Africa’s unique wildlife heritage attracts millions of tourists to the continent and contributes enormously to the economy. It is a tragic irony that this wildlife remains unknown to the majority of Africans.
Recently I have been involved in an initiative that aims to change this state of affairs. Launched in January, the TV series “NTV Wild” is a collaboration between NTV, Kenya’s leading TV channel, my NGO WildlifeDirect, and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).
NTV Wild will broadcast two hours of programmes on African wildlife on prime-time TV every week of this year. Screening of an hour-long documentary on NTV and its sister Kiswahili language channel QTV on Saturday night is followed on Tuesday evening at 10 pm by “NTV Wild Talk”: an extended in-depth discussion of the issues by leading film makers, conservationists, politicians and legal experts
The first eagerly awaited programmes attracted record numbers of viewers and provoked huge excitement on social media. Here are some of my favourite tweets:
Not all reactions were positive. Following screening of ‘Mzima – Haunt of the River Horse’, an Emmy award winning film by Mark Deeble and Vicky Stone about the secret lives of hippos (click here to watch a trailer ), one blogger complained that the film was 15 years old. This was stale stuff, he wrote: “You know, a lot can happen in 15 years … in the hippo calendar. Viewers were hooked, but also hoodwinked”.
It’s true that many of the films to be shown by NTV Wild are classics, years – or even decades – old. They are familiar to and loved by hundreds of millions of viewers across the world. So why haven’t Kenyans seen them before?
Economics has a lot to do with it. The sights and sounds of our wildlife are transformed by film makers into products that are simply too expensive for African TV channels to buy – and therefore beyond the reach of most ordinary Africans.
But that’s not the whole story. On last night’s NTV Wild Talk discussion, film maker Mark Deeble revealed that he had offered ‘Haunt of the River Horse’ free to Kenyan TV channels when it first came out. But they had refused, reflecting the widespread (but profoundly mistaken) prejudice that “Kenyans aren’t interested in that sort of thing.”
Whatever the reason, it is scandalous that, for decades, TV viewers in most African countries including Kenya have been denied access to these documentaries made about our own wildlife.
Most people that I speak to about the lack of access to wildlife documentaries in Kenya are aghast and astounded – and one person was even reduced to tears – by the fact that American and European children know the names of our lions in the Masai Mara, and our elephants in Amboseli and Samburu, while ours do not.
This also goes against the avowed intentions of many distributors of wildlife films. For example, National Geographic describes itself as:
… a global nonprofit membership organization driven by a passionate belief in the power of science, exploration and storytelling to change the world. Working to inspire, illuminate and teach, National Geographic reaches more than 700 million people a month through its media platforms, products, events and experiences.
How can National Geographic fulfil this mission if its films are not seen in Africa, where they could be inspiring Africans to save their continent’s natural heritage?
In fact, I know that many producers and distributors would like to make their films available in Africa, but they are locked into a commercially-driven system that is very hard to change.
When I spoke to leading wildlife film makers when they met at last year’s Jackson Hole Film Festival, I discovered that many of them had been unhappy about this situation for years. A group of them, including Mark Deeble, Vicky Stone, Dereck and Beverly Joubert, Lisa Samford and many others got together and agreed to make a concerted appeal to major distributors to make them more widely available in Africa on a non-commercial basis.
The breakthrough came last year, when National Geographic gave permission for one free broadcast of the recently released documentary “Warlords of Ivory” on Kenyan TV. (Click here to see my article about this hard-hitting film that provides direct evidence of links between elephant poaching and terrorism in Africa.) Within five minutes the show was trending on twitter in Kenya.
The experience of that broadcast persuaded NTV to partner with WildlifeDirect for a year to bring world-class award winning wildlife documentaries to Kenyan audiences on a regular basis. We knew then we had an audience, but we didn’t know how hard it would be to get the films.
When I first floated this idea to distributors on behalf of NTV, responses were not encouraging. The following was typical of the replies we received:
I picked up this request and contacted our Africa sales team to run this request by them but they are still exploiting these titles. They are tasked with generating as much profit as possible from content in the African territory so that we can return funding to the [the company] to enable them to make these programmes in the first place.
