By Paul Wafula
KENYA: A web of criminals who have infiltrated Kenya’s ports of entry pay between Sh50,000 and Sh100,000 to a network of mostly junior staff at the airport to smuggle smaller pieces of animal trophies sourced from the country and its neighbours.
Investigation by The Standard has also established that the dealers conceal their identities through layers of non-existent companies using fake Identity Cards to mask their operations. The traders seem to be getting more sophisticated and adapting much faster than the measures put in place to cut them loose.
Most shipments get out as unaccompanied luggage in quantities of between two to 30 kilogrammes. Others bought off the streets of Congo leave as necklaces, souvenirs, among other jewelry, tucked away in handbags. The thousands of poachers arrested every year are just a pawn in the game, earning the least of the proceeds of the illegal trade that ends up in several pockets along the ivory trade food chain from ground handlers, airport staff to the real masterminds. Unless stopped, the ivory hunters are set to make Kenya join the ranks of most countries in Northern Africa having been responsible for wiping out elephants in the region.
An undisclosed number of employees at Kenya’s two biggest airports are on the payroll of connected criminals that have deep links in relevant Government agencies to make Kenya one of the most preferred transit points for smuggling ivory to Asian countries.
To be able to pull out a successful operation, sources familiar with the trade say players need to outwit or compromise customs officials, the Kenya Police, Interpol, and either the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) or the Kenya Ports Authority, depending on the exit route.
“There is always a collision between airline staff, Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) officials, KWS staff stationed at the airport, and police. The collision doesn’t involve the big guys at the airport but junior employees like the grounds men and handling guys who are given about Sh50,000 to stamp the luggage and look away,” an impeccable source based at the airport who spoke on anonymity told The Standard.
“The luggage can be cleared as anything ranging from computers but this does not happen unless all these agencies have cooperated. They are only caught when someone along the line is not roped in or an unexpected raid is conducted,” the source added. The investigation also found that China, which has become one of Kenya’s largest trade partners under the Kibaki administration, is indirectly funding the thriving ivory trade by providing a ready market for the trophies. Prices in China, where approximately 70 per cent of Kenya’s elephant tusks end up, have been rising by more than 13 times in the past decade.
Tusks can fetch an estimated Sh80,000 per kilogramme, while a kilogramme of powdered rhino is selling for as much as Sh6 million, making the pain worthwhile. The revelation is set to renew pressure on China, which has emerged over the years as a major market for ivory, to shut down its legal domestic trade so that smugglers cannot use it to launder illegal ivory.
On average, the price of ivory has increased from about $22 (Sh1,870) per kilogramme to between $750 and $7,000 (Sh595,000) a kilogramme in China depending on the quality, a windfall profit by any standards.
This is making a joke of the 1989 global ban of the market in elephant tusks, fueling its growth and on its trail threatening populations of the animals across Africa and other destinations.
“The trade is more rampant than what is actually being reported since only the big seizures are announced. We did a routine crackdown last year and found that about 100kg of ivory is smuggled through the airport every day in handbags, necklaces and so on,” the airport official said.
Contacted for comment, KAA noted that security at the airport is a function of various specialised security organs drawn from international intelligence agencies, the Criminal Investigation Department, immigration officers, plain clothe and uniformed police officers.
“The missing link that you are looking for starts at law enforcement at the whole chain from our national parks, Interpol and the profiling of international organised criminal syndicates, intelligence capability.
However, your question seems to single out the end process of a complex chain in the global illegal ivory trade by organised crime,” KAA’s Corporate Affairs Manager, Dominic Ngigi, said in an email interview.
“KAA as per its mandate works closely with specialised State security agencies to deter and detect any breaches of the laws of Kenya by criminals in all our airports and designated airstrips,” Mr Ngigi added.
For the larger shipments exiting the country by sea, Mombasa remains the favourite route for the trade, helped by weaker enforcement.
A KRA insider familiar with the operations at the Coast told The Standard investigation desk that preoccupation of the taxman with just tax collection has made it easy for the cartels to ship out large quantities of the trophies undetected.
“It is nearly impossible to export such commodity or any other prohibited or restricted goods unless someone has been compromised,” the officer said. What a merchant who is exporting goods needs to do is to inform the nearest KRA office of intention to export goods.
The person intending to export goods then nominates a clearing agent of choice. Clearing agents are given licenses by KRA to operate. It is then upon the clearing agent to declare the goods online through the Simba system.
“If the goods are of sensitive nature like cigarettes, KRA must be involved in the actual packaging and stuffing before affixing seals and/or escort to the port,” the KRA insider said.
Every procedure is meticulously documented and reported in the system by posting activity, especially for goods originating out of Mombasa. At the port, export goods are supposed to be scanned before release; most of the cargo especially from outside Kenya gets to Mombasa through rail.
At times the scanner is prone to mechanical breakdowns and when it happens; physical verification is advised going by how the goods are declared in the entry, nature, history of the clearing agent and any anomaly the officer may detect.
“KRA focuses more on revenue generating declarations at the expense of exports, which do not generate real revenue other than improving the country’s balance trade. This is the weakest link.
The situation is compounded by the thin personnel assigned to facilitate the same,” the source said, adding: “The main destination of the nature of goods that is later found out to be ivory is mainly the East Asian countries, especially Thailand, Vietnam and China, among others.”