NAIROBI, Kenya — Chinese workers are buying ivory tusks hacked from the carcasses of illegally hunted elephants in a banned trade that could decimate herds in one of Kenya’s most famous wildlife reserves, a recent report has concluded.
Thousands of African elephants are killed every year to supply a market largely driven by Asian demand. Last year the first legal ivory auction in nine years was held and more than 100 tons of elephant tusks were sold exclusively to Chinese and Japanese buyers who fought to outbid each other in multi-million dollar sales.
The resurrection of such auctions and the increase in Chinese workers in Africa have sparked fears about the potential impact on a species that has only recently recovered from illegal poaching.
“The situation for elephants in the [Amboseli] area has become critical over the past year and more particularly over the past four months,” warned the report by the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, run by veteran conservationist Dr. Cynthia Moss, who has been working in the 150-square-mile reserve in southern Kenya for 37 years.
Patrick Omondi, head of species conservation at Kenya Wildlife Service, said Kenya lost 98 elephants to poaching in 2008, double the number killed in 2007, but he said the news from Amboseli was particularly worrying. “This is the first time in a decade that we've seen poaching in Amboseli," he said.
The recent arrest of a Kenyan and a Tanzanian highlights the seriousness of the problem. The pair pled guilty in March to illegal possession of ivory after they were caught carrying 1,129 pounds of tusks, extracted from about 35 to 40 elephants. The seizure is one of the largest in East Africa in years.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) also warned that poaching is on the rise following the slaughter of five elephants in six weeks in the nearby Tsavo National Park.
“Since the one-off ivory sales from Southern Africa countries late last year, we have noted an unprecedented rise of elephant poaching incidents in Tsavo,” said Jonathan Kirui, assistant director at Tsavo.
Omondi said the wildlife service links the upsurge in poaching with the growing Chinese presence in the country. Chinese workers have flooded the continent, constructing roads, railways and dams in infrastructure-for-minerals deals.
“There are two Chinese road camps in the general area,” said the Amboseli Trust report. “We are told by our informants that they are buying ivory [and] bush meat.”
The international ivory trade was banned in 1989, but in the decade before that Africa’s elephant population plummeted to 600,000 from 1.3 million. In Kenya the effect of the trade was even worse, with 85 percent of the elephant population killed off in the 15 years before the ban came into force.
Herds have recovered dramatically since then but ivory remains a commodity highly prized in the Far East, where it is used in medicines, ornaments and family seals.
Elephant ivory sold on Kenya’s black market fetches about 3,000 shillings per kilogram (about $18 per pound). The tusks of a large male bull elephant can weigh more than 110 pounds each, making poaching an attractive earner for poor rural Kenyans, many of whom live in grinding poverty and rely on subsistence farming for survival.
Late last year Interpol coordinated a sting operation on illegal wildlife traffickers that led to the seizure in Kenya of 113 pieces of ivory weighing 787 pounds. Of the 36 poachers and brokers arrested, three were Chinese.
Amboseli is one of Kenya’s most popular safari parks. Every year tens of thousands of visitors come for a close encounter with the famous elephants as they graze the marshlands against the spectacular backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak.
But this beautiful landscape is being turned into a bloodbath. At least four elephants have been wounded already this year, one of them a large adult male who was killed and butchered, his tusks chopped out by poachers. Amboseli’s expert trackers say other elephants are missing. “The rate of killing and wounding is accelerating,” the report stated.
As many as 44 elephants were wounded or killed by poisoned arrows, stabbed with spears or shot with rifles during 2008 and early 2009. Ten of these were discovered with their tusks hacked out. In one particularly brutal case, a 4-month-old calf was found with dozens of spear wounds.
Many of the elephant deaths are attributed to conflict with people as farmlands encroach on the animals’ traditional habitat or animals roam into human areas and destroy desperately needed crops.
This problem has existed for many years, but the trust says that what is happening now “is dramatically and alarmingly different,” as elephants are slaughtered for their tusks and smuggled over the nearby border into Tanzania or sold to local Chinese workers.
Last year four Chinese nationals were arrested as they attempted to smuggle elephant tusks out of the country from Jomo Kenyatta International airport in the capital Nairobi. In one case smugglers were caught with a haul of 242 pounds of fresh elephant tusks. The most recent arrest of a Chinese national caught with illegal ivory was on Feb. 7.
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