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Most Wanted Kenyan Ivory Dealer Sentenced to 20 Years in Jail

The historic trial was plagued by countless setbacks.
Image: Flickr/Max Sang.

In April at Nairobi National Park, Uhuru Kenyatta lit a tray of fuel and started a fire. The Kenyan president and several thousand onlookers watched as 1.35 tons of ivory and rhino horns were slowly enveloped by flames, erupting into the biggest burn of its kind in history.

Kenyatta was trying to send a message. His country's elephants and other endangered mammals are worth more alive. The horns and tusks were burned so that they could never make it into the hands of criminals.


On Friday, Kenya's courts sent an even clearer signal to wannabee poachers: if you choose to deal in endangered species, you'll pay the price. Feisal Mohamed Ali, who Kenyan authorities say is one of the country's most prolific ivory dealers, was sentenced to 20 years in prison, largely on circumstantial evidence.

Historically, illegal wildlife traders have rarely been given such harsh punishments due to in part to corruption that plagues many African courts. Ali was also fined $200,000, and found guilty of possessing 413 pieces of ivory, valued at over $400,000.

In June 2014, two tons of ivory allegedly belonging to Ali were found in a warehouse in Mombasa, Kenya's second largest city. After they were discovered, he was arrested in Tanzania, but he was initially able to avoid capture.

In October, after pressure from Kenyans and foreign environmental nonprofits, the Kenyan Government requested that Interpol issue an arrest warrant for Ali, and he was finally detained on Christmas Eve.

The case was plagued by possible corruption. A major cornerstone of the prosecution's evidence, nine vehicles said to contain much of the ivory, somehow disappeared while in police custody.

As the market for ivory continues to grow in East Asia, Kenya's elephants and rhinos have become increasingly targeted. As National Geographic reported, figures from the U.S. State Department released in March indicate that one in five elephants were killed by poachers in the last decade.

Kenya is particularly motivated to impose harsher punishments for ivory traders because the practice negatively impact wildlife tourism in the country. Western tourists who come to visit the country's expansive Tsavo West National Park and Tsavo East National Park to glimpse large mammals in the wild contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the Kenyan economy each year.

Ali and his lawyer said they plan to appeal the court's ruling. Four others who were accused of co-conspiring with him were acquitted of all charges.