NAIROBI, Kenya — It was not a major arrest by ivory smuggling standards. A traveler bound for Amsterdam was stopped at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport here on a Saturday night last month with a little less than two pounds of ivory, in the form of five bangles, seven rings, seven pendants and two figurines.
The traveler’s identity was the surprising part: David McNevin, Senior Defense Official/US Embassy Kenya,, who served as a defense attaché at the American Embassy here. His arrest meant that a former official of a government dedicated to stopping the poaching that has threatened the very existence of Kenya’s elephants was engaged in ivory trading himself.
The timing of the arrest was particularly incongruous. On the same day, July 1, that Mr. McNevin was arraigned, President Obama was in neighboring Tanzania pledging an additional $10 million in aid to help halt wildlife trafficking and creating a presidential task force on the matter.
At an event in downtown Nairobi on Wednesday as part of a campaign called Hands Off Our Elephants, Paula Kahumbu, the executive director of the nonprofit group WildlifeDirect, said that ivory was leaving Africa at an unprecedented rate, part of a surge in poaching that could lead to the extinction of the elephant within 10 years if it is not halted.
The United States is not exempt from the problem, she said. “We know that the U.S. has thriving ivory markets, and 30 percent of the ivory is illegal,” Ms. Kahumbu said. “We are calling for a U.S. ban on domestic trade.” Reports of ivory seizures are a regular occurrence in Mombasa, Kenya’s largest port, where just this month large shipments of ivory have been discovered, in one case disguised as a haul of sun-dried fish, and in another as a consignment of 240 bags of groundnuts.
The Kenya Wildlife Service has fought to preserve the country’s exotic fauna, including elephants, which are hunted for their tusks, and rhinoceroses, which are slaughtered for their even more valuable horns.
Last week, two rangers were killed in firefights with poachers. Yet light fines and short jail sentences have hobbled enforcement in Kenya. At the event on Wednesday, Judi Wakhungu, Kenya’s secretary for environment, water and natural resources, said the government had proposed a bill that would stiffen the sentences for poachers and smugglers, including prison terms of five years or more.
She also said that canine units had been introduced at the Nairobi and Mombasa airports as part of a plan to heighten surveillance. It is unclear whether the canine units helped secure the arrest of Mr. McNevin last month. “We dealt with him the way we deal with any criminal trying to commit a crime,” said Paul Udoto, a spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service.
He said that Mr. McNevin was traveling under a normal American passport. “He didn’t invoke diplomatic status,” he said. “The American Embassy didn’t contact us.” An embassy spokesman declined to comment on the case. Mr. McNevin could not be reached for comment.
A police spokeswoman said that Mr. McNevin pleaded guilty and paid a fine of 30,000 shillings, or about $350. “He was in a hurry to finish the case and get on his way,” Mr. Udoto said.