I’m sorry not to have a more positive response for you.
This provoked the following impassioned response from one of the programme hosts:
It beggars belief that Paula’s current initiative – with its sensitizing and educational rationale – would in any substantial way detract from the [the company’s] licensing agreements. Talk of ‘profit’ at this point is insulting to the very nature of what Paula is trying to do. It sends a very clear message – money rules.
I thinks these sentiments portray [us] in a very poor light and are contrary to my long held belief that [we are] not purely driven by commercial considerations – but educational and inspirational ones too. These are things people like Paula have dedicated their life to doing. I believe we have to find a way to support these kinds of initiatives. Is that not still possible?
Thankfully arguments like these are winning the day. Disney Nature and the BBC World Wide are among major companies that have already agreed to make their films available and we are optimistic that others can be persuaded that they had nothing to lose and much to gain from supporting our proposal. We have written to Discovery and National Geographic as well as smaller production houses.
My fingers are tightly crossed and I make wishes on every shooting star in the Kenyan night sky.
Putting wildlife programs on African TV is not a “nice to have”. It’s a globally important imperative, and change cannot come too soon. The future of African wildlife hangs in the balance, under the impact of multiple threats, including poaching, climate change, habitat loss and land degradation. One of the main reasons why African governments have failed to respond to this unfolding crisis is that few Africans even know or understand what we stand to lose.
Our critic was right that a lot can happen in 15 years. Last night’s “NTV Wild Talk”, shot on location at the iconic Mzima Springs in Tasvo West National Park, revealed how all the hippos in Mzima Springs died in the drought of 2009. The ecosystem collapsed and since then recovery has been very slow, with only a handful of hippos there today.
Moderator Smriti Vidyarti engaged panellists Mark Deeble, KWS Chairman Richard Leakey, and Regional Assistant Director Robert Obrein in an informed discussion of the complex causes of this collapse. They described how drought, fires, and the encroachment of cattle into the National Park had created a ‘perfect storm’ for Mzima’s hippos, and how the loss of the hippos had affected the entire ecosystem.
The panellists also explained how Mzima was also key to Kenya’s economic development as the principal source of water for the city of Mombasa, and the importance of forest conservation in the watershed to maintain continuity of supplies. They discussed threats to the area posed by urbanization and proposed infrastructure projects.
The three panellists did not pull their punches. Richard Leakey described corruption as the biggest threat to African wildlife. Robert O’Brein talked frankly about the problems involved in administering Tsavo’s national parks.
In short, viewers were treated to an informed and intelligent, but by no means pessimistic discussion of key issues for the future of Kenya and global biodiversity conservation – that topped the ratings on prime-time TV!
This is only the start. With the support of KWS and tour operators, the programmes shown on NTV Wild are linked to promotions to boost local tourism to Kenya’s national parks. WildlifeDirect is partnering with local schools to take more students into the wilderness and national parks to do science, art and other subjects (click here to read about our visit with Nairobi school children to Amboseli National Park).
We are also planning to produce our own wildlife reality show, bringing celebrities and Kenyan scientific experts together in an informative and entertaining exploration of our country’s astounding wildlife.
I am sure that initiatives like these can have transformational effect. They will inspire more Africans to go to the parks and witness our wildlife first hand, just as they have inspired tens of millions of international tourists. They will encourage the emergence– for the first time – of a new generation of African wildlife film makers.
Above all, Africans will be motivated to demand more of their leaders, and will possess the knowledge and confidence they need to do so.
Behind fun projects like school visits and reality game shows, our aims are deadly serious, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The wider aim is to mainstream wildlife at all level of Kenyan life and society: as headlines news and a political priority, as family entertainment, as part of the curriculum in schools and universities, in corporate social responsibility programmes, and in the worlds of sport, music and fashion.
The age-old aphorism states that “knowledge is power”. Only by giving Africans knowledge about our wildlife can we acquire the power to save it.
