The Kenya Wildlife Service announced a 14 per cent decline in elephants in the Samburu-Laikipia ecosystem over the last four years. Samburu and Laikipia's image as the poster children for Kenya's wildlife recovery is now dented.
The impact on tourism cannot be ignored. Armed bandits threaten more than elephants. If we can't protect elephants, how can we protect international tourists?
But it's the long term consequences that are of greater concern. One of Kenya's Vision 2030 flagship projects is to develop the tourism potential in the area to elevate tourism income, create jobs, and increase tax revenues. If we have no elephants in Samburu, will tourists bother to come? Putrid elephant carcasses do not make good tourist attractions.
And that is not all. It is now known that the poaching of elephants and rhinos in Kenya and other countries is linked to criminal cartels that are financing al Shabaab and other terrorist organisations. Kenya has remained silent over the seriousness of this, but US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has not.
In a way, the result of the Samburu census is good news. For the first time in eight years, KWS has admitted that poaching has reached alarming levels and that it threatens our elephant populations, tourism and economy. Hopefully, this will lead to concrete reaction from the state.
Conservationists are not surprised with this figure. Most scientists knew we were in a crisis all along but openly questioning the official number can be dangerous as Onesmas Kahindi discovered when he was arrested and nearly charged with "undermining a public official" earlier this year. He was released, but the experience of his arrest resounded through the conservation community.
The Samburu results could have been predicted. A 2011 count in the Tsavo ecosystem found 500 dead elephants -- a three-fold increase since 2008. Similar results are expected where poaching is escalating in Galana, Masai Mara, Laikipia, Amboseli and Kerio Valley.
The problem is not just in parks nor is it one group of people we need to stop. In the previous elephant crisis it was primarily the Somalis who were armed. Today several communities in north and central Kenya have weapons that are being turned against wildlife.
The elephant poaching problem is not restricted to Kenya either. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) estimates that over 25,000 African elephants across the continent were killed to supply illegal ivory markets last year. This was the highest rate of poaching recorded in 10 years.
To make matters worse, Kenya is not just a haven for poachers. It is also a gateway for ivory movements from other African countries. In July, CITES noted that Kenya and Tanzania account for a whopping 65 per cent of the illegal ivory trade in Africa.
The tusks are going to China, which consumes 75 per cent of the world's ivory. But China only recently became the main threat to Africa's elephants.
Elephants have been killed for their tusks for millennia and the ivory trade thrived during the colonial period in Africa. In those days ivory was sought after for billiard boards and piano keys.
After World War II, Japan became the world's largest consumer, taking 40 per cent of all ivory for the production of Hankos or name seals/signature stamps.
By the 1980s the world began to recognise the crisis facing elephants. CITES tried to regulate the trade through a control system and registration of ivory stocks.
This only worsened the situation as criminal cartels found ways of "legalising" illegal ivory. As a result, ivory prices continued to rise and elephant killings reached a zenith.
Legalising the elephant trade was driving the species to extinction and wildlife authorities in African countries were overwhelmed by the highly militarised killings.
It took two men and a crazy idea to turn it all around. In 1989 Richard Leakey persuaded Daniel arap Moi, then Kenyan president, to publicly burn the entire Kenyan stockpile in what became the worlds most iconic conservation spectacle.
That year Tanzania pushed through a proposal to put elephants on CITES Appendix 1, which bans international trade in elephants and their products.
Though not all countries agreed with the listing, the ban led to the immediate a collapse of ivory demand and prices plummeted. Poaching came under control and African and Asian elephant populations began to recover.
So why is the crisis back? In 1997, four southern African nations sought down listing of their elephants to sell live elephants. This was granted and then in 2000 they sought sales of their ivory stockpiles.
Despite concerns that legal ivory trade never worked in the past, and warnings that any legal trade would trigger renewed demand and illegal trade, the sale went through and in 2002 a one-off sale of ivory was permitted to Japan.
In 2007 another one-off sale was permitted, this time, to the horror of conservationists, to China -- a country notorious for weak enforcement of laws affecting endangered species.
The legal ivory met a massive demand from the hundreds of millions of newly rich in China resulting in a phenomenal rise in the price of ivory. The state cleverly manipulated the situation by releasing small amounts of legal ivory onto the market each year at very high prices.
The Chinese use ivory for art and household implements. They value it for its texture, warmth, softness, glow, and ease of carving. Despite the availability of man-made alternatives, real ivory is in demand because it symbolises wealth and status. One study found that the 75 per cent of Chinese buyers would purchase illegal ivory if it was cheaper than legal ivory. It is no wonder then, that similar studies have found that 90 per cent of all ivory on sale in China is illegal.
This high and rising price of ivory has been the main driving force behind the escalating massacre of elephants in Africa. The influx of Chinese workers across rural Africa has, no doubt, contributed to this.
The impact is worst in countries that are poorly governed, minimally equipped and have weak legislation and minor penalties against poaching gangs -- the DR Congo is thought to have lost over 80,000 elephants as a result.
Despite the huge investment in the military wing of KWS since 1989, the rule of law means little in Kenya. Weak governance has made it easy for poachers and dealers to get off, and the police and the judiciary are notoriously corrupt.
Until now, the shooting of suspected poachers has been the most effective deterrent against poaching, but even this is not sustainable. The social backlash has already started to threaten conservation efforts and relations with local communities. So what can be done?
Most conservationists agree that the only solution is to ban ivory trade forever. Even CITES now admits that the partial lifting of the ban on ivory sales sent a confusing message out and stimulated a demand that has driven the price up and led to massive laundering of illegal ivory.
Regulating legal trade is horrendously expensive and difficult especially in a country like China. Detecting the impact of ivory trade on populations is expensive, slow and it is virtually impossible to prove.
Kenya has always held a principled position against the ivory trade, and has been a leader on CITES elephant issues. The country has also always sought to unite African countries around elephant protection and a total ban on ivory trade. A simple, single message is needed -- that ivory is banned.
Southern African countries argue their elephants are well managed and that they deserve cash for their ivory stocks. We propose they be compensated for the destruction of their stockpiles.
The Chinese argue Kenya has failed to protect elephants. We urgently need to step up enforcement, crush the cartels, increase penalties, enact new laws, and create awareness and genuine benefits for communities who live with elephants.
We propose that Kenya restores her image by allowing a public audit of her ivory stockpile to prove that it is not making it's way into the illegal market, and then destroys all her ivory in renewed commitment to protect elephants.
Unless Kenya cleans up her image she will find it hard to present her position and concerns at the next CITES convention in Bangkok in March 2013 with much conviction. We will be fighting Tanzania who is seeking to sell her ivory stockpile.
Unless Kenya takes the urgent steps to demonstrate integrity, transparency and seriousness, her position will not be taken seriously especially against the loud and aggressive clamouring for the opening up legal ivory trade by southern African states.
The idea that legal ivory trade can generate funds to protect elephants is equivalent to resuming slavery to finance efforts to end slavery. It flies in the face of all of our known experience in trying to manage legal ivory trade.
If only the proponents of ivory trade had the memories of elephants, they would know that we already tried that and it failed. We cannot afford any more experiments with elephants. We must send out a crystal clear message to the world and ban ivory trade forever.
Paula Kahumbu is the executive director of WildlifeDirect.