The Star (Nairobi)

23 January 2013

Kenya: Just How Much Is an Elephant Worth?

Photo: Ted Kinyanjui/Flickr
Kenya Wildlife Service attend to a poached elephant (file photo).

opinion

The shooting of a family of 12 elephants at Tsavo last week marked the climax of a year that has seen no less than 360 out of Kenya's 39,000 elephants killed by poaching-gangs.

Poaching is now at its worst for three decades, not only in Kenya, but in the whole of Africa. While most agree that it's the increased demand for ivory in Asian countries that is fuelling the crisis, some also say that it's partly due to widespread poverty: with few alternative incomes to choose from, poaching is seen by some as a good paying job.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga put it down to 'the insecurity gripping the country', and affirmed that wildlife should be preserved 'for posterity and the continued economic well-being of our nation.'

Many Kenyans would agree with him - especially those involved in tourism. The Kenya Association of Tour Operators, recently demanded a new wildlife bill, with stiffer measures for poachers. "Poaching is economic sabotage and the government must use all available machinery at its disposal to deal firmly with the menace," said a Kato spokesman.

Since, after a kill, wildlife rangers often shoot poachers dead on sight, it's difficult to see what firmer actions could be taken.

"When we meet a poacher, we just kill (him). It's the only way to protect the animals," said Jackson Loldkir, of the Northern Rangelands Trust - a privately funded vigilante group.

Unfortunately for the elephants, though, it isn't. Despite the deployment of well-armed groups like Loldkir's, and even, in some African countries, national military forces, the poachers seem to keep on coming.

If anti-poaching operations are a war, it's a guerilla war. No matter how well-equipped those who protect elephants may be, poachers can move around them like a vapour, striking where they will, and melting invisibly into the local population.

"It's not a winnable war in the long term. As a country, we can't keep putting this level of resources into the protection of elephants forever," admits conservationist Ian Craig, founder of the Northern Rangelands Trust.

As any good soldier knows, guerilla wars aren't won by force, but by capturing the hearts and minds of local communities - by closing the 'sea in which the poachers swim.'

Craig and others are now busy trying to convince these communities that live elephants are better than dead ones, and that by preserving wildlife for tourists, they can benefit in terms of cash for education and other projects.

In some cases this has worked, but other locals remain skeptical, seeing elephants and other wildlife as a spectacle for the rich, with the lion's share of the profits - in Kenya Sh. 98 billion in 2011 - going into the pockets of the big operators.

The drawback with this approach, anyway, is that it can only work while wildlife continues to net big profits: what happens once the cash stops rolling in?

The truth is that elephants and other iconic species are regarded as a commodity by both 'sides' in this war, and while that is the case they will always be at risk.

This is not so everywhere in the world. Take West Bengal, India, for example, where ivory-trade expert Esmond Bradley Martin recently visited two National Parks, and found elephant-poaching non-existent.

Despite the fact that these parks enjoy little tourism - and with park fees at an almost ludicrous Sh160, it wouldn't make much profit if they did - the administration allocates considerable funds to preserving elephants.

"These animals are part of our culture, mythology and history and we're going to look after them as much as we can," ,' a spokesman told Martin.

In other words, elephants have a right to exist, irrespective of their commercial value.

This was also true of Africa before ivory-traders and colonial trophy-hunters arrived, and made living creatures into objects to be used for gain or pleasure. That legacy has ultimately created the 'wildlife wars' we are experiencing now.

"Wherever there are unprotected elephants, and there are firearms, people are going to kill them. They're just worth too much money," says Craig.

So what is an elephant worth? Is it the Sh40,000 a poacher gains from selling a pair of tusks? Is it Sh160,000 - the estimated value of an elephant used for tourism? Could it be the Sh32,000 compensation paid for the life of a ranger killed in action? Or is it the Sh8,000,000 paid for an elephant-hunting safari in Tanzania?

The answer, of course, is 'none of the above'. Elephants are priceless. Like all nonhuman species, they aren't here for human use, either dead or alive, but are valuable simply because they exist. Only by a return to these old values can the 'hearts and minds' campaign be truly won. Until that happens, the attrition will continue.

Michael Asher is an author, explorer, and deep ecologist, based in Lang'ata

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InFocus

Kenya Wildlife Boss in Poaching Saga – Report

Kenya Wildlife Service attend to a poached elephant (file photo).

Twelve elephants belonging to one family were shot dead in the Tsavo East National park, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service. Read more »