate.
At an African poaching crisis hearing held on May 25, the US was blamed for its lax rules on shell companies that are allowing foreign nationals to set up vast money-laundering operations that are being used by wildlife traffickers.
Mr Kipng’etich revealed the link between the surging illegal trade in high-value wildlife products and transnational criminal networks that are creating instability and funding militant insurgencies.
“Poached ivory travels through the same channels as drugs and people who are being trafficked. Terrorist organisations like Al-Shabaab have been linked to poaching in Kenya,” he told the hearing.
Expensive than gold
According to the KWS assistant director for education and conservation Paul Mbugua, a kilogramme of rhino ivory is costing up to $65,000 (Sh5.5 million) with one animal producing between 6-to-7 kilogrammes.
“This is more expensive than gold. A kilo of elephant ivory is fetching about $2,000 (Sh170,000) on the black market.”
The huge amounts of money involved have led to a rise in poaching. Last year, the country lost 278 elephants to poachers compared to 171 the previous year.
The illicit activity picked up to dangerous levels in December when Kenya was losing an average of four elephants a week.
But due to enhanced surveillance, we have brought the deaths to about two animals per week, said Mr Mbugua who is also the KWS spokesman.
The problem, says Mr Mbugua, is the relatively new poaching grounds in northern Kenya, where unlike in the traditional poaching areas of Tsavo and Amboseli where poachers mainly used spears and arrows, rangers have to contend with poachers using highly sophisticated weapons.
Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based militia group, is said to be crossing the Kenyan border and killing elephants in Arawale National Reserve.
There have also been reported gunfights between rangers and the group in the Meru National Park.
“We will soon display the kind of weapons we have captured from poachers in the north, which include such sophisticated guns like the M16,” the spokesman revealed.
According to Mr Mbugua, the same Somali gangs killing elephants in northern Kenya are suspected to be responsible for poaching in other more vulnerable countries like South Africa.
“South Africa is losing one rhino every 18 hours to poachers suspected to be organised gangs financing terror activities in east Africa,” Mr Mbugua said in an interview with the Nation last week.
At the height of the poaching last year, Mr Kipng’etich told wildlife investigative writer Alex Shoumatoff that ivory, like the blood diamonds from other African conflicts, is funding many rebel groups in Africa. Read: The real battle begins after Kismayu
Read more: Daily Nation