Friday, May 13, 2011

Ivory smuggling haunts Kenya, Uganda

Two similar events happened at the national airports of Uganda and Kenya last Thursday.

Security officers at both airports intercepted cargo filled with ivory being smuggled out illegally in an episode that is bound to raise questions about the safety of elephants, and the state of the tourism industry in general. While the owner of the consignment captured at Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta airport remains at large, Ugandan officials were lucky to net the culprit, Wu Linfei, 38.

Wu, who had been booked on an Emirates flight enroute to China, had 34 pieces of ivory including nine pairs of chopsticks and 14 bracelets, estimated at $100,000.
Uganda Wildlife Authority, acting on a tipoff, combined with law enforcement personnel at Entebbe Airport, where they arrested Wu.

“Poaching ivory or specimen associated with elephants is illegal,” UWA legal officer, Johnson Masereka, told the press at Entebbe Airport.

Wu was arrested together with an airport police officer identified as John Onyango, who had received a $150 bribe to facilitate the mission. Both men were charged in court early this week. The fine for such a crime is between Shs 1 million and Shs 10 million, or three years behind bars.

Wu is said to be an engineer in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and that is where he was coming from according to OC/CID Airport Police station, Josephine Alipo. The tourism sites in the eastern jungles of that country remain volatile, with different rebel groups overseeing an area muddled with smuggling and widespread poaching of game.

But while the Ugandan consignment weighed one kilogramme of processed ivory, the Kenyan batch had a whopping 1.3 tonnes. Kenyan authorities are said to be piecing together the evidence; the consignment was sealed with an Embassy of Brunei label and the Embassy of Papua New Guinea.

Just last month, Kenyan authorities arrested a Chinese man with smuggled ivory from DR Congo as he headed to China. Last year, The Washington Post, a leading newspaper in America, noted that the Chinese are fuelling the biggest demand for ivory. The newspaper singled out the Chinese town of Putian as the centre for ivory trading.

In China, if the chopstick – the commonest eating tool – is made out of ivory, it’s a sign of prestige. Uganda’s tourism industry is paying the price for the Chinese’s lavish lifestyle. The Uganda Revenue Authority has in the past grabbed smuggled ivory, with the Chinese being the biggest culprits.

Uganda has lost eight elephants to ivory poachers in the last two months, according to UWA officials, by any measure a big number. Elephants are one of the most prominent animals in such game parks like Murchison Falls National Park.

Yet, explanations over how the elephants died remain vague. Interestingly, in the National Budget Framework Paper, government does not cite rampant poaching in the game parks as one of the challenges the country faces. Tourism remains one of Uganda’s biggest exports. The sector last year brought in more than $700 million, up from over $600 million in 2006.

The sector depends heavily on security and a serene image to attract tourists.

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