Uganda, Kenya earmark strategies to combat Ivory smuggling as Entebbe and Mombasa top global exit routes


Patrick Jaramogi, The Investigator

Date Published

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KAMPALA, UGANDA: Entebbe Airport and Mombasa ports remain the leading exit route and global hub for illegal Ivory trade, The Investigator can reveal.

But as more and more nations strengthen their bans on the import and sale of elephant ivory, the cartel who operate in a sophisticated manner, are also getting much smarter.

Recent investigations on DNA tests on illegal ivory unmasked the three largest smuggling hotspots in Africa: the three elephant poaching cartels operates out of Kenya, Uganda, and Togo.

In 2016 the International Union for Conservation of Nature cited ivory poaching as a primary reason for the staggering loss of around 111,000 elephants between 2005 and 2015 – leaving their dwindling total numbers at an estimated 415,000.

The poaching isn’t for elephant ivory, but other species such as rhino horns, pangolins that the Investigator has established is smuggled hidden and rightly concealed in cargo containers and shipped worldwide through the port of Mombasa.

About 70 percent of ivory seizures between 1996 and 2011 were in large consignments of at least half a metric tonne, according to a 2013 study.

Professor Samuel Wasser, director of the University of Washington Centre for Conservation Biology, said: ‘Our prior work on DNA testing of illegal ivory shipments showed that the major elephant ‘poaching hotspots’ in Africa were relatively few in number.

‘Now, we’ve shown that the number and location of the major networks smuggling these large shipments of ivory out of Africa are also relatively few.’

The team identified what appear to be the three largest ivory smuggling cartels in Africa, operating out of Mombasa, Kenya; Entebbe, Uganda; and Lomé in Togo.

“Out of 38 large ivory shipments analyzed, the team was able to link 11 of the shipments together,” said Prof. Wasser.

They did this by identifying tusk pairs that had been separated after poaching, yet shipped out of the same port between 2011 and 2014. Large shipments currently dominate the illegal ivory trade, according to the researchers.

Professor Wasser said linking multiple large ivory shipments to the same smuggling networks will help build evidence against the cartels that are responsible for the bulk of illegal ivory trade and shipment.

Professor Wasser said: ‘We reveal connections between what would otherwise be isolated ivory seizures – linking seizures not just to specific criminal networks operating in these ports, but to poaching and transport networks that funnel the tusks hundreds of miles to these cartels.

Now the East African regional states are moving a step further to manage the cartel. The move is being championed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

IFAW is one of the largest animal welfare and conservation charities in the world. The organization works to rescue individual animals, safeguard populations, preserve habitat, and advocate for greater protections.

Working with governments of Uganda and Kenya, IFAW in partnership with Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is conducting a weeklong training on Cross-Border Enforcement for Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Customs officials of Uganda and Kenya.

Steven Njumbi, the head of programmes at IFAW told the trainees at Hotel Africana in Kampala that Kilimbi Port in Mombasa and Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi are recorded as the leading points for smuggled ivory from Kenya, Uganda, and DRC.

“Between 2013 and March 2016, seizures in big scale (over 500kgs) were reported in Kenya and Uganda,” he said. Njumbi who represented the IFAW regional director said cross-border training is one of the IFAW 2018- 2020 strategic planning to combat rampant poaching and illegal trade of wildlife.

He said as the sniffer dogs get busier tracing the ivory being smuggled out of Entebbe and JKIA, the cartel is now using the One Stop Border Points of Malaba and Busia to ship out the ivory.

John Makombo, the UWA Director for Conservation said using dogs can be a great tool to nab the cartel. “Much as we are now training the CAA and Customs officials on how best to detect the contrabands, the use of dogs has proved to be a much better option to identify smuggled ivory.”

Dubbed The Ivory dog project, the project has been tested at Kenya’s Mombasa port.

Statistics indicate that almost 40,000 pounds of ivory were seized at Mombasa between 2009 and 2014, a haul that represents the killing of 2,400 elephants. That number tragically does not account for the amount of ivory that was successfully smuggled out of the country.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the process is called Remote Air Sampling for Canine Olfaction (RASCO). First, dogs are trained to recognize the scent of ivory, rhino horn, and other commonly trafficked wildlife products. 

Then, authorities use special equipment to suck an air sample out of a suspected cargo container, which is then passed through a filter that collects the scent for the dog to smell. 
A pooch that sits is an indicator that the container carries illicit materials.

Before RASCO, the Kenyan port was already using dogs to investigate containers, leading to 26 seizures in just six months. But sniffing 2,000 containers per day was slow and the dogs often got hot and fatigued. 

It may take hours for inspectors to completely empty a container and locate the often cleverly concealed ivory. John Makombo said that with the new method, the dogs can smell the filters from comfortable, climate-controlled rooms and examine a container’s scent within a few minutes.

“If we work a team, with the customs, and Civil Aviation officials coming together to join the works of UWA, its intelligence and security services, the cartels can easily be handled,” he said.