Authorities in Ethiopia and Kenya have seized more than 2,600 pounds (1,200 kilograms) of bloodstained ivory from about 100 illegally killed elephants at airports, the head of Kenya's Wildlife Service said Wednesday.
Julius Kipng'etich said trained dogs sniffed out a consignment of bloodstained tusks at Kenya's national airport late Tuesday. Another shipment of tusks sent by the same individual had been seized Monday at the airport in Ethiopia's capital.
Both shipments were sent as unaccompanied luggage to Bangkok. Police have launched an investigation and wildlife officials said they will continue to patrol the airport with dogs.
Elephants develop strong social bonds and can even identify family members by their bones, which individuals may return to several times over the years. Kipng'etich said he had seen groups of elephants standing around a dead family member and making a distinctive sound.
"It is as if they are crying: Please don't wear ivory. Please leave it to the elephants for heaven's sake," he said.
Ivory trade was banned internationally in 1989 because of its devastating effect on elephant populations. Before the ban was enacted, Kenya's elephant population plummeted from 120,000 elephants in 1963 to just 12,000 a few decades later.
But after authorities realized elephants' role in boosting tourism — one of Kenya's top foreign exchange earners — they clamped down on the poachers.
The ban and subsequent enforcement slowed poaching dramatically, but in recent years it has begun to creep up, from 47 elephants killed in 2007 to 98 in 2008. So far this year, 125 already have been killed.
Kipng'etich blames the decision by signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to allow the periodic sale of confiscated ivory stockpiles to raise money for conservation.
The most recent authorized sale was in 2007, when China and Japan were both allowed to buy the stockpiled ivory from Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Although Kenya was not included in the auction, Kipng'etich said he believes it fueled demand for illegal ivory.
Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who heads the conservation group Save the Elephants, said the airport seizures were a "tremendous coup" for the Kenya Wildlife Service.
"If this proves to be native Kenyan ivory rather than ivory in transit, it's a serious confirmation of poaching on the rise in Kenya," he said.
Until the problem is stamped out, the Wildlife Service will continue to patrol the airports with dogs like Charles, the black-haired star of Tuesday night's bust. He's sniffed out more than 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) of ivory during his nine-year career.