Ivory trafficking booms in East Africa

East Africa is fast becoming a major international hub for ivory trafficking, yet efforts to catch traffickers are being frustrated by poor regional cooperation, according to law enforcement officials.

By all accounts, the business is growing. Last week a huge consignment of six tonnes, believed to have been hunted in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Tanzania, was seized in Zambia.

“We know there’s a big racket in operation right now,” said S, an undercover investigator for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), who preferred not to be named, “but too many times we’ve sent tip-offs to criminal investigators in other countries, only to find they were never chased up.”

This week three suspects, including two soldiers from the Ugandan Army and a Chadian businessman who had tried to pose as a Ugandan Nubian, are being put on trial in Kampala for illicit ivory trading.

They were caught last month in possession of 13kg of ivory with a street value (in Kampala) of about $6 000.

Two Senegalese businessmen were also arrested. They were further linked to an earlier incident in which 22kg of ivory was intercepted on its way to them, after seven elephants were found shot dead with their tusks removed in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park. Two Ugandan soldiers are currently facing a court martial in connection with the incident.

“From what we’ve gleaned it looks like this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said T, another UWA investigator, “but as soon as you break into a racket it goes underground and you’re left clutching what you know is only a small piece of it.”

Officials say these and other recent seizures of ivory in Kampala point to a growing network of racketeers from West and Central Africa trading ivory, much of which is looted from eastern DRC, but some of it from Tanzania and Sudan.

“Kampala is being used as the hub because it makes the consignment look like an innocent shipment,” Elizabeth Kotesa, director of Uganda’s Criminal Investigation Department, told the Mail & Guardian. “Someone would never think twice about it.”

The severity of the problem was brought to light at the end of August last year when a colossal consignment of ivory weighing 3 335 tonnes was impounded in Shanghai, China.

It comprised 408 whole tusks and 1 013 smaller tusk fragments. It had been shipped from Mombassa, the exporter’s address was the DRC and the containers were traced to a Kampala branch of a Danish transport company called Mearsk.

“Certainly we think this shipment originated in Kampala,” said Kotesa. “We know two West African traders and a Ugandan whom we suspect. We tried to set them up using ivory from UWA stocks but the West Africans didn’t buy it.”

However, some investigators say not enough research was done to prove that the ivory came from Kampala. “They just assumed this because the container was from Kampala. But I phoned Mearsk and they said their containers are leased out all over the continent,” said S. “They can’t trace the movements of their containers.

“So we checked the export records to see where the containers were sealed. It wasn’t Uganda — it was Mombasa, Kenya. We contacted the Kenyan authorities, saying, ‘You are in a better position to investigate this.’ They never got back to us.”

Wildlife conservation experts say the primary driver of the ivory trade in East Africa is the DRC conflict. Even so, it wasn’t rampant until very recently.

John Hart of the Wildlife Conservation Society said “before last October, elephant poaching in [the] eastern DRC was quite limited, then it suddenly picked up.

“We did a survey covering from around then until the end of July 2003 in the Congolese Okapi Wildlife Reserve [14 000km2], which contains one of the largest remaining elephant populations in the eastern forest zone of the [DRC].

“We found massive elephant killing supported by rebel militias, particularly [Jean Pierre] Bemba’s MLC [Mouvement Liberation du Congo]. At least five well-known professional poachers operated in close conjunction with the militias, who also distributed arms and ammunition to local hunters, effectively converting them into elephant poachers.”

Hart said that during this time the Ugandan military, while not trading ivory itself, was “involved indirectly through support of local businessmen in transiting ivory in helicopters and other vehicles into Uganda”.

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