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<p>Photo by Paul Benson</p>

Photo by Paul Benson

Elephants on Kenya’s Laikipia plateau.

Giant Killers Return

An ivory ban stopped elephant poaching in Africa for decades, but as demand in China grows so does the killing.


Laikipia, KENYA — Five hulking elephant carcasses lie rotting in a line. Their enormous bodies flattened the dying grass where they stumbled and fell, and they dumped a layer of Kenya's ubiquitous red dust to either side. Now the smell is overwhelming.

Two weeks ago these elephants walked one after the other — two big bulls, two adult females and an adolescent — and they kept that formation when they died. They didn't run or huddle together, and there is no sign of a fight, not with another wild animal, a hunter, nor with hunger. No deep wounds, no bullet holes.

“These elephants were hit with some really powerful, potent poison, which wouldn’t have been easy to get hold of.”

The long rains are a few weeks overdue this year and the scorching dry season has stretched into April. The temperature soars through the day, the grass has turned yellow, brown and hard as straw. Long lines of ants move underfoot and the massive carcasses cook steadily in the heat.

We are on the plains of Laikipia in Kenya's central highlands, about 200 kilometres north of Nairobi, East Africa's bustling hub. Laikipia is nearly 10,000 square kilometres of spectacular plateau, where hoards of big animals live alongside hutted communities that dot the land, joined by winding dirt roads.

Survival for some animals is hard won on the rugged plateau, but unusually in this case, tonnes of raw elephant meat has been refused by scavengers, in a dry land brimming with vultures, hyenas, packs of wild dogs, leopards and lions.

In fact, the five elephants look almost untouched, inexplicably dead but for one thing: the skin has been carefully peeled back at the face and each elephant is missing its tusks. The ivory from all five has been picked entirely clean.

"We now believe those elephants were poisoned," says Dr Max Graham, a conservationist and elephant expert based in Kenya. "Usually you get an elephant that dies from gunshot wounds or natural causes, they are covered in vultures and all sorts of scavengers and that carcass is gone in three to four weeks … They must be pretty noxious."

"I still find that quite bizarre because it had to take quite a lot of planning. Organised, sophisticated planning. These elephants were hit with some really powerful, potent poison, which wouldn't have been easy to get hold of." He guesses it may have been mixed with salt and fed to the animals.

"It's shocking to see five elephants in a row like that, all in one spot. We haven't seen scenes like that in this country since the 80s, the bad old days."

Graham is the chief executive officer and founder of Space for Giants, an elephant charity and advocacy group, headquartered in Nanyuki, capital of Laikipia County. We speak in his office while employees buzz around with maps, pictures and computer programs charting the illegal killing of elephants across the plateau.

"A week later there was another elephant carcass found fresh, and when we went in on the ground to take some detail we found another elephant carcass that was a bit older, maybe two to three months, and we also saw another elephant that had been injured, gunshot wounds.

"There's a poaching surge," he says. "Every indication is that poaching across the country is really on the rise."

Lauren Evans, a Cambridge University researcher in Kenya to study human-elephant conflict, says elephants play a vital role in ecosystem function, driving seed dispersal, nutrient cycling and the creation of dry season water reservoirs for a wide range of game. They are also believed to be key to forest structure and diversity.

Yet Kenya is now in the throes of a poaching crisis, something not seen in this country for more than 20 years, a menace conservationists had hoped was left behind for good. In the 1970s and 80s, Kenya's elephants were killed en masse for their ivory, but local and foreign activists fought against the practice, and elephant numbers began to revive following the 1989 ivory trade ban.

About two years ago, something began to change. Tobias Nyumba, who works with Space for Giants on the Laikipia plateau, remembers how rare it used to be to sight an elephant carcass.

<p>Photo courtesy of Space for Giants</p>

Photo courtesy of Space for Giants

Tusks saved from killed elephant.

"When I began working in Laikipia it would take me a whole year before seeing a dead elephant. The first one I saw in May 2005, I went there very fast on my motorbike and took like 10 pictures, sitting round it, touching its body … To me it was something very fascinating at that time, and it wasn't so serious because it died of natural causes.

"But from 2010 the incidents started increasing, and in most cases you would not find one but there would be two or three, killed in a group with bullet wounds or spear wounds," he says.

