Kenya sentenced a Chinese ivory smuggler to 21/2 years in prison yesterday in a landmark ruling hailed as sending a powerful warning to poachers and smugglers.
The illegal ivory trade, estimated to be worth up to US$10 billion a year, is mostly fuelled by demand in Asia and the Middle East, where elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns are used in traditional medicine and to make ornaments.
"A precedent has been set by this sentencing. It is a sign that our judiciary is waking up to the scale of the crisis and the damage that is being done to our animals," said Kenya Wildlife Service spokesman Paul Udoto.
Chen Biemei, 30, was jailed for 31 months for trying to smuggle 6.9kg of worked ivory she had disguised as 15 bags of macadamia nuts.
Chen, who pleaded guilty, was nabbed on August 14 as she tried to fly to Hong Kong.
Despite a surge of rhino and elephant killings across Kenya - and elsewhere in Africa - previous cases have seen smugglers escape with minimal fines and then set free.
In March, a Kenyan court handed a relatively small fine of less than US$350 to a Chinese smuggler caught with a haul of more than 400 finger-length ivory pieces. Such fines pose little if any deterrence, as experts say a kilogram of ivory has a black market value of roughly US$2,500.
A total of 17 people from six different countries have been arrested trying to smuggle ivory out of Kenya since the beginning of this year, according to the wildlife service.
"It is the longest such sentence I have seen for a long time," Udoto said. "Now those who want to damage our wildlife must also test our prison system."
Last year poachers slaughtered 384 elephants in Kenya, up from 289 in 2011, according to official figures, from a total population of around 35,000. More than 160 elephants have been killed so far in 2013, the service says.
Saving wildlife is crucial for Kenya, a top safari destination and heavily reliant on tourism for foreign currency earnings.
The sentencing comes as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta wraps up a state visit to China, where among a raft of economic and trade deals signed included one also to boost wildlife protection. Kenyatta's wife, Margaret, is spearheading an anti-poaching drive aimed at saving elephants and rhinos.
Kenya's government has also said it plans to bolster lenient sentences for wildlife crime in a bid to stamp out a rise in elephant and rhino poaching. The service is boosting its anti-poaching force, said to be facing increasingly well-equipped and ruthless hunters.
Demand for ivory and rhino horn comes primarily from China. Many conservationists accuse the Chinese authorities of not doing enough to stop the illicit ivory trade.