Our Burning Planet


Sandalwood burn ignites high profile awareness of Kenya’s illegal trade

Sandalwood burn ignites high profile awareness of Kenya’s illegal trade
Kenyan security officials set ablaze illegally harvested sandalwood confiscated by Kenyan multiagency security units, at the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, 28 February 2023. The destruction of 13.5 tons of illegally harvested sandalwood was ordered by a court, as harvesting and trade was banned by Kenyan government in 2007 while sandalwood is also listed as threatened tree by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites). (Photo: EPA-EFE/Daniel Irugu)

Government commitment and public support are crucial to combat this environmental crime. 

In September 2022, a senior Kenyan police officer was arrested when he was found with 13.5 tonnes of sandalwood, worth roughly $430,270, loaded into police vehicles in his compound in Wamba town, Samburu East. He was charged with being in possession of endangered species contrary to section 94(4) of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act 2013 at the Kahawa Law Courts in Nairobi. Two police drivers were charged with the same offence. 

The confiscated wood was destroyed in a public burning on 28 February, as per Kenyan law.

The East African sandalwood tree was listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora in 2013 due to over-harvesting. The illicit sandalwood trade from East Africa is a multi-billion-dollar industry that seeks to meet the increasing global demand for sandalwood oil used to manufacture perfumes and cosmetics.

The arrests and prosecution of the Kenya Police Service members point to the entrenched nature of sandalwood trafficking syndicates and their power to use government offices and resources to facilitate crime. 

As a result of these arrests, and a growing concern about the response to illegal sandalwood trafficking, key government and civil society stakeholders formed a working group. The group aims to address the problem as one of Kenya’s major organised environmental crimes. Members include the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), Enact, the United States (US) Embassy in Kenya and Focused Conservation — a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working with investigative agencies to support the prosecution of environmental crimes.

The working group teamed up with investigative officers to organise the public burning of the wood at the DCI headquarters in Nairobi. The burning aimed to create public awareness of the negative impacts of sandalwood trafficking, the DCI said. It also aimed to educate the public about commercial sandalwood growing and cultivation, and the benefits for communities when the sandalwood tree is managed sustainably. 

The event showed that multi-agency collaboration is crucial in investigating and prosecuting environmental crimes in Kenya. The organisers took stock of sandalwood seizures carried out by law enforcement and highlighted various challenges in the investigation, prosecution and sentencing processes related to environmental crime in Kenya.

Geoffrey Okeyo, a KFS commander involved in investigating and arresting sandalwood traffickers in Samburu County, told Enact that it was critical that sandalwood be burnt in line with court orders. Article 105 (1) of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act stipulates that confiscated endangered species must be disposed of as per the court’s directions. Okeyo also argued that the destruction of seized sandalwood prevented its resale on the black market by corrupt police officers.

By hosting the sandalwood burn event at the DCI headquarters, the police demonstrated public commitment to and reaffirmation of their mandate to investigate and prosecute environmental crimes in Kenya, a source in the KPS told Enact.

The event was presided over by Kenya’s Minister for Environment and Natural Resources, Roselinda Soipan Tuya, and the US Ambassador, Meg Whitman. Again, this shows that Kenya’s political leadership is committed to holding traffickers and their state accomplices accountable

Among the attendees were two chiefs from Samburu County — where much of Kenya’s sandalwood is found, and John Partangu, a community leader who has led anti-trafficking campaigns through the Northern Kenya Human Security Network. Partangu told Enact that educating the public — especially the youth — on the socio-ecological value of sandalwood was key to preventing its illegal harvesting. 

The event also highlighted the collaborative efforts of investigative agencies, local communities, NGOs and international partners in stemming the tide of sandalwood trafficking in Kenya.

Keith Swindle, US Fish and Wildlife Service senior attaché for the Horn of Africa based at the US Embassy in Nairobi, said inter-agency collaboration to facilitate the burning of confiscated sandalwood set a precedent for saying ‘no’ to forest crimes. He compared the sandalwood burning to Kenya’s public burning of confiscated ivory to stem trafficking, first initiated by president Daniel Toroitich arap Moi in 1989.

While a public burning of confiscated sandalwood will not immediately eradicate the illicit trade, nor is it sufficient in itself, it does provide a dramatic and highly-visible statement of the government’s intent to address sandalwood trafficking as an environmental crime. 

Ultimately, this public burning is a call to action to all stakeholders, including governments in East Africa and regional bodies like the East African Community, to seal loopholes that facilitate sandalwood trafficking in the region. DM

Willis Okumu, Senior Researcher, Enact Project, ISS Nairobi

A previous version of this article was published by Enact. Enact is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Institute for Security Studies in partnership with Iinterpol and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.

First published by ISS Today.

Absa OBP

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