By Jennifer Wanjiru
NAIROBI, Kenya, September 13, 2002 (ENS) - Kenya has decided to equip its game wardens with new AK-101 and AK-102 Kalashnikov automatic rifles, replacing the old AK-47 and G-3 rifles which had been used by the Kenya Wildlife Service rangers for the past 10 years.
The purchase of the rifles from Russia has been confirmed by the Kenya Wildlife Service Director Joseph Kioko, who says the new automatic rifles will match the more sophisticated weapons used by poachers.
Kenya wildlife ranger with an older weapon (Photos courtesy KWS) Local papers say that this is the first time Kenya has purchased arms from Russia. The country had previously relied on arms from Britain and United States.
Although the number of firearms to be purchased has not been made clear, Kioko has told journalists that the Russians "offered the best deal." Other companies from Israel and Europe bid on the tender, "but the Russian firm met our specifications," Kioko said.
The rearming of wildlife rangers is viewed as necessary as debate picks up on the implications of reopening the international ivory trade at the upcoming 12th Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Chile in November.
Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe are proposing to export specific quantities of ivory under controlled conditions. Kenya and India are proposing to transfer all African elephant populations to listing on CITES Appendix I, thus prohibiting commercial trade.
Kenyan elephant carries the tusks that threaten his life. This year Kenya has lost more than 50 elephants to poachers, and there is fear that if the international trade in ivory is opened, Kenya's 30,000 elephants would be under serious threat from poachers who would use the legal trade as a mask for their illegal dealings.
"It is for this reason why Kenya and India would vigorously oppose the lifting of the ban on the international trade in ivory during the next CITES meeting in November," says Kioko.
Already the NGO Forum on Conservation in Kenya has asked African nations to oppose any proposals to reopen the trade and has asked the East African elephant range states to tred carefully when making decisions to sell ivory stockpiles before a monitoring program is fully implemented.
Kenya and India have been two of the world's most vocal defenders of elephants through calling for the continuation of a total ban on trade in ivory for the foreseeable future.
"The possibility of reopening the ivory trade is reviving the desire for it, and it has already been noted that European tourists are buying ivory illegally in Asian markets. This must be discouraged," says Kioko.
Kenyan conservationists say that previous ivory quota systems devised by CITES failed to protect elephants because enormous and growing markets in the East had the capacity to consume more ivory than Africa could legally supply. This resulted in enormous volumes of illegal ivory trafficking.
They warn that, even with an ivory quota system, African elephants are predicted to decline to extinction within 10 years if they are listed under Appendix II. Trade in animals and their parts listed on Appendix II may take place under monitored and controlled conditions.
Ivory seized recently by Kenyan officials indicate that illegal markets in Asia are flourishing. Before the current ban CITES on commercial trade in elephant ivory was implemented in 1990, the African elephant population declined by 53 percent between 1979 and 1989.
By 1989, it was estimated that 90 percent of the ivory in trade came from poached elephants. Today conservationists say that the CITES ivory trade ban is working, as evidenced by the fact that in the 10 years after the ban, the continental African elephant population is no longer in decline.
Still, say conservationists, the monitoring system put in place had not worked. Winnie Kiiru, the East Africa coordinator of Born Free Foundation says that although the Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) was instituted several years ago, its implementation is still at its infancy level. "It cannot provide essential and adequate information to CITES to enable the Convention to make appropriate decisions on elephants," she says.
MIKE is a site based system that was established during the CITES meeting in 1997 to monitor elephant population trends. It is intended to enable elephant range states make appropriate management and enforcement decisions and to build institutional capacity for long term elephant management.
Kenyan conservationists say that since the country is surrounded by countries at war, poaching is becoming more complex, and rangers need much more sophisticated firearms to match those of the poachers. They also say that the higher demand for ivory is increasing that risk.
Ali Kaka, executive director of the East Africa Wildlife Service, says, "The threat imposed by reopening of ivory trade is real. The primary cause of the decline in elephants has been poaching. There still exists an illegal market as is evidenced by increasing ivory seizures while enroute to these markets," he says.
Ever since a herd of elephants was butchered in Samburu National Park early this year, there has been fear that a resurgence of organized poaching could hit the country. But Kenya Wildlife Service officials say there is no organized gang of poachers in the Samburu District only that the locals "have acquired automatic guns illegally."
"They have been coexisting with wildlife over the years, but a mysterious culture change has taken place where game trophies are being priced more than livestock. This is what has led a few Morans [Maasai word for young warriors] into killing elephants particularly within the Samburu and Isiolo-Marsabit borders," said Kioko in April.
Kenyans demonstrate in Nairobi against legalization of the ivory trade. In March, Kenya Wildlife Service security personnel tracked poachers at Tsavo National Park and recovered a G3 rifle, 216 rounds of ammunition and a rifle-propelled grenade.
It is not clear whether these events led to the purchase of the sophisticated weapons but in 2001, the Kenya Wildlife Service recruited a large security force of 400 rangers and 50 officers into the service. They have been deployed in all the national parks to beef up security and management capacity.
Officials at the wildlife service say they have too few rangers to patrol its parks. Currently, they have about 1,000 rangers and need 2,500 more to staff the forest reserves of Mt. Kenya, Abderdares, Shimba Hills and Mt. Elgon, plus the Maasai Mara, Amboseli, Tsavo and Marsabit parks.
"Kenya's stand opposing the ivory trade is influenced by a history, which has taught us some very painful lessons," says Kioko. "Between 1970 and 1985 Kenya lost 85 percent of her elephant numbers, while Africa lost over half of her elephants during the 1980s."
As Kenya urges the CITES Parties to evaluate the potential of less risky options such as non-commercial transfers of ivory and to take note of the more lucrative non-consumptive tourism industry, it is not taking risks with its little herd of elephants and wants to arm its rangers in advance of an increase in poaching.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2002. All Rights Reserved. window.open=NS_ActualOpen;