Campaign to save elephants

Thursday August 01 2013
jumbo feed

First Lady Margaret Kenyatta feeds an orphan elephant. Photo/FILE

Poaching has taken a devastating toll of the African elephant. In 1979, Africa’s elephant population stood at 1.3 million. By 1989, it was 600,000.

Kenya didn’t fare better. Its elephant population in 1973 was 167,000 but by the end of the 1980s, it had plummeted to 16,000. In 1989, Kenya sent out a strong global message when the government banned trade in ivory and ignited 12 tonnes of elephant tusks to persuade the world to halt the ivory trade.

Elephant numbers began to rise and by 2010, Kenya’s elephant population stood at 35,000.

But the poachers are back in a big way. Dr Paula Kahumbu, CEO of WildLifeDirect — studied the elephants of Shimba hills on the Kenya coast for her PhD for eight years at the close of the last millennium. Living with the elephants, her respect for mammoths increased as she learned more about them, which she shared during the official launch of the anti-poaching campaign — “Hands off our Elephants.”

A major problem in protecting the elephants — or any other wildlife — lies in the wildlife laws of Kenya.

Dr Kahumbu refers to a recent court case she attended in Nairobi where a Vietnamese arrested with ivory was handed a lenient punishment after pleading guilty.


He was handed only a Ksh40,000 ($450) fine for a haul worth Ksh5 million ($56,321). Statistics show that 177 elephants were poached in 2011 and in 2012, 384. Figures this year are no better.

The elephant is a fascinating animal, as Dr Kahumbu describes it. Its family structure is like that of humans and they are known to mourn the dead. They can smell water 20 kilometres away. The word Athi, Dr Kahumbu found in the course of her research, derives from the Indian word for elephant haathi and implies that a century ago, elephants congregated in large numbers near Nairobi.

The elephant can hear subsonic sounds as far away as 10 kilometres.

Yet its superb senses have been no match for the lethal outcome of the 1999 “permitted experiment” to sell stockpiles of ivory by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Wildlife (Cites). 

It opened a loophole for ivory smugglers and in 2012, Africa lost 30,000 elephants to poachers, which translates into the current population of Kenya’s elephants.

“We need to set up a task force from the judiciary to the public and communities living with the wildlife where no poacher can get to an elephant and where no poacher can pass ivory through Kenya,” Dr Kahumbu told an audience that included Kenya’s First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta, senior government officials and conservationists and the public.

Launching the campaign, Mrs Kenyatta embodies a down-to-earth sophistication. “If we’re here tonight, it’s because we all want to stop the elephant slaughter,” she said.

She actively participated in the campaign — joining Jim Nyamu, founder of Elephant Neighbours Centre, on part of his 15,000 kilometre walk through Kenya to raise an awareness of the plight of the elephant among communities neighbouring elephant such as national parks.

“At the present rate of poaching, there will be no elephants left in the wild in the next 10 years,” said permanent representative to the United Nations office in Nairobi Martin Kimani.

“This means that my two-year-old daughter won’t see any elephants in the wild. We don’t want to be known as a country where elephants used to be seen,” said Mr Kimani.

John Heminway, the WildLifeDirect chairman and producer of the investigative documentary The Battle for Elephants said: “The ban is not working; 6,437 kilometres away, China is the fastest growing economy in the world. And 80 per cent of Chinese own a piece of ivory.”

According to him, 84 per cent of Chinese plan to buy ivory in future.

A day after the launch of the campaign to fight it, a cache of five tusks is unloaded at the car park at Kenya Wildlife Service headquarters in Nairobi. The KWS intelligence officers working on a tip-off pose as ivory buyers.

The white gold is delivered to them in the Nairobi suburb of South C, a few minutes from KWS. Blood is still caked on the tusks — the three elephants shot in recent weeks in Tsavo National Park.

It is Dr Richard Leakey, founder of the WildLifeDirect who has the last word on this: “Show me a Chinese with an AK 47 in his hands shooting elephants in the national park — the elephants are being shot by Kenyans in uniform. Let’s call a spade a spade. What I want to see is the return of tourism, with Chinese tourists coming to see our wildlife.”