September 2014, No. 2 Vol.LI, Illegal Wildlife Trade

Poaching is a persistent global problem with a profound effect on the East African region. The international demand for ivory and rhino horn is fuelling catastrophic declines in the elephant and rhino populations in Kenya, Tanzania and throughout Africa. As is the case for many countries in Africa, in Kenya wildlife crime has evolved over time and presents new challenges to wildlife conservation. Kenya’s estimated 33,000 elephants and 1,010 rhinos, in addition to a mosaic of other wildlife, are concentrated not only in national parks, but scattered throughout the country across officially protected areas, private ranches, county council territories, and both communal and private lands.

In the past, Kenya experienced high levels of elephant and rhino poaching which threatened the survival of both species. Poaching was mainly conducted by armed bandits from Somalia and was prevalent in pastoral areas outside officially protected wildlife areas. The period before the establishment of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in 1989 was characterized by massive poaching, insecurity in the parks, inefficiency and low morale within the game department, partly a result of inadequate support in conserving and managing Kenya’s wildlife. In response to those challenges, a uniformed and disciplined KWS brought about a considerable improvement in wildlife security and helped to stabilize the wildlife and tourism sectors. In addition, Kenya’s public destruction of its ivory stockpile in 1989, which raised international awareness around the poaching issue, along with the 1989 ban on the international trade in ivory imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), contributed to a measurable decline in elephant poaching and the recovery of their populations.

Today, however, the continent is witnessing the re-emergence of widespread wildlife poaching and trafficking and faces new challenges to wildlife security (CITES, IUCN, and TRAFFIC, 2013; Adetunji, 2008). The demand for wildlife products—in particular ivory and rhino horn—has led to a resurgence of elephant and rhino poaching. In addition, there has also been a shift in the areas targeted by poachers and the weapons used, with snaring and poisoning of animals used in place of firearms, especially in areas that hitherto never experienced poaching. The methods, trade routes and concealment techniques used by poachers to traffic wildlife products and engage in the illegal wildlife trade have also evolved. Evidence suggests that if poaching persists at this level, specific local African elephant populations could disappear in the next decade (AWF, 2014).

Drivers and Consequences of the Illegal Wildlife Trade

Growing affluence and economic growth in Asia have increased the demand for Africa’s natural resources, including wildlife and wildlife products (Adetunji, 2008). The rising price of ivory and rhino horn on the black market, combined with centuries-old traditions of valuing these products as either status symbols (in the case of ivory) or traditional medicine (in the case of rhino horn), perpetuate the lucrative illegal trade. Moreover, the decision by CITES to allow two one-off sales of elephant ivory after the 1989 ivory ban resuscitated the ivory trade. It’s a decision that haunts the continent’s elephants to this day. Other factors contributing to the evolution of wildlife crime in Kenya include the proliferation of small arms and light weapons from neighbouring countries such as Somalia, which are used in wildlife poaching and banditry. The porous Kenya-Somalia border in particular has provided opportunities for well-organized, highly-skilled Somali gangs with superior firepower to cross over into Kenya and take refuge in protected areas along the border, which serve as safe havens. Many of the Somali militants pushed out from their territories of influence and control engage in wildlife poaching as they readjust and return to the field of battle. Hence, regional and ultimately global conflicts and insecurity are buoyed by wildlife poaching and trafficking.

Poaching Impact on Kenya’s Elephants and Rhinos

The proliferation of small arms in the region puts weapons in the hands of residents living in areas with large wildlife populations, presenting a serious threat to wildlife security. These weapons are used for poaching and committing other crimes. As the tables below demonstrate, the poaching rate for elephants and rhinos has increased over the past several years.

Elephant: There has been a gradual escalation in elephant poaching since 2008 (Fig. 1). Criminals use diverse methods of poaching and transport of wildlife products to circumvent the law enforcement system. The ranches and community conservancies lack the capacity to handle effectively wildlife security challenges, particularly when dealing with armed poaching gangs. This has made ranches and community conservancies soft targets for poachers.

