By David Frey
Uhuru lay in a clearing surrounded by acacias, far from any roads, legs bent as if ready to run. He was headless, and whatever glory he had when he was alive had bled from the open wound.
The elephant’s death was the latest evidence of a growing poaching menace that threatens to erase the gains elephants have made since they were slaughtered by the thousands in Kenya in the 1980s.
“Elephants everywhere are at risk now,” says Josephat Saiko, a member of the anti-poaching team that found this 35-year-old elephant below Mount Kilimanjaro, its head hacked off for its tusks. In the ’80s, worldwide conservation efforts scuttled the ivory trade. Elephants, once on the brink of vanishing from Kenya’s landscapes, resurged. But the ivory trade is back with a vengeance. Poachers have returned to Kenya, and the future for the country’s elephants may be more perilous than ever.
“Elephants are getting killed again,” says Cynthia Moss, whose 40-year-old Amboseli Elephant Research Project is the longest-running study of wild elephants. Based in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, the organization has identified, named and tracked elephants and created extensive family trees. The elephant named Uhuru, the Swahili word for “freedom,” was one of hundreds of elephants identified by the research group.
When poaching increased in the ’80s, conservationists sounded a global alarm. Illegal hunters had slashed Kenya’s elephant population from 167,000 to just 19,000 to feed a demand for ivory, mostly among Western countries. Activists’ work resulted in a shoot-on-sight policy against poachers in Kenya, a global ban on the ivory trade and an international campaign against buying ivory.
“You really felt like it was a war,” Moss says. “Now it’s all raising its head again.” Recent changes to the ivory ban, known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), have allowed southern African nations, where elephants are more abundant, to resume selling ivory. That opens the door for poachers elsewhere in Africa to sell tusks to buyers who keep questions to a minimum. The changes also allow certain countries to buy ivory, including China, where a booming middle class has fostered a seemingly bottomless demand for luxury items like ivory that had long been out of reach.
New rules and new markets have set the stage for an unprecedented raid on elephants. The situation is worst in central Africa, where elephants are killed for meat as well as ivory and governments are less interested in protecting them. Only about 400,000 elephants still roam the continent, less than a third of their numbers in 1979. In 2010, poaching deaths reached their highest numbers in eight years. More....