Today the KWS announced a 14% decline in elephants in the Samburu/Laikpia ecosystem over the last 4 years. Samburu and Laikipia’s image as the poster children for Kenya’s wildlife recovery is now dented. The impact on tourism cannot be ignored, heavily armed bandits threaten more than elephants, if we can’t protect elephants how can we protect international tourists? But it’s the long term consequence that are of greater concern. One of Kenya’s Vision 2030 flagship projects is to develop the tourism potential in the area to elevate tourism income, create jobs, and increase tax revenues. If we have no elephants in Samburu –will tourists bother to come? Putrid elephant carcasses do not make good tourist attractions. And that is not all, it is now known that the poaching of elephants and rhino’s in Kenya and other countries is linked to criminal cartels that are financing Al Shabaab and other terrorist organizations. Kenya has remained silent the seriousness of this, but US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has not.
In a way the result of the Samburu census is good news. For the first time in 8 years, KWS has admitted that elephant poaching has reached alarming levels and that it threatens our elephant populations, tourism and our economy. Hopefully this will lead to concrete reaction from the state. Conservationists are not surprised with this figure. Most scientists knew we were in a crisis all along but openly questioning the official number can be dangerous as Onesmas Kahindi discovered when he was arrested and nearly charged with “undermining a public official” earlier this year. He was released, but the experience of his arrest resounded through the conservation community and sadly many Kenyan conservationists have backed away from raising their concerns to the authorities or the press.
The results of Samburu could have been predicted. In 2011 a count of the Tsavo Ecosystem found 500 dead elephants, a 3 fold increase since 2008 suggesting a rapid rise in poaching over that period. And, similar results are expected where poaching is escalating in Galana, Masai Mara, Laikipia, Amboseli and Kerio Valley. The problem is not just in parks nor is it one group of people we need to stop. In the previous elephant crisis it was primarily the Somali’s who were armed, today numerous tribes in north and Central Kenya are armed and the weapons are being turned against each other and wildlife. Nor is the elephant poaching problem restricted to Kenya, CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) estimates that over 25,000 African elephants across the continent were killed to supply illegal ivory markets in 2011. This was the highest rate of poaching recorded in the past last ten years.
And its not just elephants. Poachers are also gunning down rhino’s, robbing people and engaging in money laundering, gun running, drugs trade and the money is said to be financing terrorist activities.
To make matters worse, Kenya is not just a haven for poachers, it is also a gateway for ivory movements from other African countries. In July this year CITES noted that together Kenya and Tanzania account for a whopping 65% of the illegal ivory trade in Africa. The ivory is going to China which consumes 75% of the world ivory. But China only recently became the main threat to Africa’s elephants. Elephants have been killed for their ivory for millennia and the ivory trade thrived during the colonial period of Africa’s history – in those days ivory was sought after for billiard boards and piano keys. After the 2nd World War Japan became the world’s largest consumer of ivory taking 40% of all of all ivory for the production of Hanko’s or name seals/signature stamps. By the 1980’s the world began to recognize the crisis facing elephants and CITES put systems in place to regulate the ivory trade through a control system and registration of ivory stocks. This only worsened the situation as criminal cartels found ways of “legalizing” illegal ivory. As a result, ivory prices continued to rise and elephant killings reached a zenith. Legalizing the elephant trade was driving the species to extinction and African countries wildlife authorities were overwhelmed by the highly militarized killings.
It took two men and a crazy idea to turn it all around. In 1989 Richard Leakey persuaded Daniel Arap Moi, the Kenyan president, to publicly burn the entire Kenyan stockpile to send a message in what became the worlds most iconic conservation spectacle. That year Tanzania pushed through a proposal to put elephants on CITES Appendix 1 which bans international trade in elephants and their products. Though not all countries agreed with the listing, yet it is clear that the ivory trade ban led to the immediate a collapse of ivory demand and prices plummeted. Poaching came under control and African and Asian elephants began to recover across Africa and Asia.
Why is the crisis back?
