by Gitonga Njeru on 9 November 2017
- Kenyan police have linked four senior politicians to wildlife poaching and trafficking in alleged schemes to fund their election campaigns.
- The four politicians allegedly trafficked live snakes and tortoises, as well as the skins of lions and leopards, elephant ivory, and rhino horn.
- Police say that collectively the four made several million dollars off the scheme, although it remains unclear whether they were collaborating or working independently.
- The investigation is ongoing. However, rampant impunity, corruption, and Kenya’s current state of political turmoil may complicate the investigation and lower the odds that any prosecution will result from it, police sources say.
NAIROBI — Kenyan police have linked four senior politicians to wildlife poaching and trafficking in alleged schemes to fund their election campaigns. The Criminal Investigations Department (CID), a branch of the Kenya Police Service, has been investigating the politicians since soon after the country’s August 8 elections, prompted by testimony from a foreign trafficking suspect who was already in police custody.
John Kihara, the investigation’s lead officer with the CID, said evidence includes phone logs and bank transfer records linking the politicians to other trafficking suspects, some of whom are serving prison sentences or in police custody. Mobile cash communication records show large cash transfers with other suspects, suggesting a correlation in their crimes, he said. GPS data obtained from mobile service providers show that the accused politicians have met with several other suspects, some of them international criminals on the run, according to Kihara,
The mounting evidence suggests that the politicians are financing and paying poachers, then selling live animals and specimens abroad to fund their campaigns leading up to the August elections, sergeant Peter Omondi of the Kenya Police Service told Mongabay. It appears that collectively the four made several million dollars off the scheme, he added. It remains unclear whether the four politicians were collaborating or working independently, but for now police are treating them as separate cases.
So far, the investigation has linked the politicians to nine suspected poachers and low-level traffickers who are currently in police custody, and the Kenyan government is working closely with Thai and Chinese authorities to extradite an additional 15, according to Omondi. Another five suspects with critical evidence remain in hiding, two Chinese, two Thai, and a Brit, he said.
John Njuno, a senior investigating officer with the CID, said that more arrests would be made in the coming weeks. In the mean time, the police are waiting for closed-circuit television footage from places they suspect the politicians have met with their accomplices, and continuing to sift through phone logs and bank records.
“Why would you withdraw $40,000 in cash very frequently from the bank? What for?” Njuno asked. “You cannot argue you are sending $2,000 lunch money to someone you do not know and has a previous criminal record.”
The four politicians under investigation include three current country governors (analogous to U.S. state governors) with prior high-level government positions at the national level.
“I can confirm we are investigating the politicians, but you have to know under our constitution, you are considered innocent until proven guilty,” Keriako Tobiko, the country’s Director of Public Prosecutions, told Mongabay. “Sometimes evidence can be politically motivated by rivals, so you have to review carefully and look at the factual evidence.”
Tobiko said he is waiting for police to conclude their investigations before initiating arrests and prosecutions.
If convicted, the politicians could face sentences of 20 years to life in prison, depending on the specific crimes they are eventually charged with, according to Tobiko. “Wildlife crime is very rampant and the only reasonable thing to do is to issue very stringent sentences,” he said. “This helps be a warning to anyone who may have evil thoughts of committing the crimes.”
The trafficked animals
In Kenya, elephant and rhino poaching has declined by 75 percent since 2014, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service. However, police have linked most of the latest incidents to the four politicians and a number of unrelated business people.
According to Omondi, between them the four politicians allegedly trafficked live African rock pythons and several species of sand boas, vipers, and tortoises, as well as the skins of lions and leopards, elephant ivory, and rhino horn. The markets for these products are mainly China, Hong Kong, Thailand, parts of Europe, and the United States.
The tortoises are sold as house pets throughout Thailand for between $500 and $1,000 depending on the species and size, according to Omondi. The vipers, mainly the Kenya horned viper (Bitis worthingtoni) and the Mt. Kenya bush viper (Atheris desaixi), are used in medical research for which they are bought illegally by unsuspecting institutions. They and the African rock pythons (Python sebae) are also used as pets and for circus stunts in Europe, Asia, and North America.
