By Jennifer Wanjiru
NAIROBI, Kenya, April 19, 2002 (ENS) - Hit by a fresh wave of poaching, Kenyan authorities have deployed a massive hunt for poachers who this week left 15 elephants dead in the Samburu game reserve. This brings to 25 the number of elephants killed this month in Kenya.
In early April, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) reported the slaughter of 10 elephants in the expansive Tsavo East National Park by what was described as a "well organized gang of ivory poachers."
"We have already captured the suspected gang leader," said Gibson Mwaluma, a deputy KWS warden. A crack anti-poaching squad from the General Service Unit reinforced by KWS rangers is combing the northern Kenya districts in one of the major manhunts for poachers in recent times.
In the past, African poachers were armed with poisonous arrows, but today the proliferation of small arms has made them more dangerous.
"The gang is armed with sophisticated weapons including AK47 and G-3 assault rifles," said police spokesman, Peter Kimanthi. "We have assembled a crack unit armed with high-tech weapons meant to deal with the toughest of bandits."
This is the first instance in which a rifle-propelled grenade has been recovered, a weapon that could be used to bring down an aircraft or cause massive human casualties, police said.
Shortly after the elephant killings in Tsavo East National Park in early April, KWS officials sent ground and aerial teams who recovered ivory from nine and an assortment of weapons from that region.
The killings are the worst in Kenya since it stepped up efforts in 1980s to halt poaching. In the past few years Kenya has managed to maintain the level of its elephant population at around 30,000, and a new census is expected later this year.
During the CITES meeting, South Africa and Zimbabwe are expected to renew their demands for the lifting of the ban on commercial ivory trading.
South Africa has announced that it is drafting a CITES proposal that would allow the country to sell its ivory stockpiles. Some conservationists have criticized the South African move saying any trade, including one-off stockpile sales, would create a market for ivory.
"It is very hard to know what ivory come from a legal hunt and which came as a result of poaching," says Kenya Wildlife Service Director Joseph Kioko. "We are worried about the new killings."
"We call all African nations to help us stop these killings," said Ali Kaka, a director of the East African Wildlife Society.
"We are not satisfied that there are sufficient security measures and controls to allow renewed elephant killings," he said, referring to the South African proposal for a legalized ivory trade. Conservationists and wildlife officials fear a legal trade will serve to mask a larger illegal trade of poached elephant ivory.
In January, wildlife experts expressed fear of renewed poaching after it was publicly announced that the Kenya Wildlife Service was in the red and was relying on government handouts to survive.
Cabinet Minister Shariff Nassir said the Kenya Wildlife Service required money to hire game rangers, but, he said, the government had a budget deficit. Kenya's financial shortfall was brought about by the failure of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to release any further funds to Kenya unless it showed commitment to fight corruption, said Nassir.
Kenya has been leading a group of elephant range countries strongly opposed to the reopening of the ivory trade, which they deem premature. The group warns that renewed sale of ivory could send out the wrong message and might trigger increased poaching.
In January, The Kenya Wildlife Service deputy director of security, Omar Bashir, expressed fears over poaching of elephants. "You can now see," he says. "We need more money to protect elephants and not for monitoring.
Kenya has been arguing that the inception of the Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) concept four years ago by CITES that it only works in theory and that more investment in elephant security is required.
The international community is deeply divided over the future of ivory sales, and the battle looks set to dominate the CITES proceedings in November as it has dominated previous CITES meetings.