It was a pleasure to listen and watch Jonathan Scott LIVE in studio. Many have watched him on Big Cat Diaries but few have ever met him. Along with Dr. Paula Kahumbu, WildlifeDirect CEO and Paula Mbugua from KWS, they talked about the new series #NTVWild that Premieres on NTV KENYA on Saturday January 16, 2016
On Sunday morning (6 December 2015) news broke of the poisoning of members of the Marsh Pride. These are the lions that Angela and I have followed since 1977 and were the stars of our “Big Cat” TV series, that documented the fascinating and often tumultuous life of the pride over a period of more than 12 years.
The Marsh Pride occupies a territory on the edge of the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, one of Africa’s foremost protected areas. All members of the “big five” (lion, leopard, African elephant, African buffalo, and black rhinoceros) are found on the vast plains of the Mara, plus a wealth of other wildlife.
On Saturday night, the lions had killed cattle belonging to a family living near the reserve. In retaliation, a member of the family sprinkled pesticide onto the carcass, knowing that the lions would return. He was intentionally trying to kill them. How many lions have died as a result is still unclear.
The body of Marsh Lioness Bibi, who died from poisoning at 7.30 am on Sunday 6 December 2015, along with other members of the Marsh Pride. Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. Photograph: Courtesy of Patrick Reynolds
I wish I could say that this was shocking news, but there is nothing shocking any more about what is happening in the Masai Mara. Tens of thousands of cattle encroach in to the Reserve every night when visitors are safely out of sight – but when the likelihood of conflict with predators such as lions and hyenas is at its greatest. This makes no sense.
This sorry state of affairs is testimony to the appalling management of the Reserve east of the river. This is a situation that has existed for at least as long as I have known the Masai Mara. Management failures contributed to the precipitous decline in the Mara’s black rhino population from an estimated 150 to 200 in the 1960s to just 11 by 1983 (it has risen again to between 30 and 40).
The BBC filmed the hugely popular TV series ‘Big Cat Diary’ in Marsh Pride territory from 1996 to 2008. Our base in the Mara was – and still is – a stone cottage at Governor’s Camp. This is a safari camp set in the heart of the reserve, in the vicinity of the glorious Musiara Marsh after which the Marsh Lions were named.
The Marsh is the heart of the Marsh Pride’s dry season territory, while to the east the intermittent watercourse known as Bila Shaka was the traditional breeding site and resting place for the pride. Bila Shaka means ‘without fail’ in Swahili, testimony that the guides could always find lions here. Not now.
Each year Governor’s Camp outfitted a special tented camp for us along the Mara River just upstream from Main Camp. The foundation of the series was that we always knew that we could find lions, leopards and cheetahs in the area on a daily basis. The Marsh Pride were at the heart of the series, and virtually never let us down.
But that all changed when the authorities decided to turn a blind eye to the incursion of cattle into the reserve, forcing the lions to move out or risk death. The Marsh Pride has always been vulnerable since its territory spreads beyond the reserve boundary. This is particularly apparent in the wet season when Musiara Marsh (and Bila Shaka at times) becomes waterlogged and the lions move to higher ground to north and east.
Each year we lose lions to poisoning or spearing by pastoralists. That was always part of life for the lions. But in the last few years the situation has escalated beyond all reason, with the Marsh Pride becoming increasingly fragmented by the influx of cattle and herdsmen. Today it would be impossible to film Big Cat Diary in the same location. What a damning fact that is.
This year the impact of livestock has been all too apparent. Huge herds of cattle would camp during the daytime along the boundary of the reserve waiting for the tourists to head in to camp. Soon the Musiara area looked like a desert and each night you could see dozens of flickering torches as the cattle were driven in to the reserve after dark.
The deep tracks leading into the reserve are testament to this, along with piles of cattle dung scattered deep inside it. And the Musiara area is not alone. Guides from other parts of the Mara have been complaining about this situation for years. But nobody seems to be able to do anything about it.
These incursions are threatening the social cohesion – and very existence – of the Marsh Pride. Earlier in the year a breakaway group of young Marsh Pride females with young cubs were forced to cross the Mara River and set up home in the Kichwa Tembo area. The older females – Bibi (17), Sienna (11) and Charm (11) – and their cubs increasingly avoided Bila Shaka and the Marsh, loitering at the fringes of their traditional territory, forced to encroach on neighbouring prides.
