Chinese woman gets about 30 months in jail for ivory smuggling
The African nation imposes its first stiff sentence. Strong black market demand is driving up the illegal trade, threatening elephants and rhinos across central Africa, and forcing Kenya to take its first baby steps against smuggling.

Nairobi (AsiaNews/Agencies) - Kenyan authorities have sentenced Chen Biemei, a 30-year-old Chinese national, to 31 months in prison for trying to smuggle out of the country a suitcase full of ivory, a material used in jewellery but also traditional Chinese medicine.

The sentence against Chen, who was nabbed on 14 August as she tried to fly to Hong Kong, is perhaps the heaviest for smuggling ivory in many years.

"A precedent has been set by this sentencing. It is a sign that our judiciary is waking up to the scale of the crisis and the damage that is being done to our animals," said Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) spokesman Paul Udoto.

In recent years, hunting for elephants and rhinos has gone up. Yet, the authorities in many African countries have traditionally been lenient towards poachers and smugglers in 'white gold'.

In March, a Kenyan court imposed a relatively small fine of less than US0 to a Chinese smuggler caught with a haul of more than 400 finger-length ivory pieces. Such fines pose little if any deterrence, as a kilogram of ivory has a black market value of roughly US$ 2,500.

Last year, poachers slaughtered 384 elephants in Kenya, up from 289 in 2011, this according to official figures, out of a total population of around 35,000. More than 160 elephants were killed so far this year, the KWS said.

The decision to increase penalties against ivory smuggling coincides with a visit by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to Beijing, which environmentalists slam for not doing enough to stop the illegal ivory trade.