By Gitonga Njeru in Kenya
Kenya and China have forged a partnership in restricting the illegal trade of rare vipers. The vipers are illegally trafficked and sold in China to cartels and criminals.
The Kenya-China partnership has been influenced under the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The two countries are among the 182 signatories to the treaty that governs wildlife trade across borders.
Kenya recently restricted trade in two endemic viper species only found in Kenya. Kenya horned viper (Bitis worthingtoni) and the Mt. Kenya Bush Viper (Atheris desaixi).
Conservationists have raised questions on how much Kenya will get considering the recent increase in mega corruption scandals.
“It is very important to save these snakes before it is too late. China is the biggest black market for these snakes. Corruption is an obstacle. Criminals easily bribe their way to traffic the animals across borders, China included”, says Paula Kahumbu, an Ecologist who heads a wildlife organization known as Wildlife Direct headquartered in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi and with offices across the region.
On late January last year, Kenyan authorities placed tight new restrictions on the trade and export of several snake species, including the Kenya horned viper (Bitis worthingtoni) and the Mt. Kenya Bush Viper (Atheris desaixi).
Despite the restrictions, trafficking of the two snake species have increased and 97 percent of documented cases being tracked to China by law enforcement authorities.
“Yes, they find their way to China in 97 percent of the cases. Other remaining cases are in Myanmar near the Chinese border, few cases in Europe and the United States. We do work closely with our colleagues across those borders”, says John Kamau, a senior officer who regularly investigates the cases on the snakes.
They are regularly trafficked to China for the pet trade as well as for luxury food and medical research. Kamau adds that they are eaten in high-end restaurants in Beijing and other major Chinese cities.
“They are highly sought for food and pets. They are kept as pets by snake lovers most of whom are professional handlers.
“Demand for the two vipers by zoos in China is also driving increasing smuggling as they are highly sought. We are also investigating about four Chinese zoos for working hand in hand with smugglers.
“This is a serious cross-border crime that involves well-connected criminals who commit serious acts with almost complete impunity”, says John Mulunda, a private investigator who has been tracking over 200 poachers and wildlife smugglers across four continents in a period of five years.
“It is not shocking for an airport customs official in Kenya to be bribed about $10,000 for the snakes to be trafficked to Beijing. The duty of the official is to further communicate with Chinese customs and law officials to allow the shipment to go through smoothly once in the scheduled destination.
“It is then that the Chinese officials also fall prey to corruption. It is very real, and it may seem nothing happens”, says John Mulunda who has helped in the capture and arrests of over 541 wildlife criminals.
According to Mulunda, Chinese zoos keep the snakes for visitors to view. They are kept in the reptile sections.
He says it is easier to smuggle the snakes when young as they are not detected by machines. They are then bred in China based snake farms operating illegally and later sold.
Criminal networks regularly bribe officials and Kenyan authorities are further investigating whether politicians may be involved in the trade. They say that some of the monies could have been used to fund the recent election campaigns.
Police say that bank records obtained of transfer to suspected and convicted smugglers have linked some politicians to smuggling of the snakes.
They also add that constant communication with the smugglers has raised questions. They obtained records from telecom companies based mostly in Kenya and China. They are yet to obtain more companies elsewhere which they believe will yield bigger clues.
“We cannot give you the specific names of the politicians but for these wildlife crimes to happen, it involves political action.
“We believe one of the politicians is involved in smuggling of fake sugar into Kenya from Uganda. We are investigating five politicians but we cannot name them. At least for now”, says Steven Karanja, a senior investigating Criminal Investigations Department officer with the National Police Service of Kenya.
But however, the Kenyan government appears to be taking a hard line against viper trafficking, cracking down on smugglers and ramping up international cooperation to fight viper trafficking.
The decision follows a resolution to list the two species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) at a meeting in South Africa in 2016 September and October.
The species in question are the Kenya horned viper (Bitis worthingtoni) and the Mt. Kenya bush viper or Ashe’s viper (Atheris desaixi).
The snakes have also been finding their way to zoos in the United States. The government is investigating a scandal involving the San Diego Zoo and some brokers according to police investigators.