The pride males – Scarface and his three companions – no longer visit the Musiara area, ever since Scarface was shot in 2013. He was treated and recovered but knew better than to stay.
In the past pride males often only managed a tenure of 2 years – sometimes less – before being forced out of their pride by younger or more powerful rivals. It was not uncommon to see groups of five or six young nomadic males roaming the Musiara or Paradise area together. I have counted as many as nine travelling as a group. That was a sign of a healthy lion population with lots of dispersing sub-adults.
Now Marsh Pride males are able to remain as pride males for many more years, due to a decline in the number of young nomadic male lions vying to replace them. The scarcity of these nomadic males suggests that they are not surviving as well as in the past, due to the disturbance that lions are facing on a nightly basis in parts of the Mara from livestock and herdsmen, or from trying to survive in less optimal areas beyond the reserve boundary.
Lions are always going to kill livestock if it comes within range – and of course they will sometimes kill livestock outside the reserve and must bear the consequences when they do. The only way to prevent this happening is if there are sufficient incentives to persuade the herdsmen that lions equate to tourists – and that means a financial return.
And that is the key point. Many Masai do not think of the Masai Mara Reserve as a source of income. They often feel that it is unfair that wildlife is allowed to share their pastures, and sometimes kill their livestock, while they are not allowed to reciprocate by bringing livestock in to the Reserve during dry times.
The Masai have roamed these areas for hundreds of years, long before it was given official protection. Understandably the Masai claim the Mara as their own. The authorities urgently need to address this issue by ensuring that everyone benefits from tourism to the Mara in a truly tangible way.
There will be no safe place for the Marsh Lions until the reserve authorities decide to address all of the issues that have been debated ever since I first came to live in the Mara in 1977. Measures must be taken now to ensure an equitable distribution of revenue from the reserve to the local community, and to increase support for the wildlife conservancies created on private lands around the reserve, where cattle grazing is permitted on a rotational basis.
Within the reserve, there should be a moratorium on any further tourism development, and an embargo on grazing of livestock.
What a miracle it would be if the demise of the Marsh Pride became the catalyst for serious dialogue and change as to how the Masai Mara is managed. The Governor of Narok County, the Honorable Samuel Ole Tunai, pledged to do just that when he called a Masai Mara Stakeholders Meeting in Nairobi in September 2015.
I attended that meeting and was impressed by the number of people who made the effort to come along and by the Governor’s openness to dialogue. Since then a small group of concerned individuals drawn from all walks of life have worked to support the Governor’s initiative.
We can only hope that we are about to witness tangible steps towards securing the future of this iconic landscape and its magnificent wildlife.
Paula Kahumbuwrites: This is an edited version of an article written by Jonathan and Angela Scott and published on their blog on 7 December 2015. Jonathan and his wife Angie are award winning authors and internationally renowned wildlife photographers. My sincere thanks to Jonathan and Angela for permission to publish the article here.
Responding to a tip-off from visitors, the Kenya Wildlife Service and local authorities acted swiftly to bring the culprits to court, while the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and other local conservation organisations were prompt to treat the affected lions. But despite this veterinary support three lions have already died. At the time of writing, another four are still sick. The condition of others is not known.
Kenya has never before charged a person with poisoning wildlife, even though it is a frequent crime that has devastating effects on populations of lions, vultures and other predators.
However in this case the new Wildlife Crime Prosecution Unit has moved quickly to charge the suspects of this crime with offences against endangered wildlife species under Section 92 of the 2013 Wildlife Act, which could result in a fine of Ksh 20 million (USD 200,000) and/or life imprisonment.
This is another welcome sign that Kenyan courts are now taking wildlife crimes seriously. As Jonathan eloquently argues, this needs to be backed up by action to address the root causes of wildlife crime, inspired by the vision of a common future for people and wildlife
Africa is in the midst of a poaching crisis. This we know. Tens of thousands of elephants are being killed for their tusks each year, feeding a demand for ivory on the other side of the world in Asia.
