An investigation has been launched after customs officials seized a 600-kg cargo of ivory at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on 22 June.
Airport authorities were assisted by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Canine Unit whose sniffer dogs intercepted 345 elephant tusks due to be trafficked to Lagos in Nigeria. The smuggled ivory, which was packed in six crates, was covered with tinfoil and sprayed with pepper to throw the dogs off the scent.
Ivory smuggling continues to be a major problem for Kenya and neighbouring countries. Just over a year ago the Nairobi airport seized a massive batch of smuggled ivory weighing 1.3 tons. China is seen as the fuelling the biggest demand for ivory, where the booming black market trade is said to be centred around Putian, a town in China’s eastern Fujian province. In Asia and the Middle East elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns are made into ornaments and used in traditional medicines while in China ivory chopsticks are a sign of prestige.
The survival of Africa's estimated 472,000 elephants is constantly under threat from poachers attracted by significant financial gain. Conservationists say that ivory poaching in central and west Africa has steadily worsened in recent years and now contributes to the annual loss of up to 60,000 elephants on the continent. They are concerned that the numbers could get to a stage where recovery of the species would be impossible. Some environmentalists have predicted the extinction of African elephants in the wild by 2020.
Last year Kenya proposed a 20-year moratorium on state sales of stockpiled ivory, which was opposed by Tanzania and Zambia. In 2010 Tanzania said it wished to sell its 90 tonne-ivory stockpile, worth up to $20 million, arguing that it was spending $75,000 annually on security and storage of seized ivory.
The UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) subsequently rejected Tanzania’s request, and ruled in favour of the proposal by countries such as Kenya that wanted the stockpiles destroyed to discourage poaching. Last July Kenya burnt nearly five tons of poached ivory, most of it from Malawi and Zambia, which had been stockpiled for almost a decade.