Nairobi — The secretariat of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has come under fire over its handling of the row over ivory trade in the East African region.
Kenya is blaming the secretariat for the dispute that pits it and Rwanda on one side against Tanzania on the other.
The row arose from a petition filed by Tanzania (together with Zambia) to CITES to be allowed to sell their ivory stockpiles, a move Kenya and Rwanda are opposed to, arguing that it could precipitate a flare up in poaching of the endangered African Elephant.
Kenya, which is part of the 21 member African Elephant Coalition, claims that the secretariat is not only not adhering strictly to the rules of CITES, but it is also taking sides in the matter.
"It is inclined towards allowing the trade," senior assistant director of the Kenya Wildlife Service and head of species and conservation management Patrick Omondi said.
Under the CITES arrangement, the secretariat is responsible for protecting endangered species such as the African elephant through regulation of the sale of its trophies.
Already, Mr Omondi said, top officials of the secretariat are issuing statements delinking the effect of the legal sale of ivory on poaching.
He also expressed reservations with the panel of experts selected to evaluate the bid by Tanzania and Zambia to be allowed to sell their ivory."Persons who want ivory trade have been chosen to sit on the panel, even after we raised our dissatisfaction," he stated.
According to the procedure laid down under the convention, the secretariat is required to select an independent team of experts drawn from diverse fields such as elephant biology, wildlife trade and law enforcement to consider the pros and cons of allowing such trade in countries that make applications.
The African Elephant Coalition has written to the CITES secretariat to express its opposition to the team's assessment. The same issues are set to be raised at the conference of parties meeting planned for March this year in Doha, Qatar.
Kenya is also aggrieved that Tanzania did not consult it before presenting the proposal to sell its ivory, even though the two countries share elephant populations.
Lack of a definite structure for dealing with issues relating to ivory trade by the EAC, similar to the one in the South African Development Community (SADC), has been blamed for the current state of affairs.
SADC wildlife strategy
Tanzania, which is also a member of SADC, ascribes to its common strategy on wildlife issues.
Mr Omondi traces the raging row over ivory trade to the fourteenth conference of parties meeting held at The Hague, Netherlands in 2007.
He states that the meeting's resolutions as crafted by the CITES secretariat left room for loopholes that are presently being exploited by Tanzania and Zambia.
During the meeting, in which Botswana, South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe were allowed to sell their ivory stocks, amounting to 108 tonnes to Japan and China; delegates resolved that after the stocks left these countries, there would be a nine-year moratorium on ivory trade.
However, in the final document that outlined the resolutions, Mr Omondi adds, the CITES secretariat stated that the moratorium would only apply to the countries that had sold their ivory, instead of all the 37 parties.
The nine-year ban was to allow for time to discuss human-wildlife conflict, cross border wildlife movement, wildlife translocation in a bid to build up the populations of the African elephant. It would also allow for monitoring and establishment of reasons behind illegal trade and poaching.
The nine year moratorium was a compromise since Kenya and Mali had proposed a 20 year trade suspension.
The 2007 sale was the second experimental trade in ivory, coming about a decade after the first ever experiment when Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa were allowed to sell 67 tonnes in one shipment.
The Elephant Coalition is developing an action plan that will develop a mechanism for future trade.
A meeting is planned for Brussels in January 22 to 28, by the African Elephant Coalition, to develop a strategy for sealing the loophole that arose from the meeting in The Hague.
The countries are also reaching out to European countries for help in resolving the matter.
Meanwhile, the coalition has reverted back to its demand for a 20 year ban on ivory trade but has pledged to withdraw it in favour of the previously agreed upon nine year period if the proposal is not presented for discussion.
Mr Omondi defended Kenya's tough stance on the issue of ivory trade and poaching saying that it was guided by facts on the dynamics of elephant populations.
"Kenya has one of the best anti-poaching units in Africa that boasts of 19 light aircrafts and an effective communication system that includes a database," he explained.
The anti-poaching system is set to be upgraded to move from killing poachers to arresting them alive in a bid to crack the poaching syndicate. A memorandum of understanding has already been signed with the US Marines and the Israeli government.
Kenya, which presently has the fourth largest elephant population (at 35,000) has also been a victim of poachers that saw its elephant populations drop from 167,000 in 163 to 16,000 in 1989 that was attributed to the international trade in ivory.
Even after the two experimental sales in 1997 and 2007, there was a significant flare up of poaching.
Mr Omondi said that, it had been wrong to allow China as one of the buyers of the ivory since it not only lacked structures for stopping ivory laundering, but its nationals have also been implicated in these illegal activities in the past.
Kenya's commitment to fight poaching was demonstrated in 1989, by the establishment of KWS to carry out wildlife conservation and the burning of 12 tonnes of ivory by then president Daniel Moi a year later.
Mr Omondi said that South African countries support for ivory trade arose because they had escaped the poachers' illegal activities when the practice was rampant on the continent.
"Most of the South African countries were still under colonial governments and had an effective enforcement system," he explained.
Experts say that elephants give birth after four years, besides having a complex social life and populations take time to recover after they are killed by poachers for their ivory.
Poaching, which is believed to be stimulated by legal sale of ivory, also results in the killing of rangers and requires huge investment to control.