But how did we get here? Not that long ago, the continent’s elephant populations appeared to be recovering after years of slaughter, as a ban on international trade in ivory trade took effect. Now, the poachers are back with a vengeance. In this video, we take an in-depth look at why the demand for ivory has sky-rocketed, how the illegal wildlife trade is a threat to global security and what is being done to save Africa’s elephants from extinction.
In my ongoing efforts to learn more about this poaching pandemic, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Dr Paula Kahumbu, CEO of WildlifeDirect, who spearheads the “Hands off our Elephants” campaign in Kenya. She’s a passionate, high-profile advocate in the fight to end the illegal ivory trade.
We spoke of the many complex issues that have helped to shape this unfolding disaster, but we also talked of the elephants themselves, and what Kahumbu has learned about these magnificent animals.
In the outpouring of sadness that followed the death, those who had known the legendary giant claimed that a lifetime of evading poachers had taught Satao, who had survived a previous attack, to not only fear strangers, but also some awareness that it was his tusks that put him in danger.
“He didn’t just know he was in danger. He did something that was so surprising. When people were near him he would turn his face and look into the bush. He would actually hide his tusks. He spent his whole life knowing that he was in danger because of his tusks,” Kahumbu told me. “For filmmakers he was a real problem because here was this magnificent animal that would not face the camera.”
Satao was one of very few ‘big tuskers’ left in Kenya. Image: Tsavo Trust
While we can only speculate about Satao’s behaviour, evidence continues to emerge of just how tuned in elephants are to humans and the potential danger we pose to them. In some parts of Africa, studies have shown they are capable of picking up on cues such as scent, clothing colour, language and even tone of voice.
“When elephants hear certain tribes-people who are known to be hunters, they behave in a certain way. They bunch up. They protect the most vulnerable individuals in the middle. They face out in a very defensive position,” Kahumbu said.
“When an elephant is injured or hears a gunshot, they respond and can communicate that fear to each other. We’ve seen this. Their vocalisations are sub-sonic, so we cannot hear them, but we can record them and play them back and see how the elephants behave. They have a call that’s ‘let’s go’. They have a call that’s ‘let’s meet up later at a certain place’. They have calls that are ‘back off or stay away’.”
For Kahumbu, there is much we still have to learn about elephant intelligence, but what we know so far serves only to underscore their immense value. “They are the identity of Africa, but they are also global monuments.”
KIRSTEN HORNE IS EARTH TOUCH’S ONLINE PRODUCER AND SCRIPTWRITER. SOME PEOPLE MIGHT CALL HER BOSSY, BUT SHE PREFERS TO THINK OF HERSELF AS FOCUSED AND PASSIONATE. SHE’S ALSO OBSESSED WITH WILDLIFE AND ANIMALS, AND IS A COMMITTED MISANTHROPIST.
Conservationists will be hoping that Pope Francis speaks out against poaching and ivory trafficking during his upcoming visit. We have reason to feel confident that he will. Pope Francis has brought a new style of leadership to the Roman Catholic Church that has earned him respect among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
His forthright pronouncements on environmental issues such as climate change have revealed his deep scientific knowledge, as well as his love for the “irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty” of the natural world, and a profound awareness of the linkages between environmental and social justice.
For example in his Encyclical letter “On Care for Our Common Home”, he warns:
“Our Sister, Mother Earth …cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life”.
You do not have to a Catholic to be moved by these words.
On his visit to Kenya, there is a specific contribution that Pope Francis can make to combating ivory trafficking. He can speak out against religious practices that venerate objects made from the tusks of dead elephants. These are an integral component Buddhist and Hindu traditions and are still common among Catholics, for example in the Philippines. An article in National Geographic on the use of ivory for religious purposes quotes the head of Philippines customs police as saying: “The Philippines is a favourite destination of these smuggled elephant tusks, maybe because Filipino Catholics are fond of images of saints that are made of ivory.” Between 2005 and 2009, almost 20 tons of ivory were confiscated by customs in or on its way to the Philippines, representing a total of approximately 1,750 elephants.