Rhino: As the state agency mandated to conserve and manage Kenya’s wildlife resources, KWS has always been involved in rhino conservation. In the past, its management activities helped to curb rhino poaching and stabilize populations countrywide. However, due to an increase in demand for rhino horns, particularly in Asia, rhino poaching has increased, not only in Kenya but also in other rhino range states (Figure 2).

Combating the Illegal Wildlife Trade

KWS is legally mandated to enforce Kenya’s wildlife laws and regulations.  This mandate includes eliminating poaching in protected areas and reducing it to its bare minimum elsewhere. As a result, KWS has put in place specific security strategies to address wildlife crime.  The agency’s law enforcement unit works closely with other law enforcement agencies in all matters of wildlife security at the local, regional and international level. Structured engagement of various law enforcement agencies, government institutions, local communities, customs, border control and immigration authorities, ranchers and other conservation stakeholders has intensified and is helping to implement specific security strategies to counter poaching threats and other wildlife crimes. Collaboration and engagement with judiciary authorities in many parts of the country have also intensified and further contributed to full enforcement of wildlife laws. Regionally, Kenya’s cross-border collaboration with Tanzania and Uganda is targeting crimes of a transboundary nature and yielding results in combating illegal activities a long shared borders. Kenya has been further supported by international and regional law enforcement bodies, such as the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) and the Lusaka Agreement Task Force, which have been instrumental in facilitating, coordinating and offering support with transnational crime.

Additionally, conservation groups such as the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and its partners are facilitating community and transborder protection of wildlife areas, coordinating their efforts with KWS and supporting the agency in achieving its goals of curbing wildlife crime in the country. For example, AWF recently enhanced KWS existing Canine Detection Unit with additional dogs and support for training. The Canine Detection Unit is responsible for detecting contraband wildlife products such as ivory and rhino horn at airports and seaports, thus obstructing the trafficking process. AWF and its partners are also conducting workshops in various districts in Kenya to inform local magistrates, police, Customs and immigration officials, communities, and others, many of which are unaware of the extent and impact of the poaching and trafficking crisis, about the existing wildlife laws and the need for enforcing them.

Globally, efforts to address poaching and wildlife trafficking have evolved over time and are focused upon reducing both the supply and demand aspects of the illegal wildlife trade. This involves both enhancing protection of wildlife on the ground (reducing supply) and increasing public awareness and education campaigns in consumer markets (reducing demand). Both governmental and non-governmental organizations are actively engaged in on the ground and overseas efforts to prevent poaching and wildlife trafficking.

In Conclusion

Weak governance and corruption have exacerbated the poaching crisis. Endemic poverty has helped organized criminal elements recruit, bribe, and threaten locals, under paid police, military personnel, and wildlife rangers to participate in wildlife crime. This crisis, if left unchecked, will have a profound effect on regional biodiversity and the economy. African elephants and rhinos play a critical role in maintaining the biodiversity of savannah and forest ecosystems. In addition, they attract tourism that brings in foreign dollars and bolsters economies. The surge in the killing of elephants and other endangered species in East Africa threatens not only wildlife populations, but economic development and the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on tourism for a living.

Given global and regional trends in this crisis, wildlife crime in Kenya is projected to increase and affect the country’s economy and biodiversity if not addressed. Wildlife crime works against the objective of sustainable wildlife conservation and is driving many species toward extinction. As a global community, we urgently need to enhance local, regional and international cooperation in order to guarantee the security of our wildlife.  


Adetunji Jo (2008). China Given Green Light to Buy African Ivory Stockpile The Guardian, 15 July.

CITES (2013). New Figures Reveal Poaching For The Illegal Ivory Trade Could Wipe Out A Fifth Of Africa’s Elephants Over Next Decade. Available From:

CITES, The International Union For Conservation Of Nature (IUCN), and Traffic (2013). Status Of African Elephant Populations And Levels Of Illegal Killing And The Illegal Trade In Ivory: A Report To The African Elephant Summit (December). Available From: