Saving the elephants: on the poaching frontline in Kenya

author photo
Joe Minihane
8/31/2018

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The evidence can be spotted across the reserve: a mother attentively nursing her calf in the shade of an acacia tree; another young bull, Anwar, taking great joy in draping his trunk across the 4x4 belonging to a group of awestruck safari goers. It’s hard to imagine these scenes just a few years ago, and it’s all the result of locals and STE working together.

“It's a myth that the Chinese are doing the actual poaching,” says Saba’s husband Frank, who I meet at STE’s research centre after my game drive. “They might be buying it, but they're not doing it themselves.

“The poachers are usually the local people, which is why this community work is absolutely essential. If we're going to solve this, you can't just focus on anti-poaching. You need to take on the trafficking networks.”

To bring down the traffickers and the ivory trade, STE has gone on a charm offensive. It’s teamed up with Chinese celebrities, including Chinese NBA star Yao Ming, inviting them to Samburu to see the elephants roaming the plains so they can spread the word about it back home. It’s also opened a dialogue with Chinese state media.

“Xinhua (China’s state news agency) wouldn't report on ivory. But we got the head of news here with five journalists, who did a series of reports. Now it's a conversation that can be had.”

Elephants represent the fabric of life – how we look after them reflects on all of us

On top of that, STE has set up an intern programme to bring young Chinese researchers to Kenya to help with its work collaring and identifying elephant populations all over the continent.

“We're beginning to see the first signs of light,” says Saba. “The Chinese government has committed to shut down its domestic ivory trade in 2017. Once President Xi said they'd ban it, it showed their seriousness.”

All 34 licensed ivory factories in China were closed in March 2017, with 130 shops set to close their doors by the end of the year. As a result, ivory prices plummeted to $730 per kilo, from $2,200 per kilo in 2014, according to a STE report, which was released after my visit.

Despite this positive news, there are more threats around the corner. Plans to build a major highway across Kenya could affect migration routes, says Frank, while the nation’s lightning–paced population growth, set to almost double to 80 million by 2050, may lead to increased human and elephant conflict.

As we head back out into the bush, it’s impossible not to be lost in the majesty of Samburu. Baboons cackle and clamber through dead trees. Lazy crocs pause on the side of muddy pools, their sharp–toothed jaws gawping wide to stay cool in the beating heat of the afternoon. Meanwhile, the elephants search for water amid the reserve’s dusty tracks and dry brush.

I ask Saba if she’s optimistic about the creatures she so clearly loves. “I’m optimistic because I have to be,” she says. “To me elephants represent the fabric of life – how we look after them reflects on all of us.”

Joe Minihane travelled to Samburu with Scenic Air Safaris as part of their new nine–day endangered species itinerary. For more information, visit scenicairsafaris.com.

Header image: Mudflap DC/Flickr. Image credits top to bottom (left–right):

Lucia y Marcos

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Bob the Lomond

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Joe Barbosa

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MudflapDC

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MudflapDC

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Ray Morris

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Ruth_W

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Joe Barbosa

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Aftab Uzzaman

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Ex Pat

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