Devotees believe that through their use of religious icons made of ivory they are honouring God. Ironically, the very opposite is true: they are complicit in the desecration of what Pope Francis calls the “infinite beauty and goodness” of His created world.
In his Encyclical, Pope Francis acknowledges his debt to his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi, who preached to birds and flowers. Pope Francis insists that it was not “naive romanticism” that led Saint Francis to venerate all of God’s creation in this way. In preaching to flowers, Saint Francis was celebrating the miracle of life. Surely, the difference between a flower that turns it head towards the sun and our ‘sophisticated’ human consciousness is only one of degree? Among higher animals, elephants in particular display qualities that fill us with wonder and awe. For example, elephants will go to extraordinary lengths to protect and care for an injured member of the herd.
Convinced that “we are all creatures of one family”, Saint Francis taught that “those who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity will deal likewise with their fellow man”. In modern language: a crime against nature is also – in a very real sense – a crime against humanity. Poaching destroys communities. Ivory trafficking is sustained by a web of violence and corruption. Moreover, in the words of our President in his inaugural address, poaching and trafficking are “economic sabotage”.
The Kenyan government has made great strides towards bringing poaching under control. Pope Francis’s Encyclical contains many insightful passages on the practical measures needed to protect this environment. But he also has an important message for Kenyans about the moral foundations of good governance. He warns: “
“In the absence of … sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species?”
Kenyans will make Pope Francis welcome. We should listen carefully to what he has to say.
Dr Paula Kahumbu OGW has a PhD in Ecology from Princeton University. She is a Kenyan conservationist and elephant expert. She is the CEO of WildlifeDirect, a Kenya based NGO that is running the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign with HE Margaret Kenyatta, the First Lady of Kenya.
– See more at: http://www.the-star.co.ke/news/popes-great-chance-help-end-ivory-trade#sthash.vkTWTlvC.dpuf
Kenyans take to the streets in support of elephants and rhinos. Global March for Elephants and Rhinos, Nairobi, October 3rd, 2015. Photograph: WildlifeDirect
Since 2013, according to the latest estimates, elephant deaths from poaching in Kenya are down by 80% and deaths of rhinos by 90%. This is a success story that deserves to be more widely known.
Kenya was traditionally in the forefront of wildlife conservation in Africa. However, in 2008 the sale of ivory from four southern African countries to China and Japan triggered an explosive demand and poaching erupted across the continent.
By 2012, the situation was almost out of control in Kenya due to corruption, ignorance, poor laws, and an inadequate anti-poaching response. Government agencies such as the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) were in denial.
I was among the many conservationists who felt angry and frustrated at the government’s refusal to respond to our concerns. One of our colleagues was arrested and others went into hiding for fear of being deported for exposing how serious the poaching crisis was.
The turning point came in February 2013 when the government finally agreed to call a special session of the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) to discuss wildlife conservation. This landmark meeting was attended by many dozens of representatives of ministries, law enforcement agencies, the private sector, academia and civil society.
It was a tough-talking meeting. We challenged the government’s complacent view of the situation and questioned the capacity and commitment of KWS and border agencies to control poaching and trafficking.
Leading Kenyan conservationists, including Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Agatha Juma and Jake Grieves Cook, warned that thousands of elephants were being killed each year and of the threat this posed to tourism and the economy
Representatives of the Ministry of Environment and Wildlife and KWS denied the situation was a crisis; however, they did ask the government for support to tackle the growing poaching problem.
Richard Leakey and I spoke for WildlifeDirect and we presented a 14 point plan of action that had been developed with barrister Shamini Jayanathan. After intensive discussions the NESC adopted most of our recommendations and instructed authorities to urgently adopt a ‘whole government’ response to the crisis.
The NESC meeting was the first major effort of the Hands Off Our Elephants campaign, which was officially launched five months later. Our aims were simple: to bring all sectors of society on board in order to defeat the poachers and traffickers, safeguard elephant populations, and turn Kenya into model for successful wildlife conservation.
