Nairobi — Wildlife Is one of Kenya's most precious resources and every year it boosts the economy by billions of shillings, employs thousands of Kenyans and delights millions of tourists. But every year we also lose hundreds of animals, killed for parts of their bodies deemed valuable seemingly on a whim. Dr. Paula Kahumbu explores the struggles and triumphs of the people fighting to save our ever-important natural heritage.
Saturday, 18 May was just like any other nice day in the outer Mara ecosystem, sunny and warm. The bushy area was exceptionally green due to the recent rains and two boys had taken advantage of this to graze their cattle.
At around noon they saw some people hiding in the thick acacia bushes, and as they watched, more people emerged and ran off with what looked like an elephant tusk. Suspicious, the boys approached the place where the men had been hiding. They found a pile of cut branches and bushes, but instead of the crisp smell of green wood they were met with the pungent scent of rotting flesh. Hidden under the foliage was a big bull elephant, he had been dead for at least two days. One tusk was missing, the other was still intact. The boys immediately called the Ol Kinyei rangers who alerted Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and Justin Heath at Naboisho. Within minutes sniffer dogs were flown in from Mara Triangle and the Ol Kinyei Community Conservancy Rangers were moved to vantage points on top of the hills. All this put in motion to try and get eyes on the men responsible.
More armed rangers were flown in and after the dogs smelled the carcass they followed the trail of the poachers. The dogs revealed that they travelled by foot to where a motorbike was waiting for them. While canine team ran for some time, they were unable to follow the trail after some distance.
Back at the carcass, KWS determined that the elephant had been shot by a poisoned spear or arrow. Poachers use the light of the full moon to spot and strike the pachyderms, then track the injured animal until it dies. The elephant had probably been dead for a few days and the poachers tracked it by following the vultures. KWS recovered the remaining tusk, adding it to a stockpile of collected ivory recovered either at the scene of the crime or as the poaching networks try to smuggle it out of the country.
Effective conservation in Africa is possible only if two key elements of enforcement work; effective anti-poaching in the field and punitive legislation that discourages poachers and dealers. Catching poachers is as good as useless if the laws don't penalise them. Similarly, severe penalties are useless if you can't catch and convict the criminals. In Kenya it can often feel that any progress on one side out paces the other, creating a frustrating imbalance. But every step forward is a step in the right direction.
Lives on the Line
All across Africa, day in and day out, wildlife rangers are on patrol to protect our extraordinary heritage. The work is stealthy footsteps and silent hand signals while climbing mountains, crossing rivers, and sleeping in the bush. On patrol, rangers are witnesses to the most incredible spectacles nature offers. Occasionally, they make contact with the enemy - contact here being the sanitised description of violent encounters with poachers. It is usually swift, terrifying, noisy, and bloody, and the death toll on both sides in recent months speaks to the high price of wildlife conservation.
Catching poachers is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack. The work is dangerous, often in hostile environments, and is usually an unrewarding and thankless undertaking. A few years ago, I joined a patrol with the Mara Triangle rangers. I walked near the back of a string of men. We moved carefully, eyes peeled, and ears cocked. When a smell or sound reached us, we froze. Silent gestures passed along the chain as I held my breath, nervous. Green uniforms dissolved into the vegetation then emerged to issue an 'all clear' signal. The patrol proceeded.
We encountered our first poaching camp a few hours in. The smell of stale smoke betrayed its location and rangers fanned out to investigate. Someone felt the coals in the fire, which were cold. A search of the perimeter found an aluminium pan with scraps of ugali, fresh from the smell. The meal was only a few hours old, but no poachers were found. In whispers, the rangers shared their forensic analysis of the scene. Poachers had been here for some time, as determined from tiny pieces of dried meat hanging in the bushes and spilled sugar. But on this day, they had abandoned camp in a hurry, leaving behind a few items like their sufuria. Lacking any sheltering structure that may reveal the camp, they slept under the stars, a miserable cold and wet existence, perhaps punctuated by attacks from lions, elephants, or buffalo.
This camp was deep in the Masai Mara reserve and they had clearly remained undetected for days. We collected the pot and the string of rangers moved on, hugging the river line. It was hot and our clothes were soaked in sweat.
The forward line of rangers moved carefully. One or two men walked the point, searching the thickets just out of eyesight, on the lookout for signs of danger. The rangers know that poachers are terrain experts, familiar with every dimple and bush on the land. They could easily ambush our patrol.
Suddenly loud crackling exploded from the communication radios, and with a wave from the Corporal ahead the entire team rushed into the bushes with guns cocked. I chased after them and arrived out of breath at the rendezvous point to find rangers hovering near a bleeding lioness. She was already dead.
