NAIROBI: A fresh smuggling war is going on right under the nation’s nose, the Kenya Forestry Service (KFS) has warned. The battle ground has been well defined in a winner takes all phenomenon. Unfortunately, not enough is being done and soon, all that will remain will be relics of a war that should have been won.
Not even the scent of the much sought after sandalwood will be left to tell the story of consistent and methodical cutting of an endangered species.
At the epicentre of this war is Baringo County. In Arabal location, Marigat Sub-county, sandalwood, locally known as Mormorwe, once heavily populated the area. Now, large swathes of land remain bare. Nature seems to have lost out to ceaseless uprooting and nighttime ferrying of the coveted wood, many times with participation of complicit security officers.
Prices for the product range between Sh200 and Sh300 per kilogramme depending on the day’s demand. Illegal loggers have left the Baringo hillsides bare. Impunity, greed and wanton disregard to the environment and existing laws have taken their toll.
On April 4, 2007, after a three-year free for all period of haphazard harvesting of the tree, an executive decree that prohibited its harvesting was declared, but to little effect. Since then, hundreds of tonnes of the wood have been recovered and dozens of arrests made.
It has not always been like this though. A 2014 Task Force on Wildlife Security traced the origins of the large scale harvesting and smuggling to the once ungovernable Tsavo area.
“The harvesting started in the Kyulu hills. Exploitation accelerated and spread to Taita, Amboseli Kajiado, Narok, Baringo, and the Rift Valley escarpments; then to Northern parts of Kenya including Isiolo, Samburu, and many other areas across the country. In all the areas, the harvesting is uncontrolled,” reads a report by the taskforce.
Sandalwood is exploited for its essential oils used in perfumery. The heartwood of the trunk, main branches and roots contain an essential oil. This oil blends well with many fragrance materials that it has become a common blender-fixative used in numerous perfumes.
The tree grows to a height of 1-6 metres, but the roots are most favoured as the essential oil concentration is highest in them, followed by the trunk. The tree is dioecious (male and female on separate trees). The female is most preferred as it is said to have a better quality of heartwood. Under normal conditions, young trees grow slowly, only gradually developing a core of heartwood.
Experts say the harvesting methods used are highly destructive since the whole plant needs to be uprooted to get the roots, leading to a serious depletion in its numbers.
“This form of harvesting undermines its regeneration,” reads the report.
During the peak of the illegal trade in 2005 to 2009, it was believed that the tree was being smuggled into Tanzania using fraudulent documents. Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and KFS rangers impounded several trucks carrying sandalwood into the border town of Namanga.
The trees harvested in Kenya were exported through various undisclosed routes to Tanzania. After value addition and semi processing, the products are re-exported to Indonesia, India, South Africa, France, Germany and eastern Asia.
In Baringo, the effects of the many years of harvesting have finally come calling. The frequency of smuggler forays into the remaining forested areas so common that the main route used to get the wood out has been named Sandalwood Road.
Investigations by The Standard on Sunday show that this goes on, even with the presence of law enforcement. Passing through numerous checkpoints either through Eldoret or Nakuru towns.
A senior KWS official in the county revealed that the precious tree is mostly taken by road to Tororo in Uganda through the porous Malaba border stretch. Because of corrupt police officers and county Askaris, the smugglers part with bribes and are never arrested. Kabarnet Principal Magistrate Samson Temo said it is unfortunate police were arresting hired drivers while real culprits are free.
“Because of constant interference and poor investigations, several potential suspects have escaped the hook only to continue engaging in the illegal trade with the blessings of the so call powerful forces in and out of government,” he noted.
In November, KWS officers destroyed sandalwood worth Sh150 million in Kabarnet. The wood had been confiscated during various raids. In the past month alone, more than Sh200 million worth of sandalwood has been impounded.
Some say this has a direct relation to the fast approaching 2017 elections. A big percentage of proceeds from the illegal trade goes towards funding of elections.
With such sums in play, sources say practically almost everyone is involved in the trade. Local youths are hired as woodcutters, transporters or middlemen. The numbers involved have also altered the way in which the business is currently conducted. Departmentalising.
Police reports and multiple interviews paint a picture on how the trade is organised and how the contraband moves form one point to another.
The cutters are at the bottom of the food chain, followed by local middlemen who oversee the cutting and transportation out of the forest.Then there are the bosses in charge of shipping the wood, mostly in tonnes, out of the country and making contact with overseas markets.
This is done in ingenious ways, including storing the harvested wood in police camps or private homes. Transportation is mostly in long haul trucks disguised as charcoal transporters or modified flower trucks. “We’ve seen them even use ambulances with hidden compartments. Then they turn on the siren like they have a patient,” said Richard Kamar, an Arabal resident.
In a wooded depot outside Kabarnet police station, dozens of seized vehicles lie in disuse.
“The smugglers are so organised that at times the drivers don’t know the identities of who they’re working with. So even if they are arrested, the trail ends with them. Every lead from them turns cold,” Baringo KWS officer Kenedy ole Nashuu said.
In Baringo, Solian, Kapleng’oi and Sagat remain hotspots for sandal wood harvesting and smuggling.
Baringo County Commissioner Peter Okwanyo said the main culprits have never been arrested and are working closely with rogue police investigators to destroy evidence.
“Intelligence reports in our possession reveal that government vehicles and those belonging to parastatals are being used to transport illegal banned products. Proper mechanisms have been put in place and those involved will be fished out soon,” said the commissioner.
Investigations by The Standard on Sunday established that recently, deployed security officers in Baringo South to fight cattle rustling are also engaging in the illegal lucrative sandal wood business.
Once they get to their new bases of operation, they task local herdsmen with harvesting the wood in areas that have been abandoned due to insecurity brought about by cattle raids.