The First Lady of Kenya, Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta (centre with hat) in her role as Patron of the campaign “Hands Off Our Elephants”, launched in 2013. The marchers are accompanying Jim Nyamu (in the beige t-shirt) on part of his walk across Kenya to raise awareness about poaching. Photograph: WildlifeDirect
Our initiative was coolly received in some quarters. Government officials accused us of being unpatriotic by damaging Kenya’s reputation abroad. Some fellow conservationists said we were being too ambitious.
We knew it would be difficult but we were confident that our aims were achievable, for three reasons:
Kenya has a vibrant civil society and a free press, so we would have the means to get our message across.
We had support in high places. The new President Uhuru Kenyatta, who took up office in April 2013, was known to be sympathetic to wildlife conservation. His wife, Margaret Kenyatta joined the campaign from the outset as its patron.
Kenya had done it before, in the 1990s, when KWS routed the poachers under the leadership of Richard Leakey, and President Daniel Arap Moi transformed global attitudes towards ivory by burning Kenya’s ivory stockpile.
Seven strategies for success
Looking back at what Hands Off Our Elephants has achieved so far, in an informal ‘mid-term evaluation’, I can identify seven things that have worked:
1. An evidence based approach. In making our case, we knew it would be not enough to rely on hearsay. We presented the results of 5 years of courtroom monitoring to prove that those arrested for wildlife crimes were being let off scot free or at most with derisory fines. We demanded – and got – an audit of Kenya’s ivory stockpile, overseen by independent observers.
Paula Kahumbu handing over the “Scoping study on the prosecution of wildlife related crimes in Kenyan courts” on behalf of WildlifeDirect to the Chief Justice Willy Mutunga in January 2014. Photograph: WildlifeDirect
2. Mobilizing public support. We took our campaign into government offices and corporate board rooms, onto the streets and into schools and universities, and into the villages in areas that have elephants. We spoke to young people in language they would understand, with the support of pop stars, comic book authors, and sports personalities. In alliance with private sector, we took the message into supermarkets and onto airplanes.
This broad-based alliance has succeeded in generating a level of popular support for wildlife conservation never before witnessed in Kenya, or any other elephant range state.
3. Mainstream media coverage. Our campaign transformed poaching from a wildlife conservation issue to headline news. Conservationists gave extensive TV interviews in prime-time current affairs slots, with the focus squarely on political, juridical and institutional capacity issues.
If you are reading this in Europe or North America, you might like to ask yourself when wildlife conservation was last given this treatment by media in your own country.
4. Political will. We were fortunate in this respect. In his inaugural address President Kenyatta signalled his intentions by referring to poaching as ‘economic sabotage’, and followed this up with a series of key measures to strengthen the law and the judiciary.
The First Lady, Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta, made it clear that she intended to take an even more proactive role. She agreed to be Patron of Hands Off Our Elephants and has been a central figure in the campaign ever since.
Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhungu of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources has been behind us all the way, as have US and British ambassadors Bob Godec and Christian Turner. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has convened meetings to create awareness of the problem amongst all Kenya-based diplomats.
US Ambassador Robert Godec with school children from Nairobi on a visit to Amboseli National Park. World Elephant Day, 12 August 2015. Photograph: WildlifeDirect
5. Boots on the ground. One of President Kenyatta’s first acts was to announce additional funds to finance anti-poaching activities, allowing the recruitment of 577 more rangers. He created a specialised multi-agency anti-poaching unit and brought all law enforcement agencies together to tackle the ivory trafficking problem in a coordinated way.
As a result, poachers are more likely to be caught than ever before. But we knew that this would have no deterrent effect unless getting arrested led to some serious consequences. That’s why the next two success factors were key.
6. Strengthening the law. Wildlife law before 2013 treated poaching as a petty offence. Maximum penalties were derisory compared to the vast profits that were being made by organised wildlife crime. We lobbied with many other NGOs and citizen groups for a new Wildlife Act.
The new act finally came into force in January 2104, making poaching and ivory trafficking a serious crime in Kenya, on a par with gun running and drug trafficking. Penalties for wildlife crime in Kenya are now the harshest in the world, including life imprisonment in some cases.
