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As elephants vanish, Kenya puts Chinese ivory smuggler in prison

Kenyan court’s landmark 2-1/2 year sentence is a major shift from the small fines that ivory smugglers have faced in the past.

Days after Kenyan leader Uhuru Kenyatta signed $5 billion in projects with China that included a nod to wildlife preservation, Kenyan courts sentenced a Chinese woman to more than two years in jail for her attempt to smuggle ivory from the East African nation.

The sentence on Chen Beimei is the first of its kind in Kenya, where authorities so far have levied only small fines for ivory smugglers – even while doling out tougher penalties on local poachers who directly kill animals. 

Ms. Chen was arrested Aug. 14 while trying to smuggle pieces of ivory weighing more than 15 pounds in bags that she declared to be macadamia nuts. She was apprehended while boarding a Kenyan Airways Flight to Hong Kong from Nairobi, and late last week pleaded guilty to the charges.

Her jail sentence comes as gangs are poaching elephants and rhinos to feed a demand for ivory in the Asian market. China and Thailand are thought to be the biggest consumers, with the items being used for ornaments and medicine.

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Kenya’s President Kenyatta was in Beijing last week to sign a major deal that will see China build a railroad through Kenya from the Indian Ocean to Uganda.

But China also agreed, according to Mr. Kenyatta, to support efforts to stop poaching wildlife and endangered species, even though Beijing has had difficulty curbing the exploitation of endangered species at home.

The ivory issue has become more sensitive as elephant populations decline and a law is being debated in Kenya’s parliament to impose prison terms up to 15 years or fines over $100,000 on those convicted of threatening endangered species.

The Kenyan Wildlife Service reports that in 1979 some 167,000 elephants roamed the savannah but today the creatures number fewer than 40,000.

Kenyan authorities say that in 2013 so far, some 190 elephants and 35 rhino have been killed by poachers. The rhino population is at a crisis level with only 1025 remaining in the country, say authorities.

Kenyan Wildlife Service spokesperson Paul Udoto said after the sentencing of Ms. Chen that, “This sends the message to other gangs that dealing with ivory in Kenya will be made a high-cost affair and low-profit business. Those engaged in smuggling should be ready to pay heavy losses including long jail terms.”

This year, some 17 smugglers from six nations have been apprehended in Kenya. These include eight Chinese, six Vietnamese, and one each from the US, Tanzania, and South Sudan. In March, a Chinese man was set free by the courts after being fined $350 for illegally holding some 400 pieces of ivory.

It is not clear if Asian or Chinese smugglers are paying the poachers up front, but what is clear is that Asia and China are the destination point for the ivory and rhino horns.

On Aug. 22, the day Chen was incarcerated, Kenya’s Ministry of Environment, Water and Natural Resources issued a statement saying the trade in wildlife and its products posed a “major challenge.”

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Poaching and wildlife trafficking are “more organized,” lucrative, and widespread and are “undermining” Kenya’s effort to preserve its wild creatures, according to Judi Wakhungu, cabinet secretary for the ministry.

Speaking in Beijing last week, Kenyatta told reporters that, “The Chinese government understands that poaching is a problem. The most important thing is that they are not just talking about it but working to solve it.”

Kenyatta’s office later issued a statement that China will help improve surveillance around national parks and game reserves and aid Kenya in adding to the ranks of the current 3,000 wildlife rangers who deal with poachers – with further details to come.