In 1997, four southern African nations sought down listing of their elephants to sell live elephants. This was granted and then in 2000 they sought sales of their ivory stockpiles. Despite concerns that legal ivory trade never worked in the past, and warnings that any legal trade would trigger renewed demand and illegal trade, the sale went through and in 2002 a one off sale of ivory was permitted to Japan. In 2007 another one off sale was permitted, this time, to the horror of conservationists, China, a country notorious for weak enforcement of laws affecting endangered species was permitted to receive the ivory. The legal ivory met a massive demand from the hundreds of millions of newly rich in China resulting in a phenomenal rise in the price of ivory. The state cleverly manipulated the situation by releasing small amounts of legal ivory onto the market each year at very high prices. The Chinese use ivory for art (carvings) and making household implements like chopsticks. They value it for its texture, warm feeling, softness, glowing colour and ease of carving. Despite the availability of man-made alternatives, real ivory is what is in demand because it symbolizes wealth and status. One study found that the 75% of Chinese buyers would purchase illegal ivory if it was cheaper than legal ivory, it is no wonder then, that similar studies have found that 90% of all ivory on sale in China is illegal.
This high and rising price of ivory has been the main driving force behind the continuing and escalating massacre of elephants in Africa where criminal cartels control the killing of elephants and the movement of ivory. The influx of Chinese workers across rural Africa have, no doubt, been an important part of this. The impact is worst in countries that are poorly governed, minimally equipped and burdened with weak legislation and minor penalties to fight against highly militarized poaching gangs. DR Congo is thought to have lost over 80,000 elephants as a result. Despite the huge investment in the military wing of KWS since 1989, Kenya is a country where rule of law means little, especially in rural areas where elephants are being slaughtered. Weak governance has made it easy for poachers and dealers to get off, the police and the judiciary are notoriously corrupt. Until now, the shooting of suspected poachers has been the most effective deterrent against poaching, but even this is not sustainable. The social backlash is likely or has already started to threaten conservation efforts and relations with local communities.
So what can be done?
Most conservationists agree that the only solution is to ban ivory trade forever. Even CITES now admits that the partial lifting of the ban on ivory sales sent a confusing message out and stimulated a demand that has driven the price up and led to massive laundering of illegal ivory. Regulating legal trade is horrendously expensive and difficult especially in a country like China where it is estimated that 90% of ivory on sale in China is illegal. Detecting the impact of ivory trade on populations is expensive, slow and it is virtually impossible to prove. Kenya has always held a principled position against the ivory trade, and has been a leader on CITES elephant issues and has always sought to unite African elephant range states around elephant protection and a total ban on ivory trade. A simple single message is needed, that ivory is banned. Southern African countries argue that their elephants are well managed and that they deserve cash for their ivory stocks. We propose then, that they be compensated for the destruction of their ivory stockpiles to prevent it from ever entering the markets and again stimulating demand. The Chinese argue that Kenya has failed to protect elephants effectively. It is true. We urgently need to step up enforcement, crush the cartels, increase penalties, enact new laws, and create awareness and genuine benefits for communities who live with elephants, otherwise poaching will continue to tempt poor people. We propose that Kenya restores her image by allowing a public audit of her ivory stockpile to prove that it is not making it’s way into the illegal market, and then destroys all of her ivory in renewed commitment to protect elephants.
Unless Kenya cleans up her image she will find it hard to present her position and concerns at the next CITES convention in Bangkok in March 2013 with much conviction. The challenge is to prevent Kenya’s neighbor and former ally, Tanzania, from winning permission to sell her ivory stockpile. Even though the Tanzania proposal is as good as dead in the water (Tanzania has admitted high level government corruption in the illegal killing of elephants and the illegal ivory trade) it would be more effective it Tanzania and Kenya stood side by side on this crisis. Tanzania is losing elephants even more rapidly than Kenya – they say that they are losing 30 elephants per day to poachers. Tanzania and Kenya are accountable for 65% of all ivory trafficking out of Africa, a truth we conveniently keep quiet about. Unless Kenya takes the urgent steps to demonstrate integrity, transparency and seriousness her position will not be taken seriously especially against the loud and aggressive clamoring for the opening up legal ivory trade by southern African states. The idea that legal ivory trade can generate funds to protect elephants is equivalent to resuming slavery to finance efforts to end slavery. It flies in the face of all of our known experience in trying t manage legal ivory trade. If only the proponents of ivory trade had the memories of elephants, they would know that we already tried that and it failed. We cannot afford any more experiments with elephants. We must send out a crystal clear message to the world and ban ivory trade forever.