Chinese ivory smuggler gets record sentence after landmark Kenya trial


Tang Yong Jian, a Chinese national, stands guarded inside the dock at the Makadara Law courts in Kenya's capital Nairobi. Photo - Reuters

Nairobi: A court in Kenya on Tuesday slapped a record sentence on a Chinese ivory smuggler, the first person to be convicted under tough new laws designed to stem a surge in poaching.

Tang Yong Jian, 40, was ordered to pay 20 million shillings (170,500 euros, $233,000) or else go to jail for seven years.

He was arrested last week carrying an ivory tusk weighing 3.4 kilogrammes (7.5 pounds) in a suitcase while in transit from Mozambique to China via Nairobi, and pleaded guily to the charges. He has 14 days to appeal the sentence.

A spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service, which manages the country's celebrated national parks, said the ruling would give a much-needed boost to wildlife protection efforts.

"It's a landmark ruling that sets a precedent for those involved in smuggling," Paul Udoto said, saying stricter sentences will make the "killing of wildlife a high cost business".

"It's a remarkable precedent," he said, explaining that the fact that smugglers were previously punished with "a slap on the wrist" was demoralising for park rangers.

"It's very motivating for our rangers" to see poachers "lose a lot of money and spend long terms in Kenyan prisons," he said.

Delivering the sentence, magistrate William Oketch noted that the accused pleaded guilty and expressed remorse.

"Although he expressed remorse, after pleading guilty, he cannot claim ignorance since the ivory trade is a major cause of concern internationally," the magistrate told the court.

Kenya is a key transit point for ivory smuggled from across the region and is also struggling to battle poachers, with park rangers who are frequently outnumbered and outgunned by organised poaching gangs.

Small fines a thing of the past
Poaching has risen sharply in Africa in recent years, with rhinos and elephants particularly hard-hit.

Ivory trading was banned in 1989 under the Convention International Trade in Endangered Species, an international agreement between governments, but the illegal ivory trade, estimated to be worth up to $10 billion (seven billion euros) a year, continues to be fuelled by demand in Asia and the Middle East.

Ivory is sought after for jewellery and decorative objects, while Asian consumers continue to buy smuggled rhino horn — which is made of keratin, the same material as human fingernails — believing
that it has powerful healing properties.

Under the new Kenyan law, which came into force a month ago, dealing in wildlife trophies carries a minimum fine of a million shillings or a minimum jail sentence of five years, or both.

The most serious wildlife crimes — the killing of endangered animals — now carry penalties of life imprisonment, as well as fines of up to 20 million Kenyan shillings.

Previously, punishment for the most serious wildlife crimes was capped at a maximum fine of 40,000 Kenyan shillings (340 euros, $465), and a possible jail term of up to 10 years.

Some smugglers caught in Kenya with a haul of ivory were even fined less than a dollar apiece.

In 2012, 384 elephants were poached in Kenya, up from 289 the previous year. Poaching in the country remained high in 2013.

Africa's elephant population is estimated at 500,000 animals, compared with 1.2 million in 1980 and 10 million in 1900, and they are listed as vulnerable.

Safari tours are a key source of tourism revenue in Kenya, which accounts for 12.5 per cent of the country's revenue and 11 per cent of jobs.

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