Kenya Says Ivory Sales Endanger Poacher Hunters
BANGKOK Kenya is on the front line of the "wildlife wars" and says its people in the trenches will be at risk if a U.N. conference approves a Namibian bid to sell more ivory.
"It puts our security people at risk," Evans Mukolwe, the head of the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS), said this week. "In the last two years we have lost four men to armed bandit/poachers from Somalia. We are opposed to any further lifting on the ban on the ivory trade because we don't want to go back to war," he said on the sidelines on the meeting of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Ivory is a huge issue at CITES, with Namibia pushing for permission to sell two tons of it per year.
Kenya is staunchly opposed to any further trade on the grounds that poachers will shoot elephants as they seek to launder "dirty supplies" with legal ivory.
The 1989 global ivory trade ban is also credited with halting a mass slaughter of African elephants, but not only elephants are at risk from renewed legal ivory trade, Mukolwe said.
"We lost hundreds of men from the mid-1970s to 1989," he said. From India to Rwanda, experts say wildlife rangers are losing their lives protecting big game like elephants and rhino from ruthless gangs of heavily armed poachers.
Even their charges sometimes turn on them.
"Big animals cannot distinguish between their protectors and the poachers, so the rangers sometimes get killed by the animals they are trying to protect," said John Sellar, the senior enforcement officer at CITES.
Perhaps 50 wildlife officers a year were killed in the line of duty, but there are no firm numbers, Sellar said.
Mukolwe said KWS had about 2,000 men armed with assault rifles such as AK-47s.
"We need an army just to protect our wildlife. We are surrounded by countries like Somalia which are suffering extreme political instability," he said.
He also said that a decision on Monday to lift a ban on hunting rare black rhino in Namibia and South Africa had been a red rag to poachers.
Rhino horn can fetch huge prices in the Middle East where it is prized for dagger handles or East Asia where it is used in medicine.
"Our intelligence says that Somali poachers are already responding to what is going on here and heading to one of our parks to go after rhino," he said. "I think it must be stressed that conferences like these are carefully monitored by thugs and poachers," he said.
Namibia and other southern African countries counter that their own animal populations are thriving and well guarded and say there is no firm link between bringing legal, controlled supplies to the market and poaching.
Namibia's proposal may not be approved or may require stringent conditions, which would delay sales for years.
Permission to hold one-off ivory auctions was granted to Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa in 2002, but many of the pre-conditions have not yet been completed, including detailed feedback to CITES on trends in the illegal killing of elephants.