interviewBy Agatha Ngotho
Dr. Ian Douglas-Hamilton is the founder of Save the Elephants, an organisation which protects the endangered animals. He was interviewed by Kiss TV's John Sibi-Okumu. The interview was transcribed by Star writer Agatha Ngotho.
D.r Douglas Hamilton, you are the founder and CEO of an organisation called Save the Elephants. Perhaps you yourself could tell us more.
Save the Elephants has a purpose which is to secure the future for elephants and we do this across Africa; we got four pronounced game in the desert in the forest, in the bush field and in the savanna in all four regions of Africa. We do it mainly through research but also we help the security forces directly sometimes with aerial surveillance, with intelligence and we have an education programme where we fit in with the most important levels of giving young people scholarships. We have a slew of programmes but at the moment the most important thing is a bit crisis-driven, which is the current situation of elephants in Africa with a re-surge in ivory trade that is devastating our numbers.
Can you give me some idea of when you began?
I began studying elephants a very long time ago in 1965. I did behaviour study in Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania and that took me through a doctorate and then I came back to live in Kenya and I have been here, based here ever since.
When I as a Kenyan look at the papers on a daily basis, Dr Douglas-Hamilton, I am confronted with very gruesome images of a carcass and the ivory, the tusks are missing. Now tell us something about the statistics that are actually involved?
We can look at it in two places, Kenya and knowing Kenya particularly where we are based with our research, and there we are looking at a sample of 500 known elephants and we have been recording all births and deaths. For 20 years since the ivory trade ban, the elephants recovered and their numbers increased and just in the last few years since 2009 there has been increased level of poaching. So we see it, our team sees it every day, we get reports almost every day on another elephant being killed. And the suffering, and the wounding and the bereavement of the elephants is just totally appalling.
Tell me something about the elephant as a human-like creature which might not be entirely known to our viewers. What is there about the elephant that makes it so?
Anyone who sees an elephant can see that there is a thinking being there, thinking social being. They interact with each other in a way that is quite human at times showing characteristics we may seen on ourself like altruism, helping the ailing and of course very close family ties. The babies learn, have a long learning period from the adult mother and they may stay together with their motherall their lives. So they are creatures that deserve respect.
Again for those who are not cognoscenti, how long might an elephant live?
It can live up to about 55 or 60 but unfortunately these days it is usually much shorter; the life expectancy will be much lower than that. And when they become adults because of their tusks, they are at great risk especially the bulls.
When are they in their prime. They are living to 55, they got huge tusks at the age of 20 perhaps?
Yes, they are already huge, they get huger because they are growing all their life, and the bulls have very large tusks so they are more at risk and in our study site, in around Samburu, almost half the bulls have been eliminated. The females now outnumber the bulls by two to one on account of the preferential poaching of big bulls with ivory.
Why the interest in tusks? What is it about them, what can one do with the tusks?
Not much, you can just make into ornaments and we have been through this before. There was a previous poaching crisis in the 1970s and 1980s. That time it was driven by prosperity in Japan. The Japanese people could afford to buy ivory and the price went zooming up and we had a very similar ivory crisis that only came to an end with the ivory trade ban, now it is the same story.
It was 1989, am I correct?
Yes, it was 1989, now the markets have changed. Now it is China that is buying the ivory and other Far Eastern countries and the prices have gone through the roof and that filters down to the level of the poacher, actually unskilled labourer poacher, because they do not have many skills other than being able to poach can own something like three years wages just from one large bull if they kill it.
Is the understanding that people go to the supermarket to buy meat that whereas you might buy a kilo of meat for Sh500 and consider it to be very expensive, a kilo of ivory on the Kenyan market might fetch you Sh5,000. Is that correct?
No, Sh20,000 is what gets paid to the basic poacher. The guy who is at the ground level risking his life.
I was dealing in kilos. One kilo.
One kilo will get you Sh20,000 and a big elephant, really big elephant, would have 50 kilos of ivory, actually it would have more.
So there is lots of money to be gained?
Yes, a lot of money to be gained.
Again, explain to the layman, this idea of poaching and the poacher as a human being. Why the sophistication, the arms, what is, I am sorry to ask what might seem simple questions to you who is on the ground, where do the poachers get their ammunition?