Last year, 2011, was devastating for elephants across the whole African continent. According to TRAFFIC, a wildlife trade monitoring network, there was a record number of large ivory seizures (more than 800 kilograms), amounting to over 23 tonnes of ivory — more than double the 2010 figure.

TRAFFIC says 2011 was the worst year for large ivory seizures in the 23 years they have been compiling the data.

Although there is no definitive figure, Graham says: "You used to say five kilgrams (of ivory) was an elephant, which is quite a small elephant. So that (23 tonnes) would be 4,600 elephants … Those are just the large seizures alone, so say we're looking at 5,000 dead elephants … Now, illegal drug enforcement agents say that 10 per cent of contraband drugs is actually picked up so that means 90 per cent still makes it. So if we're going to say 5,000 elephants times 10, we're looking at 50,000 in 2011.

"There are some major assumptions that go into this figure, but even if you were to say, something between 20,000 and 40,000 illegal killings a year, you're dealing with major mortality on the continent. There are estimated 400,000 elephants in Africa."

Kenya — a fast-developing sub-Saharan nation with wildlife tourism a cornerstone of its economy — is often used as a barometer for Africa's elephant conservation. Kenyan Wildlife Service figures, widely felt to be very conservative, nonetheless show the trend: they say Kenya lost 278 elephants to poaching last year, up from 177 in 2010 and 47 in 2007.

“The majority of incidents are not being committed by poor guys who need to feed their family, the majority of incidents are being committed by criminal networks that always existed.”

According to TRAFFIC, most large seizures of illicit ivory from Africa originated at either Kenyan or Tanzanian ports, such as the 727 pieces of ivory discovered in a container at Mombasa port in Kenya on December 21, or the 465 pieces seized earlier in the month — more than four tonnes between them.

Another indicator is PIKE (Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants), a figure that shows the proportion of elephant carcasses logged by government that can be attributed to illegal killing. In 2011 this figure was at a record high 61 per cent.

Wildlife campaigners in Kenya say it is becoming rarer and rarer to spot mature elephants, aged over 30 years, and they do not remember ever seeing so many elephants carrying non-lethal wounds inflicted by gunshots.

This year, 2012, may yet be worse for African elephants. Reports of large-scale slaughter already are coming in from Cameroon, Chad, the Congo, and in Kenya demand for ivory has continued to rocket through 2012, leaving 2011 levels for dead.

"The value of ivory to everyone in the supply chain has shot up," says Graham. "Last year the price of ivory was 5,000 shillings a kilo (about AUD60), in January it went up to 10,000 shillings a kilo, this month it's 18,000 shillings a kilo to the poacher."

Kenya's anti-poaching laws have not proved much of a disincentive. On February 23, some poachers were arrested in the act. They were prosecuted and fined 15,000 shillings (about AUD180), or less than one kilo of ivory sold to traders.

Now that trade in ivory has become so profitable in Kenya, its black-market value soaring in the last few months, it has drawn the attention of established criminal gangs who are happy to add it to their opportunistic repertoire.

<p>Photo by Paul Benson</p>

Photo by Paul Benson

Anti-poaching drama group in Kenya.

"You get guys who have been supplied with weapons who will shoot elephants, they will kill other animals, they attack vehicles, they will opportunistically break into houses … I would cautiously say that the majority of incidents are not being committed by poor guys who need to feed their family, the majority of incidents are being committed by criminal networks that always existed," says Graham.

Aggrey Maumo, Kenya Wildlife Service senior warden for Laikipia, says the government has begun to intensify its resistance to armed poachers in the area, ensuring police and patrols are properly equipped, but over such a large area the support of landowners and remote communities is fundamental.

"We have our security organs strategically stationed in Laikipia east and west, but we cannot be everywhere, we need the support of these partners," says Maumo, who added that an informal citizens' intelligence network was being developed.

Maumo acknowledged the dangers in trying to contain poaching. "Poachers are all armed because there are illegal firearms all over."

The deepening conflict between poachers and security officials supported by some landowners has heightened insecurity in poaching hotspots. As the value of ivory has climbed, so have the stakes for those trying to protect wildlife.

"It makes you say, how safe am I working amongst these people?" says Tobias Nyumba. "If they can slaughter these animals because there is such a high incentive of finances, if I show my face around there the chances I will be treated as someone who is standing in between them and wealth. It is much easier to be eliminated."