7. Reforms to the criminal justice system. Our courtroom monitoring program had exposed major challenges in record keeping, evidence collection, and prosecutions. The handling of wildlife trials has been transformed through the creation of a specialised wildlife crime prosecution unit under the office of the Public Prosecutor, combined with new operating procedures and extensive training programmes for legal staff.
Being arrested for poaching or ivory trafficking in Kenya has become a big deal.
Measures of success
Summarising the results of my mid-term evaluation: Kenya has managed to turn around the poaching crisis in a remarkably short time. This is in large part thanks to the support of NGOs – large and small – working with the private sector, government, and the donor community. All Kenyans can be proud of this impressive achievement.
Several poachers have gone to jail for life, and many have been fined hundreds of thousands of US Dollars. Jailing of convicted poachers is up from 4 to 11%. Suspected traffickers have had their assets seized and bank accounts frozen, as the law on proceeds of organized crime can now be applied to wildlife crimes.
Poachers are giving up the trade because of the high likelihood of arrest, and the knowledge that it will lead to prosecution and a jail sentence. This is reflected in the dramatic decline in poaching: the ‘bottom line’ that is the most important indicator of the success of our campaign.
Perhaps most importantly, for the first time in Kenya’s its history, Kenya is prosecuting major ivory traffickers. One of the most notorious suspected traffickers, Feisal Mohamed Ali, was arrested with the support of Interpol following the seizure of huge haul of ivory in Mombasa. He has remained behind bars to face trial since December 2014.
The continuing threat
While Kenya can celebrate success today, we cannot be complacent. Just next door in Tanzania thousands of elephants are being gunned down annually and their population has been reduced by over 60 percent in just 5 years. Meanwhile in South Africa, over a thousand rhinos are murdered for their horns each year.
These killing fields will expand back into Kenya without concerted international efforts to reduce demand for ivory and rhino horn.
In Kenya, several factors threaten the sustainability of our successes. By far the most serious of these is the pervasive corruption that disfigures Kenyan society. It seems that corruption is rarely out of the news these days: it threatens the democracy that is bedrock of all our achievements so far.
The power of corrupt money is undoubtedly the reason why, in contrast to the harsh sentences imposed on poachers – the small fry – and despite the arrest of Feisal Mohamed Ali, no trafficker has yet been convicted and sent to jail under the new law.
The way forward
So what comes next? Hands Off Our Elephants will continue to expand its operations in Kenya while coordinating with partners across Africa to replicate our efforts in neighbouring countries. The campaign will focus on key new demands, including:
Corruption should be included among the named charges for wildlife offenders and in cases where police and customs officers, and other government officials are involved.
Existing high level cases should be brought to a rapid conclusion. Every delay increases the opportunities for evidence to be ‘lost’ and witnesses to ‘disappear’.
The must be an end the practice of deporting foreign nationals arrested for ivory trafficking. They should be tried in Kenyan courts. Traffickers should know that if they are caught with ivory at a Kenyan port or airport they can expect to spend the rest of their lives in a Kenya jail.
Visitors to Kenya and those in transit must be made aware of the new law and the penalties for poaching in order to reduce demand.
Kenya’s must destroy its entire ivory stockpile as a signal to the world that no Kenyan ivory will ever again enter into legal or illegal markets.
Above all, there is a need to strengthen accountability by giving civil society a permanent role in monitoring living and dead animals, seizures of illegal wildlife products, and the government’s response to wildlife crime.
The good news is that the foundations for this have been laid by the campaign itself, which has given rise to unprecedented levels of collaboration between government and civil society.
In recognition of the key importance of civil society organisations for wildlife conservation, NGOs have recently come together to form the “Conservation Alliance of Kenya”, a permanent stakeholder forum which will advise government on environmental issues. One of the key thematic groups that has been set up will address wildlife crime.
Thus democracy is not only the rock on which we build our campaigns. The campaigns themselves are an integral part of wider efforts to strengthen democracy.
Our African-led initiative to save elephants and wildlife is driven by a wider vision of an inclusive, prosperous African future; an Africa with effective governance and a vibrant civil society, and proud of its rich natural and cultural heritage.
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