Saving the elephants: on the poaching frontline in Kenya

The African elephant is under constant threat from poachers, and numbers have fallen by one third in seven years. Joe Minihane journeyed to the Samburu reserve in Kenya to meet its elephants and the people trying to save them.

His trunk sways like a pendulum as he turns and spots our 4×4. Slowly, silently, he begins padding towards us.

“Don’t move a muscle,” whispers Saba from the driving seat. “Just let him come to us.” I watch as this young male elephant begins circling our vehicle, turning my head slowly as he passes and lets out a grunt, eyeing us with interest. His scent is pungent, his hide wet.

“He’s secreting from his temporal glands,” says Saba, as our interlocutor walks off towards the nearby dry riverbed. “It means he’s in musth.” Musth, she explains, is a short period when bull elephants become acutely hormonal. High testosterone levels mean they can be dangerous.

I’m in Samburu, northern Kenya, exploring the frontline in the battle to save these majestic creatures from the menace of ivory poaching.

Saba Douglas Hamilton is my guide. With her father, Iain, and her husband, Frank Pope, she runs the world-renowned Save The Elephants (STE) charity from here in the heart of the east Africa bush, doing vital, pressing conservation work.

It’s estimated that 22,000 elephants are killed annually for their tusks

There’s no denying that the African elephant is in crisis. Between 2007 and 2014, numbers fell by 30 percent across the continent, according to the Great African Elephant Census. In September 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said elephants were experiencing their worst decline in 25 years. And there’s one key reason: poaching.

It’s estimated that 22,000 elephants are killed annually for their tusks. Despite an international ban on trading ivory coming into force in 1989, legally admissible sales from countries such as Botswana and South Africa in the early 2000s, plus illegal trafficking, especially into China, means it’s still big business.

“Kenya has done well compared with other African countries when it comes to stopping poaching,” says Saba. But that’s not to say Samburu has been unaffected. In December 2012 alone, 28 elephants were killed on the reserve.

A mother attentively nurses her calf in the shade of an acacia tree; another young bull, Anwar, takes great joy in draping his trunk across the 4x4 belonging to a group of awestruck safari goers

“That was the low point,” Saba says. Afterwards, STE began working more closely with local communities to find out who was behind the poaching, the two parties joining together to make a concerted effort to stop the killing.

“The real turning point came in 2013,” she adds. “The elders didn’t realise that poachers came from their tribes. Once they found out, 19 people turned themselves in.” As a result, there were more births than deaths among elephants in Samburu in 2014 and STE has become intrinsically tied to the people who call the reserve home.

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 4×4 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/Flickr; Bob the Lomond/FlickrJoe Barbosa/FlickrMudflapDC/FlickrMudflapDC/Flickr; Ray Morris/Flickr; Ruth_W/FlickrJoe Barbosa/Flickr; Aftab Uzzaman/Flickr; Ex Pat/Flickr.

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