While the routes and means of transit are always changing, there is one unshakable constant in ivory trafficking: it leaves Africa and it goes to Asia.

“This huge Chinese middle class is in this position where they can afford to buy luxury goods … from expensive wine to Gucci handbags to fancy technological devices and ivory – and ivory is right up there.”

Most shipments end up either in Thailand — which is thought to have the largest unregulated ivory market in the world — or China. The new boom years of poaching in Africa have walked in step with China's middle-class explosion and the expendable cash they have on hand to display their new status.

According to a 2011 report, The Ivory Dynasty, by Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne, Chinese demand is accelerating. "Since 2004 there has been a 50 per cent increase in the number of ivory items for sale in Guangzhou — the largest city in southern China and an important ivory centre", the report says.

Graham: "This huge Chinese middle class is in this position where they can afford to buy luxury goods … those luxury items range from expensive wine to Gucci handbags to fancy technological devices and ivory — and ivory is right up there."

Ivory fashioned into small intricate statues is sold on the streets of China, sometimes depicting dragons or deities or sadly, elephants. Whole pieces of ivory are also for sale, which still show the gentle curve of the elephant's tusk.

The link between Africa and China as a destination for illegal ivory is tightened by the number of Chinese migrant workers now active on the continent. With China's rapid economic expansion into Africa, Max Graham estimates that there are one million Chinese migrant workers in Africa, compared to 40,000 ten years ago.

In Kenya, established middle-men families have been trafficking ivory since the 1970s, but what is new on the ground is the Chinese. "Those guys are providing a market and it is very easy for them to be in a position to buy ivory — they're working all the main roads, they're in the towns and all they need to say is, 'I'm looking for some ivory,'" says Graham.

According to Space for Giants, Chinese nationals have been arrested in 134 ivory seizure cases in Africa, totaling over 16 tonnes of ivory. In another 487 cases, involving 25 tonnes of ivory, the haul was in transit to China.

Changing the attitude of China's booming middle-class is a big task for an African-based anti-poaching movement, and until people stop buying, poaching will continue. Meanwhile, all local avenues are being explored.

In February, Kenya Wildlife Service launched a 10-year elephant conservation strategy. Speaking at the launch, Forestry and Wildlife Minister Noah Wekesa said, "I have noted with great concern the magnitude of the escalating poaching and its effect on elephants, therefore, I want to send a strong message to the poachers that they shall be dealt with severely according to the law. We will ensure the current penalties for wildlife offenders are quickly reviewed and made more punitive to discourage poaching."

Space for Giants has some left-field approaches in progress: a drama group, for example, which they send from community to community to get Kenyans talking about poaching — think actors in elephant costumes.

"If you get a community on side first of all they can be your eyes and ears on the ground for outsiders coming in, which is often the case. But it makes sure that the community as a whole take a position on this issue and it becomes much more difficult for members of that community to go out and poach because they no longer have the implicit support of their respective communities so they bring shame on their communities. We are seeing that, when some communities have handed over poachers," says Graham.

Success with such initiatives varies widely, as some Kenyan tribes have traditionally regarded elephants as nearly sacred while others might kill one as part of a rite of passage ceremony but abhor the idea of slaughter for commercial ends.

One fresh idea has enlisted the elephants themselves to help catch their poachers. Space for Giants is fitting some with a collar that holds a GPS and a telephone sim card. These have been programmed to send a text message to authorities if the elephant stops moving for a suspicious amount of time.

"It can't save an elephant but it can help you grab a group that are going to kill other elephants," says Graham.

2 comments on this story
by Stephen

This is the endgame for elephants, then. The world's middle classes are more predacious than Tyrannosaurus Rex, and infinitely more stupid. While there's space on the planet for them it seems there's no space for giants, or the thousands of other species already exterminated, or in the process, by human superstition or infantile self-gratification. Wasn't there a shoot-poachers-on-sight policy in Kenya (or Uganda) at one time? I'm all for street theatre but direct action has its appeal too.

April 20, 2012 @ 9:43am
by Evan

African elephants should be culled in a sustainable manner. There are parts of Africa where there are far too many elephants, resulting in widespread destruction of their habitat that threatens other wildlife as well as local human populations. Reliable regional-specific data is needed to guide more effective targeted culling and illegal poaching policies.

April 22, 2012 @ 8:13am
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