Trafficking of rare vipers continues amid Covid-19 pandemic

The smuggling of rare vipers from Kenya to other parts of the world continues, despite global travel restrictions associated with COVID-19, according to evidence from police.

Porous borders and a lack of surveillance in many parts of Kenya, have meant that cargo planes, ships and trucks that are still allowed to move shipments of food and medicine, continue to illicitly trade wildlife, further threatening rare species of vipers.

According to herpetologists researching the vipers, they are endemic to Kenya and in high demand as pets or for food among high-end eateries in China, Hong Kong and Myanmar.

They also serve as pets in Europe, mostly in the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands and in some parts of the United Kingdom.

Victor Wesonga from the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), said they are used for anti-venom medical research as well and to develop new drugs or improve existing ones.

“The venom of the vipers is then extracted and later used to develop the drugs after extensive research,” he said. “They are used to manufacture drugs that treat non-communicable diseases, such as high blood pressure.

“Despite many efforts put to conserve them, they end up in the wrong hands,” Wesonga added, noting that habitat destruction further complicates the situation.

The two rare viper species are the Kenya Horned Viper and the Mt. Kenya Bush Viper, both of which breed around the Mt. Kenya region and near Hells Gate National Park in the Rift Valley.

They survive in cool weather with temperatures averaging about 10 degrees Celsius or below.

In January 2017, Kenya banned their export unless with a permit from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

This was partly influenced by a decision among its 182 member countries in a 2016 meeting in South Africa to list the two species under Appendix II of the CITES treaty, which prohibits their export except on rare occurrences, such as for medical research. Appendix II covers species not currently threatened with extinction but that may become so if their trade is not regulated.

 “There is no reliable census that has been conducted in recent years to determine their exact numbers, but they are endangered,” said Wesonga.

He said that more attention should be put on protecting the snakes, similar to what is being done to save elephants and rhinos and suggested that a task force be put in place to arrest the situation and give a way forward.

Smuggling gains ground

Sergeant John Kamau from Kenya’s Directorate of Criminal Investigations said criminals have become more sophisticated as technology advances.

“They smuggle the very young snakes, which even our machines and dogs cannot detect,” he said.

With the help of Interpol, the Directorate of Criminal Investigations is currently tracking a network of 200 criminals with connections in Mexico, Honduras, Brazil, Western Europe, the United States, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, Kamau confirmed.

“They are bred in snake farms until they are fully grown. It is when they are sold by the criminals,” he said. “Zoos, pet shops, hotels for meat, research institutions for scientific research. It is a network that has been operating for years.”

Kenyan authorities are also investigating the role zoos and scientific research institutions around the globe play in the trafficking of the two viper species.

The institutions could either be directly involved, or be buying them without knowledge from suspected criminals, authorities said.

“For sure based on investigations, the prices of these snakes have increased by 25 percent since 2017 when Kenya banned their sale. Even then, they were being traded without a CITES or government of Kenya permit,” said Kamau.

“We are investigating the largest zoos in the United States and Mexico, Europe and China.”

The average price of both species is between $200 to about $250 for pet shops, Kamau said. For zoos, the price is about seven times higher and slightly more for research institutions.

Among other snakes whose trade was banned by Kenya in 2017 is the Sand Boa (Gongylophis colubrinus), which is found in Eastern Kenya around Kitui County. It is used mostly as a pet in the Middle East and Europe according to presentations from the CITES meeting in South Africa in 2016.

More protection needed

Kenya is now working with the other CITES member states to monitor the illegal trade across international borders. Between the 1980s to date, about 450 snakes have been trafficked, but the most shocking numbers have occurred since 2017.

“After the ban, more trafficking took place and more needs to be looked into as to why the sudden surge,” said Dr. Paula Kahumbu, an ecologist and the Executive Director of Wildlife Direct, a non-governmental conservation organisation. 

“This is based on cross-border arrest police records in different countries. The majority of the cases go undetected,” she noted.

The international trade of species listed under Appendix II of the CITES treaty can only occur with an export permit from the relevant country’s authorities, Dr. Kahumba explained. 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.

Currently, 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) or CITES”, Dr. Kahumba added.

“So far, no one has ever applied for a permit to farm them or even export them,” she further confirmed.

Dr. Kahumbu believes that both vipers should eventually be included in CITES Appendix I, which is reserved for species threatened with extinction and permits trade only for non-commercial purposes, such as research, which is already the case in Kenya.

“Special attention should be put to protect the two vipers and other vulnerable wildlife in coming months,” she said. “These species are very important since they are only found in Kenya.”

Challenges to curbing trafficking

“Something that is worrying is that there is an increasing trend of corruption among African countries and not just Kenya. So, fighting wildlife crime becomes a challenge and many conservation gains are reversed,” said Bernard Rsky Agwanda, a mammologist at NMK.

“The courts often acquit the culprits even after enough evidence has been presented.”

A major obstacle to many investigations is that officers are either bribed or threatened with murder if they continue investigating wildlife crimes. 

“Sometimes, investigations can go on for decades as we are constantly working under fear. If we decline cash offers to withdraw investigations and charges, we risk being murdered,” Kamau confirmed.

“The criminals have a network of connections including local and international contacts. They are well linked to politicians and influential policymakers. So, for us to go down, it is not a struggle for them.”

He said there are different ranks in criminal networks; from the one who catches the snakes all the way to the one who makes the final transaction. The smugglers are often so powerful they even bribe intelligence networks, Kamau said.

Another junior officer who asked to remain anonymous described a plan by the Kenya Police Service to work closely with Interpol to crack down on criminals and international gangs. He hinted that the government is forming a special task force on wildlife trafficking to be launched within this year.

Stop smuggling to curb disease

Recently, agencies say that security detail is more focused on COVID-19 matters and putting less attention to wildlife conservation.

Yet smuggling further increases the risk of zoonotic diseases, such as Covid-19 spreading, according to Dr. Richard Thomas, head of communications at TRAFFIC, a non-profit that monitors the wildlife trade.

He pointed to different recently published studies showing that coronaviruses have originated mostly from bats, which are often sold in open-air markets in China.

“There is also an increased probability that future coronaviruses will originate from China,” he said during a webinar in April hosted by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

Dr. Thomas advocates for better legislative frameworks between countries and improved traceability measures to identify contaminated commodities, even among legally traded wildlife.

“There are also other wildlife species that are traded that need to be captured that are suspected to be SARS-COV2 carriers,” Dr. Thomas said, using the name for the virus that causes COVID-19. “But importantly, there is [also] a need for consumer behavior change.”

The original version of this story was published in Science Africa on 26 June 2020. This version has been edited to correct some information and provide clarity. Reporting for this story was made possible with a grant from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. 

Banner image: Kenya horned viper / Credit: Steve Spawls

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