“In some cases, the pythons are also bred in backstreet places and raised either for meat in high-end eateries or their skin is sold to fashion companies. Vipers also are optionally sold as meat,” Omondi said. Prices for the snakes vary, but $900 for a full-grown snake is typical, he said.
The investigation has involved extensive collaboration with foreign law enforcement agencies, including Interpol. Among the threads Kenyan officials are following abroad is an investigation of 14 research institutions that buy Mt. Kenya bush vipers to extract venom for research purposes, which involves partnerships with the governments of China and Thailand, according to Omondi. “No one has ever applied for a license to keep and farm the Mt. Kenya bush viper. How do they find their way there?” he asked.
Kenyan law prohibits most trade in the species the politicians are accused of trafficking under the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The Kenya Wildlife Service estimates that the country is home to only 2,000 wild lions, representing about 10 percent of the total in Africa, and about 27,000 elephants. The number of African rock pythons left in the wild is unknown as no recent census has been conducted, but they are listed as endangered under Kenyan law. Population numbers for Kenya’s viper species are loosely estimated to be a few thousand each. Over 120 Mt. Kenya bush vipers have been trafficked per month to Asia and Europe.
Statistics on the numbers of illegally traded Kenyan animals are elusive, but assuredly high, according to Omondi. “Most cases go undetected or bribe their way out. So the few cases we detect are just a tip in the iceberg,” he said. The wildlife trade is both lucrative and risky, so law enforcement officers typically have to be bribed for the deals to take place at all, Omondi said. And with seven ranks in the supply chain, from low-level poachers at the bottom, through corrupt law enforcement officials at ports of entry, up to the high-level organizers, there are many mouths to feed.
A lion skin, for example, will sell for about $12,000 in China and Thailand, but the poacher is usually paid about $1,000 in Kenya, Omondi said. “Law enforcers are included in this chain. That is how rotten it is,” he said. “One also has to pass through some influential politicians who give directions to security agencies on how the procedure will be executed.”
One of the four politicians under investigation is Mike Mbuvi Sonko, who was recently elected governor of Nairobi County in southwestern Kenya. Sonko is not new to controversy, having served more than four and a half years in a Mombasa prison for fraud.
According to Kihara of the CID, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has been investigating Sonko for years on allegations of illicit ivory trading and drug trafficking, and he has also been involved in rhino horn trading.. In 2011, when he was a member of parliament representing a district in Nairobi, he was included by Kenya’s late security minister George Saitoti in a report known as the “List of Shame” naming Kenyan members of parliament wanted by the U.S. government. Kihara added that after it became difficult for the CIA to investigate Sonko, the agency handed the case off to Kenyan authorities to launch their own investigation.
“Telephone call logs dating back to 2004 shows that he has had consistent communication with many [trafficking] suspects and some serving prison time,” Kihara said. He added that cash transactions through different banks, including large withdrawals, indicate that Sonko may have been involved in money laundering activities going back to a few years before the August election.
If convicted, Governor Sonko could serve more than 20 years in prison. The U.S might consider opening up fresh charges against him in the future, according to Kihara. However, police sources say extraditing Sonko to face those charges may prove difficult as he holds a diplomatic passport and is influential.
Contacted by Mongabay, Governor Sonko flatly denied the trafficking and money laundering allegations while acknowledging that the CIA had been trailing him.
“My detractors are out to get me for them to gain political mileage. It is true I was incarcerated but that is in the past. That was in the 1990s. This is a new beginning and I am serving the people of Nairobi and Kenya. I always have a chat with U.S government officials, so it is propaganda,” he told Mongabay.
Another politician with a controversial past who is under investigation is Anne Waiguru, She was elected in August as governor of Kirinyaga County in central Kenya.