The venom is also extracted for research on chronic diseases and drug development and to manufacture certain medicines by Chinese universities.
Kenyan police records show that the entertainment industry is also part of the problem. Circuses both domestically and abroad buy the vipers for stunt acts — a dangerous proposition as the venom kills within eight minutes of entering the bloodstream after a snakebite.
Both species prefer cool weather and can only be found in the vicinity of Mt. Kenya, Africa’s second highest mountain, at altitudes above 1,200 meters where temperatures can seasonally dip below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius).
No recent census has been conducted to determine the numbers of either species in the wild but they are estimated to be in the thousands. Both species are thought to be in decline due to habitat destruction from logging and agricultural conversion, as well as the trade in live snakes. They have disappeared from many locales where they once were very common.
According to Phillip Kisima, an officer with the Kenya Police Service, who has been investigating viper traffickers for many years, between 100 and 450 snakes have been smuggled out of Kenya each year since the early 1980s.
A Kenyan snake catcher can sell each viper for around $100 to $200, but in China, the price can rise twelve-fold or more, according to Kisima.
“The increasing level of corruption among many African countries continues to be a big obstacle. So, [principles] and partnerships with those countries will be vital,” Kisima told Africa Science News Service.
At the CITES meeting, Kenya proposed to list both species under Appendix II of the convention, which includes species not currently threatened with extinction but that may become so if their trade is not regulated.
More surprising is that the proposals were approved by all 182 participating member nations, according to Solomon Kyalo, head of Kenya’s CITES program.
Kyalo said Kenya is now working with the other CITES members to monitor illegal trade across international borders.
According to Kyalo, International trade in CITES Appendix II species can only occur with an export permit from the relevant country’s authorities, and the separate restrictions on export of the two vipers that Kenya enacted soon after the CITES listing makes international trade in the two species illegal, except under certain limited circumstances, such as for medical research.
Kyalo added that even the trade in viper eggs and body parts is now regulated and requires a government-issued permit to take place.
“This means that if one has to trade the vipers, you need a permit” from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) said Kyalo. CITES works closely with partner governments to issue wildlife trade permits
“So far, no one has ever applied for a permit to farm them, leave alone export them.”
He added that both vipers should eventually be included in Appendix I, which is reserved for species threatened with extinction and permits trade only for non-commercial purposes, such as research.
However, Kisima said the police doesn’t have much faith that the new restrictions on international trade will have much effect.
“In a country infected with corruption, the traffickers will find other means of trafficking the snakes. But time will tell how successful the new regulations will be. Hope they will be effective, just to be positive,” he said.
Snake traders frequently bribe law enforcement officers, Kisima said.
“They threaten us with death. So most of the time, our work becomes complicated especially when we refuse any cash proposals from them.”
Kisima pointed to an incident in 2016 in Nairobi when viper smugglers killed two policemen.
“The two policemen refused a $2,000 bribe each not to investigate a crime involving trafficking of vipers. Some police officers who are corrupt work together with the criminal cartels”, he added.
He said the case is still under investigation and the main suspect appears to be in hiding.
“Bribing intelligence networks across borders is not a difficult task for the crooks as they are well connected and have international networks,” Kisima said.
“They smuggle the young ones as they are not easily detected by machines at airports. They are then bred abroad for the pet trade,” he said.
He added that the Kenya Police Service is investigating whether senior government officials are implicated in the viper trade as a means to fund their political campaigns.
Andrew Musunda, a 50-year-old former viper smuggler, was released from prison in 2016. He said that smuggling networks also operate out of the prisons.
“Some crimes are even committed by fellow prisoners while they are imprisoned. They work maliciously with some rogue law enforcers, including prison warders, whom they pay a small fee to make calls and do business transactions,” Musunda said.
He currently volunteers with the Kenyan National Police Service to track captured snakes and identify smugglers and said he does not plan to go back to viper smuggling.
“They have promised me permanent employment in a few weeks’ time. I have served 11 years in prison. Prison is not a place to be. It is like you are burning alive with the devil,” Musunda said.
“There are also about seven former policemen who were convicted for viper smuggling currently serving prison terms in different prison facilities across Kenya”, he added.
