MOMBASA, Kenya — Officials at Kenya's Mombasa port impounded more than three tons of illegal ivory disguised as peanuts for export to Malaysia, the second such seizure there in less than a week.
The ivory was seized on Monday and had been declared as 240 bags of peanuts, Paul Mbugua, a spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service, said in a statement Tuesday.
Kenyan revenue officials said the ivory was worth more than $700,000, the biggest seizure so far this year. Last week officials at Mombasa's port seized a substantial consignment of illegal ivory disguised as sundried fish marked for export to Malaysia. Two more suspicious containers – one from Uganda and the other from Congo – were due for verification, officials said Tuesday.
The big seizures highlight East Africa's growing problem of poaching and the illegal trade in ivory, as demand for it increases in Asia. According to CITES, the international body that monitors endangered species, the illegal ivory trade has more than doubled since 2007. Kenya's elephant population fell from 160,000 in 1960s to 16,000 in 1989 due to poaching. Today Kenya is home to only 38,500 elephants.
Most of the ivory impounded on Monday likely came from Botswana, South Africa, Congo, Cameroon, and Mozambique, according to Arthur Tuda, a Kenya wildlife official responsible for the coast. If most of the ivory is being smuggled from countries other than Kenya, it suggests Mombasa's port is becoming a favorite for ivory smugglers and traders. Tuda said three clearing agents at Mombasa have since been arrested over their alleged involvement in the illegal ivory trade. Kenyan officials have intercepted six major ivory consignments being smuggled through the port in the last three years. They were destined for Hong Kong, Cambodia, United Arab Emirates, China, Thailand and Malaysia.
Tuda said that, unless wildlife poaching is declared "an economic crime" with heavy penalties, the problem is likely to persist in Kenya and elsewhere in the region where poachers do not face serious consequences if they are caught. The ivory seized last week at Mombasa's port originated from the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
Kenyan revenue officials warn that ivory smugglers are becoming smarter and have devised means to beat scanners. The ivory seized last week stank of fish and repelled sniffer dogs. The officials say the ivory is often chopped into small pieces, polished and neatly cut into small cubes and circles that disguise their ivory shape during the scanning process.
Tuda, the Kenya wildlife official, said the growing number of ivory seizures was the result of greater surveillance by wildlife and revenue officials, who increasingly have to physically search suspicious containers. Last month Beatrice Memo, Kenya's customs commissioner, announced new regulations to curb ivory trade through the port of Mombasa that include full scrutiny of all goods destined for the Middle East and Asia. The new procedures also call for all exports there to be packed under the supervision of a joint team of wildlife and revenue officials, police, and others.
Associated Press writer Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda, contributed to this report.