By Frank Mutulu
On a warm afternoon on May 15, rangers from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) stood around the carcass of a felled elephant on the slopes of the iconic mountain, Mount Kenya.
The look of defeat on their faces told it all – poachers had one-upped them once again. A 46-year old elephant believed to be the oldest one roaming the Kenyan wilderness had been killed by poachers and its tusks removed.
Though the elephant, known as Mountain Bull, had been fitted with a GPS-GSM collar, this system had been tampered with and did little to stop the poachers.
“The GPS tracking system had been removed and we noticed a few days ago that the bull had not moved from its last reported position,” said conservationist Ian Craig.
The case of Mountain Bull is not isolated. It is just the latest in a string of poaching incidents that have hit Kenya. For the past ten years the Kenyan government and its agencies have been battling the poaching menace, in which Kenya’s elephants and rhinos are particularly targeted, ostensibly for their ivory.
Statistics from the Kenya Wildlife Service website indicate that carcasses of illegally killed elephants numbered well below 100 in the years prior to 2003. A sudden trend emerged where the numbers spiked, and in 2009, a total of 381 carcasses of illegally killed elephants were discovered. The numbers kept surging at an alarming rate.
In just the first four months of 2014, an alarming 137 elephants and 24 rhinos were killed. All carcasses were discovered with their tusks or horns chopped off.
The eastern nations of China and Taiwan are believed to be the biggest markets for ivory. While the ivory trade is illegal in Kenya, it remains legal in China, Taiwan and other Asian nations. The rise in Chinese involvement in infrastructure projects in Kenya and other parts of Africa has been linked with the surge in poaching incidents.
How the ivory gets past the various trade checkpoints en route to its final destination remains a mystery. However, this smuggling is largely attributed to official corruption on the part of Kenyan border and customs agencies.
Once in a while a haul of illegal ivory is seized by authorities. In October 2013, about two tons (4,400 pounds) of ivory were seized in Nairobi, camouflaged in a shipment of peanuts, and destined for the port city of Mombasa.
A similar haul of three tons was seized in Cambodia on May 9 and was believed to have originated from Kenya.
Estimates from the KWS indicate that the total population of elephants in Kenya as of 2013 stood at 38,000, the rhino population at 1,025. There is gripping fear that these figures could dwindle to zero in the next five years if the current trend continues.
If it continues at this pace, poaching could cause great harm to one of the greatest visitor attractions in Africa, and weaken the already ailing Kenyan tourism industry.
Kenya’s economy relies heavily on tourism. The industry is the East African state’s second largest earner of foreign exchange, after agriculture.
Tourism is in turn heavily dependent on Kenya’s varied wildlife, especially the so-called Big Five: lions, elephants, buffaloes, leopards, and rhinos. Tourists from countries where these animals can only be viewed in zoos find great pleasure in seeing them in their natural habitat.
The collapse of tourism due to dwindling game numbers would create a large dent in Kenya’s revenue purse. It is on this premise that some industry players have called on the Kenyan government to declare elephant and rhino poaching a national disaster.
Famed conservationist Richard Leakey said in March 2014 that poaching poses a great risk to Kenya’s economy and security.
“The President should declare elephant and rhinos national treasures under protection of the State,” said Dr Leakey, while addressing the press at a Nairobi hotel. Dr Leakey once served as director of Kenya Wildlife Service.