I felt sick. My mind was racing. Who would shoot a lion? Why would anyone shoot a lion? What did the poachers want? But a short investigation revealed that the cat had perished under natural circumstances. A broken tooth at the mouth of a nearby den evidenced the culprit, a warthog. To confirm this suspicion, one ranger poked a stick into the hole. The eruption of a wild pig missing a canine sent us scattering as the rest of the patrol burst into loud laughter. Eventually the patrol gathered, strong Kenyan cigarettes lit, and everyone heard of the warthog's charge. As we stood near the lifeless lioness, enjoying a quiet moment in a hard life, the Mara Triangle rangers had earned the heartfelt gratitude and respect of this wildlife conservationist.
In Kenya, rangers earn a monthly wage, are fed, clothed and housed and are typically better trained and equipped than poachers. But this isn't true in many places. A few hundred kilometres away, across the Western Rift Valley and at an altitude of over 10,000 feet, Didi Mwaniki and Innocent Mburuhamwe, patrol the high altitude forests of the Virunga National Park to protect some of the world's rarest primates, the mountain gorillas. In these forests, their enemies include heavily armed violent political militias who carry military weapons. In 2007 I trekked for days with these hardened rangers and got a rare glimpse of what life is like for a forest ranger in a part of the world where tourists are unlikely to visit for fear of safety.
Like the Mara rangers, Innocent and Didi were incredibly alert and knowledgeable. "The silver back slept here," says Innocent, showing me a few silver hairs he found on the biggest nest, a hollow of leafy branches. A mother and baby slept here, they explain, pointing to a tiny dung bolus next to a larger one. These amazing rangers could identify which group slept on each nest from the number and composition of them. And then all of a sudden we heard the crunching of branches and the playful scampering of gorillas.
We had arrived! Innocent lay down and watched his favourite animals with pure joy on his face. One of the baby gorillas greeted him by running and bouncing off his back. He laughed at them and made eye contact with Kabirize, the silverback who sat with his body facing away but his face towards us. As the rangers took a group count - every gorilla is known from the unique creases on its nose - they took photographs and recorded the health and condition of each individual. I found myself in awe of these intelligent, gentle animals and the phenomenal commitment of these rangers who risk their lives to save them. Both had lost many friends to armed poachers, yet every day they climb the mountain. Neither had received a salary for the previous three years.
It Takes a Village
But it's not always patrols and violent encounters that stop poachers in the field. In the Baringo Kerio Valley, William Kimosop has a different ethic.
Once on a driving patrol together, we encountered a group of teenage boys trying to sell an ostrich egg on the roadside. We stopped and William got out to talk to them. I expected a telling off and confiscation of the egg, but William chatted to them, starting with where they had found it.
Apparently the ostrich nest was in their back yard and within minutes William had also discovered who the boys were and which families they came from.
When he told them who he was some of the boys ran off, but William encouraged them to come back. He started talking to them about ostriches and their extraordinary nesting behaviour. After their mini-lesson, he handed back the egg and asked the leading boy to return it to the nest. A few days later he visited their home and found that the egg was indeed returned and the boys were proudly enlisted into his young ranger force. Today children report to William whenever they see animals, especially when they have young ones. William goes further and even recruits rangers by engaging local ex-poachers and inviting them on patrols. Reformed and earning an honest living, these ranger conservationists augment the ranks with vast knowledge and rich experience. And in time, their close-knit communities become the eyes and ears for Kimosop's anti-poaching efforts.
In Mbirikani and Kimana, near Amboseli National Park, Richard Bonham also cultivates ties with the local community by attending village gatherings and offering support through good and bad times. "Some of Kenya's most enthusiastic rangers are from the local community," he explains. "To them, patrols are a way of life that they were born into. These rangers have grown up surrounded by wildlife and for them, being a ranger is protecting their own asset. We incentivise successful patrols that lead to arrests through recognition and bonuses."
However, this community-centred approach fails at the onset of lucrative poaching opportunities. Just west of Mr. Kimosop's Tugen Hills territory, and in the middle of the Rift Valley, hardened poachers have initiated kill operations in the spectacular Kerio Valley. Seduced by the lure of easy money, local residents are betraying the whereabouts of elephants and rhinos to professional hitmen. Funded by criminal cartels, these poachers operate in small teams and are equipped with military-grade weapons and nightvision equipment. This influx of cartel money into poaching and illegal trade has severely compromised enforcement efforts. This insidious and militarised threat led to a commensurate technical response. In Northern Kenya, the protection of wildlife has included military forces, aircraft drones, attack dogs, tracking dogs and the collection of DNA evidence to round up suspected poachers.
