Amboseli Trust for Elephants celebrates 40 years but elephants are still dying

Today the Amboseli Trust for Elephants celebrated 40 years of elephant research that has revealed the secret world of elephants to us. The event symbolically held at the Ivory burn site in Nairobi National Park where Richard Leakey, then Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, and Daniel Arap Moi , the president Kenya, set alight 12 tons of ivory worth USD 3 million in 1989 to eliminate the national stockpile and send a message to the world that Kenya was taking a principled stand against the ivory trade. I find it sad that as we celebrate we cannot ignore the fact that thousands of elephants across Africa are once again being massacred for the ivory trade.

Harvey Croze, Cynthia Moss and KWS officers celebrate

In her statement Cynthia Moss, the head of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, noted that this is the longest running study of elephants anywhere in the world and apart from extending our scientific knowledge about elephant intelligence, society, communication and  a host of other discoveries, the project had brought elephants to the world as female led families with values  that humans can only envy. The project, which started in 1972, witnessed the terrible 15 years of all out poaching that included government sponsored or facilitated elephant poaching that decimated 85% of Kenya’s elephants . The period ended with  the dismantling of the Wildlife Conservation Management Department and the creation of the Kenya Wildlife Service. Today with 1,500 elephants in the study, the Amboseli elephant population has more than doubled from where they started.

The event was attended by a number of elephant scientists including Iain Douglas-Hamilton who runs Save the Elephants under whom Cynthia Moss first trained, Esmond Martin who studies ivory trade, and Joyce Poole who conducted her PhD research on elephants in Amboseli. Representatives of government included the Former Director of KWS Julius Kipngetich and a number of high ranking KWS officials.  During his speech, the Chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Service, the government authority responsible for wildlife management, David Mwiraria, congratulated the project for contributing so much to Kenya and the world. He noted the introduction of the community consolation scheme started in 1997 which serves to respond to livestock losses to elephants.

What he didn’t mention, and what nobody spoke about openly, was that Amboseli is once again the playground of poachers. In their own blog post, the ATE reports the loss of the QB family after Qumquat and her daughters were violently gunned down on the edge of Amboseli National Park.This video illustrates the deadly methods used by poachers, well armed and extremely quick elephant herds are gunned down within meters of each other. (Warning this video shows dead elephants and the capture of a distressed elephant baby. Some viewers may find it disturbing).

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This suggests military precision and the possibility that poachers have some sort of military training. One person noted that “Back in the 2000 the KWS was only just getting established, we had staff few, basic training and limited technology”. Today with far better equipment, more staff and highly trained ones at that, the authority cannot contain the poaching. Why?” he asked. I can only conclude that the scale of poaching is much worse than ever before and we just can’t keep up with it.

I have been seeking views on what people perceive is the greatest challenges facing elephants is today. Here are some of the responses ranked in order of importance

  1. Demand or ivory  in China. Everyone agrees that demand for ivory, especially the Chinese is the driving force behind the rapid rise in elephant poaching. The argument goes that ivory has always been part of the Chinese culture as a status symbol. The rising wealth of the middle class Chinese has exploded the demand creating a crisis for elephants as demand far outstrips availability.
  2. The presence of bad elements throughout Kenya known to be involved in this business– he meant the presence of Chinese and Somali’s who place orders on ivory. Cartels that deal in drugs, arms, illegal goods and contraband, and even human trafficking have networks on the ground in remote corners of the country and can obtain ivory easily using cell phone ordering.
  3.  Corruption in Kenya and possible involvement of high ranking officials makes it easy for dealers to move ivory through Kenya and other African countries.
  4. Poor legislation and lack of enforcement has allowed dealers, poachers and now traffickers to get off easily
  5. Ineffective anti-poaching country wide –  Despite the gains, anti-poaching and intelligence gathering is always one step behind poachers.

I would make a personal addition, one of the greatest threats to elephants is the total lack of will from African governments to deal with the Chinese who are now important donors and trade partners. Embarrassingly, the USA which is not an elephant range state, when Hillary Clinton have come out with the strongest language and commitment to date on the scale and risk of the escalating poaching problem.

Do you agree with these five ? What else do you think contributes to the problem?

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