Retired N.B. police officer now covers the war against poaching in Kenya


Jennifer Sweet, CBC News

Date Published

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Chris Morris of Rothesay first went to Africa around 2007 on secondment to help with the war crimes investigation of former Liberian president Charles Taylor. While there, he learned about another issue that gripped his conscience — wildlife poaching.

In his retirement from the Saint John Police Force, Morris returned to Africa, and he now spends his time covering court cases of alleged poachers in Kenya.

There are four “major” ivory trafficking prosecutions going on in the Mombasa area, said Morris, which is about a 30-minute drive north of his home in Diani Beach.

The 66-year-old travels to court every time there’s a hearing or adjournment, reports on it and shares the information with an organization called SEEJ, for Saving Elephants through Education and Justice.

It takes a long time for a case to get through the court system, he said. “One of the ones that I’m watching right now that started in 2015, there have been over 60 sittings in that case. And we probably still have another year to go.”

The cases are related to seizures, some of which took place in Mombasa. Others were in Thailand and Singapore, he said, but the ivory came from Kenya. “We’re talking three tons of ivory in each seizure,” Morris said.

Ivory is a status symbol in Chinese culture, he said. “Kind of like BMWs and Mercedes here.”

Ivory is also considered a good luck charm by some. “Wildlife trafficking now is seen as the number four moneymaker for organized crime,” he said, “behind drug trafficking, human trafficking and arms dealing.”

Two tusks from an elephant shot in a reserve in Tanzania, he said, might be smuggled to Uganda, where they are put in shipping containers and sent to Mombasa, then on to Singapore or Hong Kong and Vietnam or China.

The “transit hub” of the illegal wildlife trade, he said, is Lagos, Nigeria.

Elephants aren’t the only animals being illegally hunted. “Rhino is a big one right now,” said Morris. Rhinoceros horn has uses in traditional medicine, he said. Some even take it as a hangover cure. It’s worth “much more” than ivory, he said.

A kilogram can sell for more than $50,000 US.

Another hot commodity these days are pangolin scales.They are also used in traditional Chinese medicines, he said, for cancer and  “a whole host of ailments.”

“We’ll get massive amounts of pangolins being poached, seizures of, you know, up to 12 tons.”

Analysis of DNA evidence has pointed to one or two criminal organizations coordinating the world supply of ivory, said Morris.

Policing Not Always Effective

But “law enforcement agencies in the different elephant range states will very rarely investigate beyond the actual seizure,” he said. “They don’t dig too far into where it was coming from or going to. They just arrest the people in the car and charge them with possession of wildlife trophies.”

Morris pointed to a 2014 case as a microcosm. Kenya Wildlife Service stopped a vehicle coming from Uganda, he said, containing about 140 kg of ivory. They arrested the two occupants of the vehicle, did a controlled delivery and were able to arrest two more people and discover a connection to the Ugandan capital city of Kampala.

A similar arrest was made three months later at a house in Nairobi, Kenya, and data from seized phones pointed to the same person in Kampala, a suspected major dealer. 

But no prosecution was ever launched against that person, said Morris. “I can’t say for sure that it’s corruption or it’s just the investigative infrastructure isn’t permitting it.”

Some of his colleagues have been threatened for their work in trying to bring poachers to justice.

For about a year starting in 2015, Morris worked with an organization called Wildlife Direct. They’d send young lawyers to court to cover wildlife cases. One of those lawyers was accosted on a main thoroughfare in Mombasa by a man with a sidearm, said Morris, who told him not to come back.

On a separate occasion, the same young lawyer was met on his doorstep by a relative of an accused in a major ivory case, who attempted to “persuade” him not to cover these cases anymore.

Safety can be a concern, said Morris. But he has a fair amount of experience in risky work. He served as a Canadian Armed Forces reservist with the 8th Hussars of Sussex and 722 Communications Squadron in Saint John in the 1970s and 1990s. He was a police officer in Toronto and then in Saint John.

And he also worked in Afghanistan in 2012-2013 as a mentor-adviser on an RCMP peacekeeping mission.

In spite of the safety concerns and the gruesome nature of the crimes he covers, Morris said he has really enjoyed his time in Africa — the weather, the simpler way of life, the warm, genuine people.

He married a Kenyan national a few years ago.

He also likes the unpredictability of life there. “I think we could say that our life here is fairly well regulated with, you know, government agencies, law enforcement agencies, health agencies that kind of look after our well-being and provide a service that is not corrupted in any way. And the same can’t quite be said for many of the countries in Africa.”

Jurisdictional issues are another holdup to legal prosecutions, he said.

The Kenya Wildlife Service investigates minor cases while the National Police Service and their criminal investigation branch handle major ones and they don’t always work well together.

And the poachers move around. About 10 years ago, most of the ivory came from Tanzania, he said, but that has changed in the last couple of years.

A conservation biologist from the University of Washington named Samuel Wasser has analyzed DNA evidence from ivory seizures, said Morris, and tracked poachers as they moved north from Mozambique into Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. Now they are going south again, he said.

“The poachers seem to be keying in on more southern African countries – Botswana, Zambia and Namibia … because the big tuskers are gone, sadly.”

And now there’s a new issue with mammoth ivory from Siberia, he said. Because of the climate change and the permafrost thawing in Siberia, it’s bringing to the surface mammoth tusks from thousands of years ago.

Some people who have been in the poaching business for years are “banking on extinction,” said Morris.

“You hold on to ivory and the value is going to go up.”

Morris sees some sign of progress in the fight against poaching. The amount of ivory being poached, in particular, seems to have gone down, he said.

It’s still a “huge” problem, said Morris, but “there’s always hope.”