Inside dark, impenetrable world of illicit trade in wildlife trophy


Peter Muiruri, The Sunday Standard

Date Published

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On Monday, March 15, 2021, a rare animal made an ‘appearance’ in Narok Law Courts, some 100km west of Nairobi. It was a pangolin, a nocturnal animal whose 20 per cent of the body is made up of scales.

Apart from the three men charged with dealing in the animal and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) crew that airlifted the scaly creature from Empaash in Rift Valley to the law courts, few in attendance knew what the reclusive animal looked like. Even researchers have little knowledge about the pangolins’ behaviour.

Yet, the pangolin is now the world’s most trafficked animal, with claims the scales promote blood circulation and increase lactation in pregnant women, while the meat is used as a tonic.

The actual numbers remaining in the world are unknown.  

“If each pangolin killed for illegal trade in Africa produced an average of 500 grams of scales, 185 tonnes of scales seized between 2014 and 2018 would represent about 370,000 pangolin equivalents,” states the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in a report tracking the trafficking of pangolins between 2007 and 2018.

Apart from the pangolins, rhino and elephant trophies still drive the illicit-but-profitable trade in wildlife products.

The UNODC 2020 World Wildlife Crime report estimates that some 157,000 elephants were poached between 2010 and 2018, an average of 17,000 elephants per year.

According to our investigations, however, wildlife crimes are among the hardest to prosecute, owing to the multiple layers of participants, with key actors located in multiple locations thousands of miles away from each other.

The poachers and couriers, who are often paraded in police stations with a tusk or two, a rhino horn or some pangolin scales, are at the bottom of the clandestine multi-billion-dollar business.

Between 2016 and 2018, ivory and rhino horn trafficking from Africa generated about Sh90 billion (about US$900 million), a large percentage generated at the retail level in countries of Southeast Asia, especially China and Vietnam.

Through such proceeds, UNODC says government officials, “including the police, customs and border personnel both in the supply and destination markets are compromised through bribes.”

Following the money in the illegal wildlife trade reveals the complicity of any ensuing arrests, prosecutions, and why Kenya has hardly put the so-called illicit wildlife trade ‘kingpins’ behind bars.

During a dark night in October 2016, prospective ivory buyers landed in Shuidong, Guangdong Province, China. A good load of ivory had just arrived from Mozambique. Three men, Ou Haiqiang, Xie Xingbang and Wang Kangwen, were very eager to do business with the guests.

Shuidong was the perfect location for the illegal trade. To the east is Hong Kong, a key transit point for Africa’s ivory. To the west lies Guangxi, a province whose porous border provides a key transit point of ivory through Vietnam’s port of Hai Phong. Close to 80 per cent of the African ivory passes through Shuidong.

Unknown to the three men, however, the buyers were undercover agents from the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), who had just succeeded in infiltrating the gang that had controlled the trade for two decades.

Ou and Xie spoke ‘good’ Swahili and must have been around East Africa for some time, the EIA said in the report, The Shuidong Connection – Exposing the Global Hub of the Illegal Ivory Trade. Their extended family members had companies that dealt in sea cucumbers and fish maws, and used the port cities of Mombasa, Mwanza and Lagos as their hubs. 

But the marine business, though legal, was the perfect cover for the illicit trade in wildlife trophies. In 2012 for example, Ou and his uncle, Guanchao, had managed to ship four containers of ivory from Tanzania to Shuidong worth about Sh800 million.

At some point, the Shuidong men offered the EIA agents some partnership in the illegal trade. “Over here (East Africa), we will be responsible for collecting the goods,” the men told the EIA agents. “Our friends in Guangdong, our brothers, will be in charge of receiving the goods and selling them. When the time comes, the profit will be transferred to you.”

At the end of their three-year dalliance with their “business partners”, the EIA convinced China to break the syndicate, leading to the arrest and long prison terms for the three Shuidong boys and their accomplices.

Locally, though, prosecuting key suspects in the illicit wildlife trade has been a tall order. Three major cases, one dating back to 2013, are still in Mombasa Law Courts.

One involves Abdurahman Mahmoud Sheikh, his half-brother, father, a KRA officer and five others who are accused of shipping 3,127 kilos of ivory in a container of tea leaves to Thailand in April 2015. There were claims the case could have been linked to Ou’s Singapore ivory haul.

The case came up on May 27 where final submissions were expected under Chief Magistrate Evans Makori. We visited the Mombasa Law Courts that day, expecting the usual passionate pleadings by both parties. But that was not to be as the court never sat in the open, neither were the accused in court.

It was yet another adjournment for a case now in its sixth year with over 50 sittings. However, reports indicate that the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) has sought to supply new evidence linking the Mombasa case to that of Liberian poacher and trafficker Moazu Kromar.

The previous day, we had kept vigil at another court where, too, final submissions were expected in the case against a Mombasa clearing agent, Fredrick Sababu Mungule, and Kenya Revenue Authority officer, James Ngala Kassiwa, now entering the 100th month.

The two (a third accused, Naftali Osinyo, is said to have died in 2014) had been arraigned in early 2013 after authorities found a shipment of 3.8 tonnes of ivory at Mombasa port. The parties will now appear for final submissions on July 19.

“Such cases are complex,” states Didi Wamukoya, an environmental law expert with the African Wildlife Foundation. “First, the process of repatriating evidence is in itself a long one.”

Edwin Wanyonyi, the Director of Strategy and Change at KWS, says there is little the department can do regarding the requirement to produce the entire evidence in court.

“That is the law,” says Wanyonyi. “We continue to engage the court users and legislators to reduce the challenges requiring the production of exhibits in court.”

But Wamukoya says there is a ray of hope if prosecutors can link the proceeds of crime with specific investments in Kenya. “We can apply the ‘balance of probability’ principle where the court leans towards the most probable cause of someone’s unexplained riches,” she says.

We reached out to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP) in April, hoping to know about the challenges faced by the department in nabbing and successfully prosecuting the kingpins of the illicit trade in wildlife. By the time we went to press, three months after making the initial contact, the department had not yet responded to our emails or numerous phone calls.

However, ODPP’s newly released Excellence Charter and Strategic Commitments for 2020-23 lays bare some of the odds stacked against the office in carrying out successful prosecutions.

The report says poor remuneration demotivates staff and increases the risk of compromise, while poor working conditions and inadequate office space, low morale and low self-esteem are other impediments to seamless prosecutions.