By Sarah Morrison
Joseph Maina had never seen an elephant up close before. The first time he looked into the eyes of one of Africa's giants, he was hacking off its tusks with an axe. The elephant was dead and he was ripping it apart to obtain ivory. He had been paid 500 Kenyan shillings, or a little over £3.50 for the work – twice his normal daily income.
The 47-year-old casual worker is now in a medium security prison. Unlike the majority of poachers who kill African elephants and leave them to rot in the bush, he was arrested the next day. The father of six is serving four and a half years inside Naivasha Prison. He wears a black and white striped uniform and sleeps with up to 80 other convicts on mattresses on the floor. He is one of around 800 inmates. He never thought he would end up here.
Statistically, he is unlucky. The poaching epidemic is now an internationally recognised crisis. More than 100 African elephants are killed every day and in 2011 alone, almost 12 per cent of the population was destroyed. But despite the fact that Kenya's elephant population has plummeted from around 167,000 to 35,000 in less than four decades, prosecution rates for wildlife crimes are shockingly low.
Around 2,000 people in Kenya are arrested every year for offences linked to poaching and trafficking, according to a study by conservation charity WildlifeDirect, which analysed records from around 15 courts in the country. But only 10 per cent of those arrested ended up in court (200) where more than half pleaded guilty. Despite this, only one in 20 received a jail sentence.
At Makadara court – which handles those arrested at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport – less than 7 per cent of people caught with ivory or rhino horn were put behind bars. Paula Kahumbu, who carried out the research, said the statistics show a clear pattern: "Even though the conviction rate is high, very few go to prison."
As for Maina, from Nyandarua County, he said very few poachers know killing an elephant can lead to jail. "I am a casual worker. I do any type of business to raise money for my children. We don't have the money to pay their school fees. Men asked me to help remove ivory from an elephant. It was already dead and I was to get paid for the job. I had never really thought about elephants – people in my community think they are destructive. They destroy crops and can be dangerous."
He said the men poisoned the elephants by leaving contaminated food, often salt and ash mixed together, at known feeding areas. The lethal mixture gives the elephants diarrhoea and eventually kills them. The other poachers had promised him a cut of the ivory sale – he hoped it would be around 10,000 Kenyan shillings, or just over £70. "That day I saw an elephant for the first time up close. I felt something in my heart. I really felt for it. I still have the vision of that dead elephant in my mind. The other men were part of an organised group, who also sell game meat. Those involved in the actual poaching are rarely arrested. Perhaps if they knew they could end up in prison, it might deter them." More....