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Sam Wasser in the Economist

Friday, February 24, 2017 - 10:30

Poaching is a menace not just to Kenya’s elephants, but to all Africa’s. A recently concluded aerial survey found the continental population to have dropped by nearly a third between 2007 and 2014, to around 415,000. For traffickers smuggling multi-tonne shipments of elephant tusks from Africa’s parks and wildernesses to Asian markets, where today they fetch around $1,100 per kilogram, the Kenyan port of Mombasa is the exit point of choice. It coincides with one of the main routes for heroin from Afghanistan to Europe where shipments are unloaded from dhows and cargo ships in Kenya and Tanzania and then broken into smaller packages that are carried by air to Europe.

“Transnational organised crime is a business, and the ultimate goal is money—not ideology or anything else. It doesn’t matter if it is drugs, weapons, ivory, people; it’s just about moving illicit goods for profit,” says Javier Montano, a wildlife-crime expert at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Nairobi.

DNA tracking of ivory seizures shows that Mombasa, in parallel with its emergence as a heroin-smuggling hub, is also home to one of just three trafficking networks moving elephant tusks out of Africa (the others are located in Entebbe in Uganda, and Lomé in Togo). Prosecutions are commonly for a single seizure but Samuel Wasser, a biologist at University of Washington in Seattle, said this understates the scale and complexity of the illegal trade. A DNA map he devised in the 1990s has linked numerous seizures of more than 1.5 tonnes to the Mombasa network.

Dr. Wasser’s work shows that individual ivory shipments are not one-off deals and that the ivory is rarely shipped out of the country from which it is sourced. A parallel investigation by the Satao Project, a company that investigates wildlife crime, has also connected a number of large ivory seizures to organised crime. As evidence emerges that the same organisations use common logistics networks to move both poached products and drugs, investigators are hoping new avenues for prosecuting both crimes may open up. It is “like getting Al Capone for tax evasion”, says one.


Read the full article in the Economist

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