Kenya Wildlife Service is accusing some ranchers of colluding with poachers. The Star has established that many of these rogue conservationists are found in Northern Kenya, Narok and Tsavo
In January, an entire family of 12 elephants, including a two-month-old calf, were slaughtered by poachers in Tsavo National Park.
All the carcasses were riddled with bullet wounds and all the tusks had been removed.
It caused an international outcry with calls to arrest the poachers but to date no one has been apprehended.
Among those who were calling for the arrest of the poachers were non governmental organisations and conservationists. In what is becoming a case of the hunter being the hunted, the Kenya Wildlife Service is now accusing some conservationists of working with poachers.
Sources said a renown conservationist in Tsavo was behind the killing of the 12 elephants. Elephants know their handlers and those were killed assumed there was no danger.
"We have intelligence reports and we are already mapping areas where these NGOs are colluding with poachers," said an intelligence officer at the Kenya Wildlife Service.
Most of the groups, the Star has established, are found in Northern Kenya, Narok and Tsavo which have been hardly hit by poaching in the recent past, which begs the question what will become of Kenya's elephants if their protectors are turning against them.
The groups, sources say, have compromised security officers and some members of the judiciary who in turn are rewarded handsomely.
Their network is well organised. Those who kill the elephants, those who remove the tusks and those who ferry them are different teams.
"We are following some very crucial leads," said KWS spokesman Paul Mbugua. "We will take necessary action to those found culpable."
What is being investigated is where ivory of aged elephants - especially in Tsavo and Samburu conservancy - end up.
"We suspect they find their way to the market and this is what we are pursuing," said the KWS intelligence officer.
KWS, the Star has learnt, will now be scrutinising the operations of various ranch owners and conservationists who are suspected to be working with poachers.
Leading the pack of those being investigated is a renown conservationist who has a ranch in Laikipia region.
Sources who sought anonymity said the conservationist who is 'well connected' has been using his staff to smuggle ivory.
"He uses his staff to transport the ivory. He co-ordinates with security officers in the area," said the source who is an employee at the ranch.
The merchants, the source said, use tour vans which are never stopped by police and often pose as tourists.
"I have never known its destination but the van is escorted until it is past Limuru," the source said. "I have not known what happens after that."
The claims of conservationists colluding with poachers have been heightened by the recent arrest of a senior researcher in connection with poaching.
The suspect, Soila Sayialel, who is the deputy director Amboseli Elephant Research project, and her son Robert Ntawasa, were arrested by Kenya Wildlife Service intelligence personnel while selling six pieces of ivory weighing about 19kg last month.
The KWS staff said the researcher, who is also a KWS honorary warden of Amboseli National Park, was transporting the trophies at the time of arrest at Emali town along the Nairobi-Mombasa highway mid last month. She has however denied the charges.
Sources say high level individuals who include police officers and KWS personnel are involved in the poaching trade; their function is to provide a safe passage in the highways and parks respectively.
Senior police officers are reported to order their juniors to remove road blocks at certain times or asked not to inspect a certain vehicle along the highway. The notorious places are Maralal-Nairobi and Archers Post-Isiolo highway.
Some police officers have been accused of not preferring charges to the suspects while some magistrates order poachers to pay fines as low as Sh10,000.
Last week, a young male elephant was speared on Olkinyei in the Mara conservancy and the killers were later arrested by KWS and Mara Elephant Project rangers. The two suspects were later released after pleading guilty and paying a fine of Sh10,000 each.
"Some magistrates are taking advantage of the weak laws. We believe they are also part of the cartel," said Dr Paula Kahumbu, the executive director of Wildlife-Direct.
She is however disputing the claims by KWS that some of conservancy and ranch owners are colluding with poachers.
"I find it very hard to believe that these two people (Sayialel and her son) could be involved in this business. I can only trust that the courts will bring out the truth," Kahumbu said.
Maasai Mara ecosystem has lost 139 elephants to poaching so far. The immediate areas surrounding Olkinyei (Lemek Hills, Oldonyo Rinka and Naboisho) lost 32 elephants in 2011 and 38 elephants in 2012.
KWS says it is investigating some of the organisations dealing with wildlife-related activities in the area.
Iain Douglas-Hamilton of the Save the Elephants foundation based in Samburu says he does not see a situation where wildlife conservancy owners collaborate with poachers.
"I clearly don't understand how that could happen," said Douglas.
Judiciary registrar Gladys Boss Shollei said her office has not received any complaints that their magistrates are colluding with smugglers. "I have not heard about it. If it is true, that would be terrible," she said. "Now that it has come to our attention, the judiciary will investigate and inform the Judicial Service Commission as soon as possible."
Niall O'Connor, the regional director, WWF Eastern and Southern Africa, says anyone who has been involved in any kind of poaching should be investigated and if proven guilty, punished to the full extent of the law. "I cannot say if KWS has specific information on the alleged conservationists, but we need to ensure that people involved in any form of poaching and illegal wildlife trade are prosecuted," O'Connor says. "If we find that people that we trust to protect and conserve our wildlife are involved in poaching, it seriously damages the good work of so many other conservationists, who work tirelessly to conserve... We cannot allow a few to damage the great work done by so many. But we should not be afraid to investigate."
O'Connor said all ivory belongs to the state and asked those who harvest ivory from dead elephants to surrender them to KWS.
The future elephants of elephants is clearly at risk. Experts say they could be wiped out in our lifetime if the current poaching trend continues. O'Connor says despite the escalation of poaching, there is also a new and rejuvenated anti-poaching drive, led by the government through new amendments to the Wildlife Bill, stiff penalties, jail terms and disincentives to the many who have been involved believing its a cheap way to make money.
Under the Bill, Kenya Wildlife Service officials found collaborating with poachers will be removed from their posts. The Bill also provides for fines of up to Sh1 million ($11,800) for convicted poachers.
An estimated 360 elephants and 19 rhinos were killed in Kenya in 2012.