Mombasa is in decline as a transnational trafficking hub for ivory, but the trade is being displaced to more poorly monitored ports.

In September, Dutch-based NGO the Wildlife Justice Commission released an overview of major seizures and trends in ivory trafficking between 2015 and 2019.1 As well as showing that the overall picture of ivory trafficking out of Africa has deteriorated (the average weight of ivory contained in large seizures has increased by over 200% from 2015–17 to 2017–19), one of its major observations is that, since 2017, ivory trafficking routes have shifted from East to West Africa, with no major seizures in Kenya or Tanzania but a rising frequency of incidents in Nigeria, Angola, Cote d’Ivoire and others (see Figure 6). And, tellingly, although Mombasa was the most commonly used port for trafficking ivory trafficking out of Africa for many years, no seizures of ivory have been reported there.

The decline of Mombasa as a trafficking hub correlates with shifts we have observed in Kenya during our latest research into heroin markets along the East African coast. Flows of heroin into and through Kenya remain strong, yet there has been an important geographic shift, as Mombasa has waned in importance relative to Nairobi. Since 2017, there have been fewer seizures at Mombasa’s airport and seaport, whereas Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport has become the site of almost fortnightly seizures. While Mombasa seems not to be currently playing a significant role in commercial-level transit trade, smaller seizures are made; these are understood to be destined for the city’s considerable base of heroin users (the largest population of users
in Kenya).

Countries associated with major ivory seizures, 2015–2017 and 2017–2019

Figure 5 Countries associated with major ivory seizures, 2015–2017 and 2017–2019

This displacement from Mombasa to Nairobi may be connected to both domestic and international law-enforcement intervention, which has weakened previously established criminal networks. Among the interventions have been the extradition of former heroin kingpins the Akasha brothers to the US (as part of broader activity by the US Drug Enforcement Agency and law-enforcement support to Kenya) and a crackdown on Mombasa-based, drug-trafficking-linked figures, including businessmen and politicians, seen since the beginning of this year.

The Akasha case is also a relevant factor in shaping ivory trafficking trends: the Akasha syndicate was multifaceted, known to traffic in both heroin and ivory, along with a multitude of other illegal goods. Investigators believe the organization has been linked to 13 large ivory seizures since 2013 – with a combined weight of over 30 tonnes – and that it was a (if not the) major player in trafficking East African ivory.2 Reports from conservation NGOs in the region also suggest that organizations trafficking ivory on a large scale are very few in number. One recent study using DNA analysis of tusks seized between 2011 and 2014 concluded that there were just three major export cartels operating in Africa in this period: based in Lomé, Entebbe and Mombasa.3 This was determined by matching tusks from individual elephants spread across two shipments, where the appearance of two tusks in successive seizures – often in quick succession through the same port – suggests the same trafficking groups are involved. Going by this evidence, the disruption of one of the most prolific networks trading from the African east coast may have opened an opportunity for West Africa-based networks.

Yet this shift cannot, of course, be solely attributed to the arrest of the Akashas. Other factors have also changed the dynamics of heroin and ivory markets in Kenya. In particular, Kenyan authorities have tightened restrictions on the licensing of container forwarding and clearing companies. These companies have been widely used by prominent business figures accused of trafficking heroin as a front for illegal import–export activity, including heroin trafficking.4 Leading drug kingpins have also in the past used their control over container freight stations (dry port facilities where containers are verified and cleared) as a means of controlling the illicit economy.5

Furthermore, the government established a coastguard in November 2018, which has increased the number of patrols aimed at interdicting illicit trade (previously under the remit of the Kenyan navy).6 At the same time, Nairobi offers the opportunity for traffickers to base themselves at a key regional financial and transport hub, and at the heart of Kenya’s political power base. The recent expansion of Nairobi’s inland container depot has brought the transit centre of the country into the capital.7

Current evidence suggests both the illegal ivory and heroin trades continue to flourish, despite Mombasa’s decline. Both commodities have shifted towards different points of entry and exit, which are now in need of the scrutiny currently seen in Mombasa.


  1. Wildlife Justice Commission, Snapshot analysis: Ivory smuggling: 2015–2019, concealment, routes and transportation methods, September 2019. 

  2. Tristan McConnell, ‘They’re like the mafia’: The super gangs behind Africa’s poaching crisis, The Guardian, 19 August 2017,

  3. Samuel Wasser et al, Combating transnational organized crime by linking multiple large ivory seizures to the same dealer, Science Advances, 4, 9, 5 September 2018,

  4. Ken Opala, War on drugs: Kenya, the forgotten hotspot of the heroin trade, The Elephant, 7 April 2017,

  5. Correctiv, Kenya’s drug barons, 16 April 2015,

  6. Uhuru launches Kenya coast guard service for resource protection, Daily Nation, 19 November 2018,

  7. Deo Gumba, Will Kenya’s port expansion encourage illicit profiteering? ENACT Africa, 23 July 2019,