It varies a lot across Africa and I was gonna tell you the situation is not just Kenyan of course. It's across Kenya, it's across Africa and other countries in Africa have far worse poaching situation than this country because they have far less facilities in the way of wildlife service.But what do the poachers do? These days certainly known in Kenya, there are a lot of people, who are cattle rustlers at times or bandits and they turn to poaching, usually young men who come from warrior traditions but who are not doing this for their people - they are doing it for themselves. So the people up there feel very bad about it, they have entered into community conservation areas that bring benefits and wealth from preserving the wildlife in particular the elephant. So these anti-social young men who go and collect ivory that belongs to their community, they are very deadly, they are very daring, the incentive is so high that it outweighs the risk and there is a risk they might be apprehended by the Kenya Wildlife Service or the community scouts that are out there.
I would like to ask again, why certain countries from my reading of the topic South Africa, Botswana, these places that are next to no, the elephants are safe there. So isn't that a sort of indictment that ivory poaching is rife in Kenya?
I think if you look at Africa as a whole, you can look at the four regions that dominate, in West Africa you had elephants that have now become very few and they are isolated pockets. In Central Africa we have the most elephants, they have been terribly slaughtered even during the period of the ivory trade ban to the extent that they are now not enough to feed the ivory trade. In Southern Africa as you rightly said, they are well protected elephants in rich countries that can afford to put a lot of money into wildlife protection and who are not exposed to the very serious poachers that you have living up in East Africa. Now all that stands between the Southern Africans and the demand for ivory is East Africa. In East Africa the battle is in full speed. So as I said we have had it happen before, we got it under control, it was okay for 20 years and now it has raised its head again. And I think the only thing that is really gonna help is to tackle the demand for ivory.
I would like to draw you on the, if it is not too sensitive a subject, can we name and blame because the understanding is that certain countries are fueling this desire and almost inevitably the world China comes up? Who are the bad guys?
I don't think it is that simple. I think the people in China are definitely wanting to flex their muscles, spread their wings and buy the good things in life. They got an amazing economy that is reaching up, they are very interested in Africa, they got a huge middle class with disposable income and ivory is the sort of, it's a nice thing for them to buy because they are not aware that it is blood ivory; that it's causing the death of elephants. I think that the Chinese just as anybody in the world are as open to messages of conservation, to delight in nature as are people living in Kenya or Europeans living in Europe or Americans living in America. It's a matter of time but at the moment, the fact is that the ivory is going to China.
What is the impetus for the sensitisation programme that brought a basketball superstar to come and make a movie here. Can you explain that?
Well, I can indeed and I think it is a very apposite example because there is a man who has reached the height of his career, a young man, famous basketball player, a hero in China and in America and he came out to visit the African scene for the first time in his life. He came up to Samburu, to our camp, and we introduced him both to the people and the elephants. He was thrilled with the living elephants; he saw them playing and interacting and it blew his mind. And then he also came face-to-face with dead elephants, with their faces hacked off and he was horrified by that. He wrote a blog about it and he then made a public service announcement in one of his little TV clips for Chinese television and he is actually launching the whole campaign with both Save the Elephants and World Aid. So, there his sensitivity was a very strong one and I think he represents Chinese just as much as anybody who wants to buy ivory in ignorance.
Something that came as a great shock to me was reading a speech by Hillary Clinton launching this great global coalition campaign and she said to her audience, 'I regret to say the United States is the second largest destination market for illegally trafficked wildlife in the world'. But the condemnation of China when the USA is number two... What would you comment on that?
I think before you condemn either of these great nations, you have to realise the problems with huge porous borders. America is good at catching criminals who try to introduce illegal wildlife... so they obviously got a high count on that alone and they are not taking raw tusks; they are taking more worked items. But it is out there, it's declared, it's submitted and both America and China have got a problem, so they need to take joint leadership if elephants are going survive.
She also said, in this same speech, that there are sort of four pillar approach and I would like you as the person on the ground to comment on that as it applies to Kenya, in particular the idea of seeking global consensus.
Global consensus is very important and that brings in the Cites treaty. A treaty which has 178 members where all the nations of the world gather every three years to discuss and create endangered species and what she is aiming at there is to say there needs to be united international actions which will take in individuals, scientists, NGOs, institutions, business and civic groups and governments to lower the demand for ivory and also to boost and provide the means for tackling the approach in the field and intercepting the criminal cartels that are currently controlling the big consignments of ivory.