Struggle in the Courts
Yet success in the bush is betrayed by impotent legislation in the courtroom, where case dismissals or ineffective fines are rampant. Kenya is currently renowned for absurdly low penalties for poachers and traffickers of ivory, who are fined as little as KSH 40,000 for seizures worth tens of millions and are very rarely jailed.
In Nanyuki, Nyeri, Narok, and Voi, 90 percent of poaching suspects plead guilty, pay a minor fine and are released. In the Mount Kenya region, charged poachers and illicit dealers suffer a sentence of probation, community service or a KSH 2,500 fine. Bonham recalls the killing of Kumqut, the famed Amboseli elephant. The poacher responsible, named Pekee, was arrested in September 2012 and released on bail. After four hearings, the case is continuously plagued by delays. Pekee is a free man and potentially organising more poaching parties. And it remains unclear whether Pekee's conviction would draw punitive remedies.
It's easy to see how quickly rangers can become demoralised when poachers get off so lightly. Magistrates, however, counter that the law is weak and poor arrest investigations and inadequate evidence management are hindering proper prosecution. Three specialist KWS prosecutors are overwhelmed by 2,000 annual cases. Invariably, police staff untrained in wildlife prosecution are relied upon to handle the bulk of the caseload. The consequences are stark: cases linger for years, hearings are postponed, witnesses disappear, evidence is lost, and justice is denied. Kenyan law continues to fail our wildlife.
In an article titled "The Untouchables," journalist Kibiwott Koross of The Star newspaper identified three key ivory dealers in the Samburu area to raise awareness of judicial failure and spur official investigations and incarceration. He miscalculated. In an ironic twist not lost on opponents of the ivory trade, Koross is now only safe in hiding while ivory dealers roam free and more elephants perish. According to a senior wildlife enforcement officer who wished to remain anonymous, "The situation is very bad and it is getting worse. Our mistake was to ignore the signs years ago. We could have stopped them when the poachers were just a handful of guys. Now most of the incidents involve inside jobs in both the government and private sector.
It's now getting out of hand and we cannot afford to let the situation get completely out of control." The impunity with which wildlife crime is committed cannot go unchallenged.
At the recently concluded Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting, Kenya was rightly criticised for failing to enact relevant anti-poaching legislation. Being listed among a "gang of eight" countries - including China, Vietnam, Tanzania, Uganda, Philippines and Thailand - responsible for being sources and transit countries for ivory was perhaps the lowest point for Kenya in her illustrious CITES history.
But these failings have been noticed. Uhuru Kenyatta made a point to address the issue in his inauguration speech, blowing a wind of hope into the hearts of Kenyans. "My fellow Kenyans, poaching and the destruction of our environment has no future in this country." The new government is under intense pressure to deliver on this promise, and recent developments have set the stage for the first legislation reform on punishments for poaching activities since 2007.
After intensive lobbying from over 50 local and international conservation and tourism organisations, an amendment to the Wildlife Act was presented to parliament to raise the penalties for killing elephants to up to 15 years in jail and or a fine of KSH 10 million, which is equivalent to penalties under the Economic Crimes Act, the Organised Crime Act and the Anti-Terrorism Crime Act.
The motion was moved by Hon. Chachu Ganya, MP for North Horr, whose region is known for its elephants. A qualified environmentalist, Ganya says "I have an opportunity to use my background and my time in parliament to do something about it. Higher penalties will save elephants and this is essential for our tourism industry."
The motion passed easily - no MP could deny the crisis facing elephants. It is an exciting and hopeful time for conservationists, but though the amendment is a massive victory it is by no means an end to the struggle.
Ramping up enforcement through boots on the ground and reviewing court processes will give some respite for elephants and wildlife. In Africa, but we cannot fix the poaching problem with local solutions alone.
Ultimately, it is the demand for these products that must be crushed for any lasting effect. The illegal slaughter of elephants and rhinos is commissioned by Asian smugglers to meet an insatiable demand in the Far East. They do this regardless of the CITES controls and restrictions. The real challenge then is to persuade the major ivory consumer countries including China, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines to curb their appetite for African wildlife and products. Their lust for ivory remains a threat to a global wildlife heritage and undermines African economies. If we could only persuade these countries to ban the domestic trade in ivory there would be hope for elephants. Enormous efforts are already underway with Asian celebrities like basketball hero Yao Ming and actress Li Bing Bing, who are both appealing against the consumption of ivory in China.
But while demand will always mean there are people willing to supply, the important thing in Kenya is to make poaching too large of a risk for those involved. We're facing that direction and slowly taking steps to get us there, but we must move faster and in leaps and bounds.