Kenya hands four Chinese ivory smugglers $340 fines

Four Chinese men who pleaded guilty in a Kenyan court to smuggling thousands of dollars worth of ivory were Tuesday fined just $340 (250 euros) each.

During sentencing in Nairobi, Magistrate Timothy Okello regretted that the defendants' crime "is still considered as a petty offence" and called for Kenyan laws "to be amended to reflect the gravity of such matters".

The four men were arrested on Sunday carrying ivory products including chopsticks, necklaces and bracelets, as well as two pieces of raw ivory weighing 9.6 kilogrammes (21 pounds).

The raw ivory alone had an estimated black market value of $24,000 (18,000 euros) in Asia, said Patrick Omondi, the head of the elephant programme at Kenya Wildlife Service.

The smugglers, Qu Rongjune, Xuefeng Liu, Gu Guisheng and Wang Chengbang, were stopped in Kenya while in transit from Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo to China's Guangzhou airport.

Speaking through an interpreter, they pleaded for leniency and said they were unaware that it was illegal to carry ivory through Kenya.

"I am very sorry to have committed this offence. We were given these items as gifts by friends in (DR) Congo after we had come to the end of our contracts," Guisheng told the court.

If they fail to pay the fine they face up to six and a half years in jail.

Poaching has spiked recently in East Africa.

Earlier this month officials in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa seized more than two tonnes of ivory, which had reportedly come from Tanzania and was destined for Indonesia.

The illegal ivory trade is mostly fuelled by demand in Asia and the Middle East, where elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns are used to make ornaments and in traditional medicine.

Trade in elephant ivory, with rare exceptions, has been outlawed since 1989 after elephant populations in Africa dwindled from millions in the mid-20th century to some 600,000 by the end of the 1980s.

Africa is now home to an estimated 472,000 elephants, whose survival is threatened by poaching as well as a rising human population that is causing habitat loss.