Enlisting support of the people?
Well the people, one of the key is community conservation. If you don't get the communities inside it's not going to work in my view and that is one reason why in Central Africa the problem has been very much greater than in East Africa. There have been literally very little attempt to bring communities into benefiting or understanding conservation in Central Africa whereas in Kenya it's a long established movement; there is a community conservancy movement that has a big following.
Strengthening enforcement because if the community works with wildlife authority then they can actually stop the anti-social criminals who are trying to take the ivory.
And lastly forming a global coalition to which I referred to somewhat earlier. The global coalition means everybody doing the same thing together?
As much as possible, that's what the Cites treaty is all about. It's very difficult because you have got opposing philosophies and in the past we have had a standoff particularly between Kenya and other African countries who are opposed to the ivory trade and those Southern African countries who want to reintroduce the ivory trade and this has been an argument every year in the last 22 years except this conference that has just taken place and I think what has changed things is the sheer enormity of what is happening to the elephants today.
If you are talking about people, you would call it genocide and the facts for once have been really well put together, accepted by people right across the spectrum through the Cites treaty and this monitoring of illegal killing of elephants programme and we now know what is happening. So the head of Unep, head of Cites, the Thai prime minister who was the host, they all gave amazing speeches to introduce the Cites conference and each of them referred the current plight of the elephant as being the outstanding thing that has to be solved.
It's curious that you should mention the word amazing speeches because that leaves the whole idea of rhetoric and inherent criticism of Cites across the years to put it unkindly, as just the sort of old boys and girls club. People meeting, briefcases and nice take aways...
Yeah, sometimes it has taken a long time to get anything going in the previous conferences and this one was considered a disaster where nothing happened much other than us preventing two countries from selling ivory that wanted to. But it's not just old boys in this, old girls and also a lot of young boys and young girls. It's actually pretty dynamic grouping of 2,000 people that meet at this conference, they come from every walk of life. They come from every country, they represent every shade of NGO, from pro-hunters to anti-hunters, from people who are concerned about welfare of wild animals to people who are conservationists and this time round I thought they actually achieved something. They didn't unfortunately outlaw ivory trade for ever which we would have loved to happen.
Do forgive me for interrupting, why it is difficult to go the whole way and at least on paper go for the ban. Is there vested interest?
It's a good question you have asked, why not go for the ban? There is a ban. There is an ivory trade ban in position. It has lasted now for 22 years... It was very successful for the first 20 years, in East Africa and Southern Africa. Now the sheer incentive to trade an ivory is overcoming the barriers that were there so when you have access to a lot of money you can subvert systems, you can corrupt.
Time isn't on our side, what is it to be done and again, I am going to sort of lead you on with a cynical reflection by saying it is a wonderful job you are doing Dr Douglas-Hamilton but in the fullness of time, there won't be any elephants, kwisha?
Which is a real risk unless we get a coalition of individuals, scientists , NGOs , businessmen, governments to take united international action to lower the demand for ivory and to institute all the measures of intercepting ivory, enforcing the law, tackling the criminal gangs and cartels, shutting down the markets in the receiver countries, and for that we need to be together.
One last question, to you as an individual, in all the research that we have done, indicate you as being described as a spokesperson, pre-eminent scientist, somebody who knows everything that is to be known about elephants and you carry a huge weight of responsibility. It is almost as if people are saying if elephants become extinct, it's because of Douglas-Hamilton's fault? How do you carry that weight of expectation?
Well, I am very, very deeply concerned about risk to the elephants. I don't accept that I am all alone out there, there is a whole flock of wonderful researchers and conservationists of elephants. So there is many of us but all of us carry a very deep burden as do the law enforcement authorities and God forbid that we should ever be held accountable for the extinction of the African elephant.
I have got time enough for one last question. What is the individual, the so called man and woman in the street, who is not a scientist, who doesn't know what you know, what can I do to help in this situation?
A lot, you can join the Kenya Elephant Forum which is a real grassroot group of wonderful people. There was one who walked from Mombasa to Nairobi just the other day with a group of activists drawing attention to what is happening to the elephants and the people who go out there and explain to the public and get involved with their hands dirty with conservation work in the field. Of course you can also give money if you have money but I think what we need is awareness. Awareness to join in with the rest of the world from people in Kenya.