Rise in Kenya elephant poaching linked to arrival of Chinese workers
Chinese workers rebuilding roads in northern Kenya are feared to be driving a sharp rise in elephant poaching which has seen dozens of animals slaughtered this year.
In the first eight months of 2008, 57 carcases have been found across Kenya with their tusks hacked out, 15 per cent more than the total for all of 2007 and the third annual increase in a row.
More than half of these elephants have been killed in an area where Chinese construction crews have recently arrived to tarmac hundreds of miles of gravel tracks.
The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) believes there may be a link between the workers' arrival and the increase in poaching.
"More than 50 per cent of the dead elephants we have found have been in that area in the north where the Chinese are working on the road," said Moses Litoroh, elephant programme coordinator for the KWS.
"We can perhaps assume that they have had a hand in it, maybe not all of them, but the coincidence is causing us great concern." At the same time, wildlife service officials said that the majority of ivory smugglers arrested at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi are now Chinese nationals, some of them carrying up to 110kg of raw or carved tusks.
Poaching in Kenya, especially in its empty northern reaches, has long been a problem.
The elephant migration routes running through here, linking water holes and fresh foliage, have long been targeted by poachers, often armed by Somali gun runners. After years of patrols, ivory trade bans and improved policing, conservationists had hoped to have largely eliminated the slaughter.
But Chinese newcomers may be stimulating the local market for poached ivory. Close to Archer's Post, a desolate settlement of tin-roof shacks 190 miles north of Nairobi, dust rose from a shallow mine where a Chinese engineer in a wide-brimmed straw hat had just detonated high explosives.
From across the scorched floor of the valley came the distant clank of heavy machinery at the Chinese work camp, where rocks released by the explosions are broken down to gravel to build a new road running to the border with Ethiopia.
But less than 30 miles to the east, across the Shaba National Reserve, lie the decomposing bodies of 18 elephants slaughtered in July by poachers.
"This is the worst year that I have seen for the poaching of elephants," said one senior wildlife ranger who has worked in and around Archer's Post for 21 years but who refused to be named for fear of reprisals from poaching gangs.
"There is so much corruption still here, anyone, the Chinese, the Somalis, Kenyans themselves, they can find people who will bring them tusks to sell."
Some tusks are passed to smugglers who fly them out of Nairobi. But the majority are hidden on trucks heading to Ethiopia, where controls are more lax but where there are regular passenger and cargo flights to the Far East.
Kenyan officials place much of the blame for the surge in poaching on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which in July allowed Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and South Africa to sell a total of 108 tonnes of ivory to China and Japan.
This has revived a market which until then had been starved of supply after a 19 year blanket ban on the sale of ivory, broken only in 1999 for an earlier one-off sale of 50 tonnes to Japan.
"The poachers in the bush, they got the wrong message from the decision," said Robert Muasya, assistant director of security for KWS who leads the airport arrest teams. At least eight Chinese nationals have been arrested and charged with smuggling ivory in the last 12 months.
"They think there is now a legitimate market and they start setting more and more traps. China itself does not have the mechanisms to keep the legally bought ivory separate from illegal ivory, so the market is there and the poachers take advantage of that."
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