Kenyan poachers squeezed by more effective wildlife protection have found work in the regional illegal charcoal trade run by the Islamist group al Shabaab to fund its terror-related activities, Kenyan and international police officials say.
"The al Shabaab-controlled charcoal trade is emerging as the new security threat facing the country's biodiversity," Henry Wafula, a district commissioner in eastern Kenya, said in an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Charcoal worth more than 140 million Kenya shillings (about $1.7 million) is being shipped out of eastern Kenya illegally every month, Wafula said. The lucrative trade involves cutting down and burning mature trees, particularly in protected wildlife areas. The loss of trees reduces cover for wildlife and worsens soil erosion.
In 2013, the annual report of the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia estimated that al Shabaab's charcoal exports from eastern Africa could be as high as 24 million sacks per year, for an overall international market value of $360 to $384 million.
Laws passed by Kenya in 2013 impose tough punishments on illegal logging and related activities, but concern about al Shabaab's possible use of charcoal trade revenue has drawn INTERPOL, the world's largest international police organisation, into an alliance trying to stop the trade, though there is scant evidence it is used for terror-related operations.
"We have reports linking illegal charcoal trade in Eastern Africa to terrorist activities in the region. But this is not something governments are responding to," David Higgins, of INTERPOL's environmental crime programme, told a recent media briefing in Nairobi.
He did not give details of the activities, but said he has information, mainly from non-governmental organisations, that there are links between the charcoal trade and terror cells operating in the region.
INTERPOL began taking an interest in the charcoal trade soon after Kenya passed the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act 2013, which spells out penalties up to life imprisonment for anyone found guilty of logging, clearing land or setting fire to vegetation in protected wildlife areas.
"Habitat destruction through charcoal burning is a threat to wildlife and Kenya's security," Paul Mbugua, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) spokesman, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Kenya Forest Service officials acknowledge that timber cutting is a big problem, but that problem has been dwarfed by a rise in poaching of animals including elephants and rhino in the past few years, which has drawn international attention.
Kenyan security personnel say that as operations to stop poaching become more effective, poachers are abandoning the search for ivory and joining Somalia-based al Shabaab as charcoal couriers serving the booming Middle East export market.
'CRIMINALS DO ALL KINDS OF THINGS'
"Criminals do all kind of things," says Paula Kahumbu, head of WildlifeDirect, a Kenyan non-profit that aims to end poaching of elephants in the country. "One cannot separate wildlife and forest crimes because they are committed through the same criminal networks."
Julius Lokinyi, a reformed poacher who lived in the bush for more than 20 years, said it was easy to carry out wildlife poaching in the Samburu and Turkana territories for many years without being caught..
"The people who are involved in wildlife and environmental crime are very well organized and have networks all the way from the villages linking them to tycoons and important people in government," said Lokinyi, now a livestock trader in Isiolo town in northern Kenya.
Government officials denied his allegations.
Poachers use camouflage to elude the authorities, he said in an interview. "I could easily change the colour of my body by applying ochre (a natural earth pigment ranging in colour from yellow to deep orange or brown) to adapt to the jungle terrain," he said. "If I fell sick I would use herbs to cure myself so that I did not have to go a hospital."
Lokinyi, who said he has given the authorities the slip many times, says criminal networks have established escape routes into neighbouring Tanzania, Somalia, Ethiopia and Southern Sudan.
"I could survive in the jungle for more than 40 days without food and water supplies," he said. "When the authorities were too close to catching us when poaching, we would turn to other activities like trafficking charcoal."
Conservationists say charcoal burning is now on the rise because al Shabaab pays its workers well, and poaching was reviving as well because of the high level of youth unemployment and a shortage of security agents such as community scouts.
The advocacy group Kenyans United Against Poaching (KUAPO) says that security personnel tackling environmental crime are poorly equipped and work long hours for meagre salaries.
"They are poorly paid, have no gear such as boots and uniforms, shelter under trees, and most live on a diet of rice and beans," said Raabia Hawa of KUAPO. "On the other hand, al Shabaab is known to fund its illegal activities very well, and is able to lure criminals to work for it."
Kagondu Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.