By Martin Fletcher
The war to save the Elephants
We could smell the elephant’s carcass before we saw it—a nauseating stench of decomposing animal matter polluting the pure air of the Kenyan bush. We could even hear the carcass, or at least the buzzing of the thick black canopy of flies that covered it. But the sight of it still came as a shock.
The 40-year-old bull had been moving north to avoid the worst of the rainy season when he was shot in his front leg and chest by poachers. He escaped from his human predators, but four days later he lay down and died in the shade of an acacia tree. That was a week ago. In life he would have weighed six tons or more, but his flesh had been devoured by jackals and hyenas. His tusks, each weighing more than 20 kilograms, had been removed by rangers. His eye sockets were empty. White bones protruded from beneath his leathery grey skin. The contents of his stomach had oozed into the red sandy earth.
We stared in silence, appalled that such a magnificent creature could be reduced to something so vile. The elephant’s carcass was an apt metaphor for the avarice that killed it. It was contaminating the air and ground around it, just as China’s hunger for ivory is corrupting Africa. The continent’s elephants are being massacred
Its conflicts inflamed and its governments subverted so that China’s swelling middle classes can flaunt their wealth by buying ivory knicknacks. Generations hence, this slaughter of the planet’s largest terrestrial mammals will surely be seen as one of the great transgressions of our age.
I was shown the carcass during the 48 hours I spent with “9-1”, one of two elite 12-man anti-poaching squads deployed by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), a confederation of 26 community conservancies with headquarters at the lewa wildlife conservancy in northern Kenya. Together those conservancies cover an area larger than Wales—9,000 square miles of steep, forested hills, majestic plains, vast skies and horizons as broad as the sea. This is storybook Africa, a veritable Garden of Eden complete with good, evil and abundant temptation.
The men of 9-1 live for days on end in a Toyota Land Cruiser, jolting down deeply-rutted tracks, trekking through the bush, sleeping under tarpaulins and subsisting on a diet of potatoes, rice and maizemeal. They carry semi-automatic rifles, night vision equipment, GPS navigation systems and two-way radios. They are supported by two planes and a helicopter, a 24-hour operations room, tracker dogs, a network of paid informants and more than 500 local scouts. They also have the active support of most of the conservancies’ inhabitants—villagers and nomadic herdsmen who have come to realise that preserving wildlife is much better than killing it because it generates tourist dollars.
The squad has a formidable reputation. Over the past four years it has caught or killed around 40 poachers. But the challenge it faces is simply too great. The NRT lost 87 elephants to poachers in 2011, 108 in 2012 and about 70 in the first ten months of this year, some of which were killed with ammunition stolen from a nearby British army training base. Those are just the known deaths. Ian Craig, the hunter-turned-conservationist who founded the NRT, says the real number is probably double that; and on the evidence of the time I spent with 9-1, I can well believe it.
After leaving the carcass we were caught in a flash flood that left our Land Cruiser axle-deep in mud as darkness fell. We spent five hours digging it out by torchlight, then slept in the open. Early the next day we sped south to a town called Wamba, a charmless collection of breezeblock shacks with a Wild West feel and signs announcing the “Joyland Bar and Butchery”, “The Hollywood Massive Stores” and “Minneapolis Beauty Salon”. A poacher had been caught there trying to sell two tusks for roughly £160 a kilogram—a fraction of the $2,000 or more per kilogram they would have fetched in China. The tusks were so blackened, scarred and unappealing that it is hard to imagine they could be so coveted.
The poacher, a thin, frightened man of 28 from outside the NRT whose dyed red hair signified that he was a Samburu warrior, was held in Wamba’s spartan police station. He claimed to have found the tusks lying by a road. He would appear in court the following day, and would probably receive a paltry fine. The men of 9-1 were disgusted. They prefer to kill poachers than arrest them because they either bribe their way out of trouble or receive fines worth a fraction of the ivory they have stolen. “If we just arrest them they go and pay money and come poaching again,” Jackson Loldikir, the squad’s leader, complained.
The following morning we headed north up the highway to Ethiopia which had recently been resurfaced by several hundred Chinese workers. The incidence of elephant poaching had spiked while they were there. Cattle herders had reported seeing a dying elephant deep in the bush. Sure enough, we found the carcass of a mature female lying in a clearing. She, too, had been shot in the chest but escaped her assailants. It was another sickening sight. Using an axe, local NRT scouts had chopped half her head away to remove her tusks before the poachers took them. Her severed trunk lay in the dirt nearby. Her stomach was swelling in the heat. She was lactating when she died, suggesting she had recently given birth. “I’d like to kill the poachers like they killed this elephant,” Ali Konchoro, one of the squad, muttered.
Nor did the carnage end there. As we returned to Lewa that afternoon the NRT’s other anti-poaching squad, “9-2”, reported two more dead elephants, one male and one female, with their tusks removed. The next morning, as I was leaving for Nairobi, Craig received word of yet another slain bull elephant, and of a confrontation when villagers prevented the poachers taking its tusks. “It will be like this for the next three months, one elephant after another,” he said, referring to the rainy season and its aftermath. In four years, he added, the NRT had lost a fifth of its elephant population. Though the NRT had every advantage —generous Western donors, a $1m-quasi-military security operation and strong community support—it still it could not defeat the poachers. The most it could hope to do was contain them.
However dire the crisis in the NRT, it is even worse elsewhere in Africa. Across the continent as many as 35,000 elephants a year, or nearly a hundred a day, are being killed. National parks—the supposed sanctuaries of these creatures—have become their graveyards. The tusks that ensured their survival for millennia have become their death warrants as international crime syndicates, terrorist groups, rebel militias and renegade soldiers have embraced a low-risk, high-profit trade in “white gold” worth billions of dollars a year. More....