Tourists visiting Kenya’s steamy coastal city of Mombasa will likely pose in front of what is perhaps the city’s most iconic symbol, two giant arches made of aluminum and designed to look like elephant tusks. Given to the city by Britain’s Princess Margaret in 1956, the structure was meant to celebrate Kenya’s abundance of wildlife. But today it has become something of an ironic emblem of the city.
Last year, activists defaced the sculptures, smearing them with dripping red paint and the phrase, “Mombasa Not 4 Ivory Export.”
Relative to its neighbors, Kenya has been lauded internationally for its anti-poaching initiatives. The country imposed a strict new wildlife act that imposes life sentences or heavy fines for poaching. With the help of international donors, the Kenya Wildlife Service recently opened a wildlife forensic and genetics laboratory to aid in wildlife crime prosecution. However, even with these advancements, Kenya has one serious weakness.
The port of Mombasa, the country’s largest coastal city, is the single most active ivory trafficking hub in Africa, funneling ivory from East and Central Africa on its way, overwhelmingly, to Asian markets. This trade through Mombasa has increased in recent years, leading to a grim statistic: Since 2009, studies estimate the port of Mombasa has funneled the ivory of 25,000 elephants.
The ivory passing through Mombasa has been labeled as decorating stones, declared as peanuts, and stashed with tea leaves. It has been intercepted in Singapore, Thailand and at the Kenyan port, sometimes in quantities of 1,000 pounds or more.
Experts say the level of sophistication required to move such large quantities over such long distances indicates the involvement of organized crime.
“It’s a heightened degree of professionalization that is required to actually move this contraband across this very long and very diverse supply chain,” says Jackson Miller, lead analyst for wildlife and environmental crimes at C4ADS, a security analysis NGO. “You need contacts within thousands of miles of bush, access to transport routes, then as you get out of Africa, access to outside transport and retail. It’s a big mission.”
Reports have linked the illegal wildlife trade with the funding of armed groups. While it’s unclear exactly how much it may be funding Kenya’s central security threat, the Somali-based group al-Shabaab, non-profits, government officials, and researchers have found real links between the wildlife trade and conflict in Africa.
Compounding the problem is Mombasa’s reputation for mismanagement, lax security and corruption. It’s been called a “liability for Africa,” where wildlife products and drugs can be moved with impunity.
“This is one of the ports of convenience in the world,” says longtime Kenyan maritime consultant Andrew Mwangura. “You can do anything,” he says. He calls the port’s rule of thumb: see no evil, hear no evil.
In a 2010 interview with the International Peace Institute, Njuguna Mutonya, the former bureau chief for Kenya’s Nation Media group, says the Mombasa port is like a tunnel: “All illicit business happens here and it is controlled by traders supported by customs personnel and powerful people in government. Whoever controls the port controls the illicit business in Kenya.”
The port has employed new controls in an effort to improve security, including CCTV monitoring, perimeter surveillance, and ID-required access doors. Port authorities say they use one stationary scanner and two mobile scanners managed by the Kenya Revenue Authority to scan all exports, but there’s little proof that they’re being used as promised. On this reporter’s visit, communications staff were surprised to find that the stationary scanner hadn’t been working for a month.