Elephants are renowned for their intelligence, which might explain why there are so many of them in Kenya. On a continent where wildlife slaughter is rampant, Kenya’s conservation record is extraordinary.
Elephant poaching has plummeted 90% and there is a 95% conviction rate of poachers and ivory traders, who can be sentenced to 20 years in jail.
However, Kenya’s success has driven the poachers to SA.
WildlifeDirect founder and Kenyan conservationist Dr Paula Kahumbu was in SA this month to investigate ways of replicating Kenya’s success.
She warns that elephants are threatened with extinction, with an average of 96 killed every day — one every 15 minutes.
"Elephants move across borders. They are part of our African identity and it’s really important that we demand that our governments take action to keep our animals safe," she says.
"We need to create an army of conservationists across Africa and create a sense of duty for saving our species. And we’re trying to create global awareness to stop the demand for ivory, because until there is no demand, elephant will still be poached," says Kahumbu.
SA only has 25,000 to 30,000 elephants and its game reserves are well protected, so poaching wasn’t a big issue until recently, she says.
WE NEED TO CREATE AN ARMY OF CONSERVATIONISTS ACROSS AFRICA AND A SENSE OF DUTY FOR SAVING OUR SPECIES
"If you’re an ivory dealer, you’re going to go where the defences are weaker and there are more elephants to annihilate," Kahumbu adds.
"Tanzania and Mozambique have borne the brunt of it, along with Congo, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Gabon. Those populations are becoming wiped out, so poachers and dealers are moving south."
SA has sophisticated rhino-poaching syndicates, and organised criminals can opportunistically switch their attention to another species.
In 2008, a one-off sale of ivory was allowed — from animals that had died naturally in SA, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. It was sold to China and Japan. It made ivory available and desirable again.
"The sale lifted the stigma of ivory being illegal and in China it was imported by the government and carved in government factories," Kahumbu says.
"It unleashed a massive, insatiable demand in a country of 1.4-billion people. There’s no way Africa’s elephants can satisfy the Chinese market, so the price of ivory exploded from $120/kg to over $3,000/kg, and criminal cartels got involved because the profitability is so huge. We are driving these animals to extinction through demand for trinkets."
WildlifeDirect succeeded in Kenya by organising a Hands Off Our Elephants campaign with first lady Margaret Kenyatta. "Hands off our Elephants was saying that this is a global problem, but these are our elephants and we mobilised people through social media, marches, demonstrations in the street and petitions."
Now Kenyan people blow the whistle on poachers, report strangers in rural areas, and report people wearing ivory. Poachers began confessing and quitting because they couldn’t stand being ostracised by their community. "We stigmatised poachers and dealers as despicable people and put their pictures in the newspapers in wanted ads, and the impact was very powerful," Kahumbu says.
Wildlife organisations and NGOs rewarded areas where poaching declined by building schools and clinics.
While Kenya still loses about 60 elephants a year, in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve 70,000 elephants were slaughtered between 2007 and 2014, according to the WWF.
Botswana’s department of wildlife and national parks has found 101 poached carcasses so far this year. In SA, 68 elephants were poached in 2017, compared to none in 2013. The Kruger National Park could lose almost 100 elephants this year, according to the Southern African Wildlife College.
The future of this keystone species is at a tipping point, and its loss would have far-reaching effects on a healthy ecosystem.
During the dry season, elephants use their tusks to dig for water, which provides water for other animals. Their dung is rich in minerals and fibre, as only about 50% of what they eat is digested, making it a good fertiliser and food source for other creatures. Their tree-ploughing creates gaps in the vegetation that allows new plants to grow, opens up pathways and makes seeds and roots accessible for other animals.
WildlifeDirect is supported by the Amarula Trust, which marked World Elephant Day earlier this month with elephant-sized ice sculptures in Johannesburg, Sao Paulo and Toronto. The melting ice symbolised how elephants are disappearing while people watch.
"In many ways they are better than us and they deserve our work to protect them," says Kahumbu.