The Kenyan government has been taking a hard line against viper traffic. Since January last year when the ban first took effect. More than 38 smugglers were arrested and arraigned in Kenyan courts.
Twenty others have been arrested in China, the United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Germany, and France, according to Kenya Police Service records.
An additional 181 are wanted for trafficking the rare snakes, as well as for drug trafficking offenses. “This is just a tip of the iceberg compared to those who are fugitives,” Kisima said.
He added that Kenya has extradition treaties with most of the 182 CITES members and that it is creating a special unit of undercover officers who will target viper traffickers both domestically and abroad.
Kisima also explained that a plan for the National Police Service to work closely with Interpol to crack down on criminals and international gangs is underway.
He also added that the government will form a special task force that will produce a detailed report on viper trafficking in three months’ time after the task force is put in place.
“Special attention has been put to protect the vipers. This is because they are only found in Kenya,” Kisima said.
He also adds that hat they are important components of the ecosystem, feeding on birds that destroy crops and rodents that are dangerous to humans.
“It is good that the focus on the snakes is now equal to that of elephants. Its good attention the world’s deadliest vipers are getting”, said a tough-talking Kisima.
According to KWS, Kenya has about 27,000 elephants and the numbers are growing. Since 2014, the numbers have been growing due to government measures to curb elephant poaching.
“But prosecuting and jailing the culprits may not be enough to save the vipers, Kisima said.
“It will also be necessary to investigate some zoos as they do not have any CITES permits to breed the snakes. No licence has ever been issued to breed the vipers. People fear breeding them as they are very dangerous.
“There are more questions than answers on how zoos buy the snakes without a permit”, Kisima said.
John Kanyua, who is employed as a snake breeder in a snake farm said that demand for the two species, as well as for other viper species, is further fueled by medical research, mostly in China.
“The viper venom is also used in the manufacture of medicines used to treat high blood pressure, heart attacks, and bouts of pneumonia, and arthritis”, Kanyua said.
The venom can also be used to make drugs that counteract viper bites.
“We can have good laws, good technology, but there remain serious loopholes that need to be addressed. We cannot eliminate the problem in one single day,” Kanyua added.
Kensington Kiptanui, an animal rights advocate and founder of Animal Consult, based in the city of Nakuru, also pointed to China as a destination for trafficked species from around the world.
Their viper meat, including from the two Kenyan species, is sold as a delicacy in high-end restaurants, particularly in Hong Kong, he said.
“There is the great need for countries such as Kenya to sign comprehensive agreements with China,” Kiptanui said.
“Chinese authorities need to increase surveillance in their borders”, Mr. Kiptanui said.
The National Police Service is considering hiring reformed smugglers into the service to help in the fight against viper smuggling.
“Alot of these smugglers carry vital information on the topic. They will go a long way in our fight”, Kisima said.
“Others will get salaried opportunities as community rangers”, he added.
Locally, the vipers are stolen from national parks and other protected areas and sold to witch doctors who use them ceremonially to direct bad luck at clients’ enemies, according to Kiptanui.
“If you steal and sell the vipers to witch doctors, how can they be preserved?” Kiptanui asked.
Kenya’s newly appointed Environment Cabinet Secretary (Minister) told Africa Science News on the phone that no crime will go unpunished.
“We will deal firmly with people who destroy our heritage. We will soon announce measures”, said Tobiko.
A convicted smuggler and poacher, Cyril Omondi says that the snakes are captured by professional handlers such as himself.
Omondi is currently serving a seven year prison sentence for various wildlife crimes including smuggling the snakes and elephant poaching as well as bush meat trade.
“The snakes are caught by professional snake handlers such as myself. It is an easy process and to enter parks, we learn the security arrangements so as not to get caught.
“If we have to bribe senior game wardens, we do it. It is then we transport the reptiles to Nairobi and Mombasa. The snakes are bred for about two days before being trafficked out of the country’s major airports.
“I have bought and built rental houses from this illegal trade but as the saying goes, a thief is caught in 40 days”, days Omondi.
This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of Witwatersrand.