In August, prior to her election and while she was serving as Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Devolution, she was publicly accused as one of the masterminds in the embezzlement of more than $23 million. The money had been disbursed to her ministry en route to one of its agencies, the National Youth Service, in order to develop youth training programs. Her case in the embezzlement scandal is still ongoing in the Kenyan courts. She is also under a separate investigation for money laundering.
Police are now investigating her role in elephant poaching and snake and tortoise smuggling.
Intelligence reports from the government’s main spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, show that she has long been under the protection of Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta as a close family friend and political ally.
The governor claimed to Mongabay that she was a whistle blower during the embezzlement scandal, not a perpetrator, and that the embezzlement, money laundering, and wildlife trafficking investigations are all targeting her unfairly. “I can say I am a victim of bad circumstances,” she told Mongabay. “I am not involved in any wildlife crimes either.”
“Politicians will argue political motives for this. It is not the case. But for now they are all innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. But investigations must go on without fear or favor. I have investigated many cases, and this one is just another one”, Njuno said.
John Mwau, a former assistant minister in the Ministry of East African Community, Labour, and Social Protection, is also under investigation for trafficking. Like Sonko, he has previously been accused of trafficking in drugs and ivory. The U.S. once demanded his extradition on drug trafficking charges and he joined Sonko on the List of Shame in 2011. Mwau lost the August election for the Makueni County governor’s seat, but remains in active politics.
Finally, Ferdinard Waititu, the governor of Kiambu County in southwestern Kenya, is under investigation for rhino trafficking. He has been accused of having fake academic papers from the prestigious Punjab University in Pakistan. A registrar at the institution confirmed to Mongabay that no one by the name of Ferdinard Waititu attended the university.
Both Mwau and Waititu declined Mongabay’s interview requests.
The odds of a conviction for any of the four politicians under investigation may be long. Their status as state officials complicates any efforts to arrest them while abroad, and Kenya faces many of its own problems, Kihara said.
“Here in Kenya, there is so much impunity. No matter how far we go with our investigations, one reason or the other, evidence has to be tampered with, making a conviction difficult,” Kihara said.
The police themselves are part of the problem. Some officers are inexperienced in dealing with such sensitive cases and others are plainly corrupt, he said. “Some of our colleagues interfere with our investigations by receiving bribes. They then destroy crucial evidence. That is usually a setback. In the recent past we have had to recover important evidence related to this case,” Kihara said. Two of his colleagues were recently dismissed from the service and are awaiting prosecution, he said.
Overshadowing the investigation is Kenya’s current state of political turmoil. Incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta won the presidential election held on August 8, as well as a revote held on October 26 that has featured ongoing violent clashes. If the Supreme Court nullifies the recent election, as it did in August over complaints of irregularities, another election would be held within 60 days to decide whether Kenyatta or his opponent, former prime minister Raila Odinga, will lead the country.
“If former prime minister wins this time and the election is fair, the suspects will most likely to be imprisoned,” an officer with the National Intelligence Service told Mongabay by phone. The officer requested anonymity for fear of victimization and losing his job.
But Kenyan affairs have reached an extreme. Parts of the country are threatening to hold a referendum to decide whether to secede, and the officer went so far as to predict an Arab Spring-style revolution to oust and jail Kenyatta. “We will wait and see with time,” he said.
Whatever the fate of the investigation and the four politicians ensnared in it may be, there is no doubt that corrupt politicians and law enforcement officials are central to Kenya’s wildlife trafficking problem, according to John Kilukui, a 54-year-old reformed poacher who is now a senior pastor at Redeemed Gospel Church in the town of Kiambu in southwestern Kenya.
“I have killed elephants, smuggled snakes to zoos around the world, and even sold drugs. But I stopped before I could either be in jail or shot dead,” Kilukui told Mongabay. “You have to pass through politicians and senior policemen for your work to succeed. So if you want to fight wildlife crime, you have to fight the disease called corruption. It is real.”
Gitonga Njeru is a freelance journalist based in Kenya. His work has been published by the BBC, The Guardian, Thomson Reuters, ChinAfrica Magazine, The Economist, Mail & Guardian, Christian Science Monitor, and other outlets. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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