By Alex Shoumatoff
Highly emotional and completely guileless, elephants mourn their dead—and across Africa, they are grieving daily as demand from China’s “suddenly wealthy” has driven the price of ivory to $700 a pound or more. With tens of thousands of elephants being slaughtered each year for their tusks, raising the specter of an “extinction vortex,” Alex Shoumatoff travels from Kenya to Seattle to Guangzhou, China, to expose those who are guilty in the massacre—and recognize those who are determined to stop it.
Another carcass has been found. On the Kuku Group Ranch, one of the sectors allotted to the once nomadic Maasai that surround Amboseli National Park, in southern Kenya. Amboseli is home to some 1,200 elephants who regularly wander into the group ranches, these being part of their original, natural habitat. More than 7,000 Maasai live in scattered fenced-in compounds called bomas with their extended families and their cattle on Kuku’s 280,000 acres. Traditionally, the Maasai coexisted with their wildlife. They rarely killed elephants, because they revered them and regarded them as almost human, as having souls like us. Neighboring tribespeople believe that elephants were once people who were turned into animals because of their vanity and given beautiful, flashy white tusks, which condemned them, in the strangely truthful logic of myth, to be forever hunted and killed in the name of human vanity. And Maasai believe when a young woman is getting married and her groom comes to get her from her village she musn’t look back or she will become an elephant. “But in the last few years, everything has changed,” a member of the tribe told me. “The need for money has changed the hearts of the Maasai.”
In 2008, post-election ethnic violence followed by the global recession halved tourism to Kenya, making the wildlife in the parks even harder to protect. Then, in 2009, one of the worst droughts in living memory hit much of the country. More than 400 elephants in Amboseli died. The Maasai lost many of their cows and are still struggling, while the price of ivory is higher than ever, so increasing numbers of them are risking the misfortune that killing an elephant could bring on their families, according to their traditional thinking, and are getting into poaching. There are brokers just across the Tanzania border who are paying cash—around $20 a pound—for raw ivory and selling it to the Chinese. Or perhaps there is a series of transactions, a series of middlemen, but ultimately what is not being picked up by the Kenya Wildlife Service’s sniffing dogs at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, in Nairobi, is making its way by all kinds of circuitous routes to China, where raw ivory is now fetching $700 or more a pound. Ninety percent of the passengers who are being arrested for possession of ivory at Jomo Kenyatta are Chinese nationals, and half the poaching in Kenya is happening within 20 miles of one of the five massive Chinese road-building projects in various stages of completion. More....