By Antonia Filmer
Kenya’s elephant population now stands at only 11,000 and lions at 2,000. The ivory’s value to the poacher is $170 per kg and the final black-market value is $2,000/kg.
Kenya lost to poachers six elephants at the Tsavo National Park just in the past one week, and this despite the arrest of 1,430 elephant poaching suspects last year. Poaching is proving to be a challenge for a country where tourists flock to see "the big five" — the elephant, the rhino, the lion, leopard and the buffalo. Tourism contributes to around 11%-12% of Kenya's GDP and is the country's second largest source of foreign investment after tea. President Uhuru Kenyatta torched 15 tons of illicit ivory on 3 March, World Wildlife Day, as part of his ongoing commitment to ending ivory trade. In December 2014, Kenya passed a new legislation, upping the fine for possession of ivory to $250,000 and up to 15 years in prison. But the 2008 decision taken by the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), to allow the "one off" sale of ivory stockpiles to the Far East, is proving to be catastrophic for elephants: the market for raw ivory from butchered elephants for carvings has resurfaced. Today, the ivory's value to the poacher is $170 per kg, whereas the final black-market value is $2,000 per kg. Kenya's elephant population now stands at only 11,000 and lions at 2,000. The declining tiger population in the world has led to a demand for lion body parts for Chinese medicines.
The conflict between animal and human habitats is also proving to be a threat to elephants and lions. Farmers grow vegetables and maize — which are irresistible to elephants — even if it risks injury. Studies show elephant droppings before a raid contain seven times more stress hormones. The farmers aim to kill the raiding elephant and sell the flesh. Bushmeat is also a thriving crime in Kenya. Rising food prices and crop failures have led to an increased pan-Africa trade and consumption of giraffe, ostrich, zebra and antelope. In 2013, in the Maasai Mara Reserve, over 5,000 snares were recovered and around 3,000 animals were poached at the Tsavo National Park, equivalent to nearly 650,000 kg of raw meat, worth five-seven times of this on the black market.
Some poachers are also known to have associations with the Somali extremist group, Al-Shabaab and there is acknowledgement that, to some extent, poaching is funding terrorism on Africa's East Coast. The weapons and night vision equipment being used in poaching are expensive, suggesting that these are being funded by organised crime.
Amidst all this, Richard Bonham is being celebrated all over Africa for his dedication to wildlife, its eco-system and for his attempt to stop poaching. In 1986, Bonham negotiated the first tourism land lease agreement in Kenya, on community owned land; in 1992, Bonham's vision created Kenya's first community game scout programme, the Maasailand Preservation Trust (MPT), with built-in education, healthcare and conservation awareness classes for his rangers. Professional rangers number 300 now. In 2010, Bonham and the English filmmaker Nick Brandt set up an anti-poaching charity, Big Life. Brandt was working with Michael Jackson and had become disenchanted with the triteness of Hollywood. He turned to the iconic photography of elephants and became inconsolable when the matriarch of his most famous portrait was poached with two other bulls. In New York, Brandt raised $500,000 within a week to develop innovations for Big Life, including a Rapid Response Team (RRT), with unique Belgian German Shepherds as tracker dogs, infallibly bringing the RRT precisely to the door of the criminal. Big Life patrols the skies at night, gathering evidence with a thermal camera from a tiny super cub plane. In 2014, the territory under their protection lost only four elephants, three of the pairs of tusks were recovered and the perpetrators were brought to justice.
Big Life is not only fighting poachers, bushmeat traders and mediating among angry farmers, it's also fighting local bribery, corruption and unhelpful NGOs, who sometimes have funds but are not entirely connected with events on the ground, as a result of which their monies are often not used to the best advantage.
As lions, leopards and cheetahs devoured the Maasai cattle and goats, Bonham and the Maasailand Preservation Trust, with the local community, conceived a first-of-its-kind Predator Compensation Scheme (PCF), balancing the costs and benefits of living with wildlife, replacing conflict and retaliation with tolerance and cohabitation. The success achieved by PCF is unequalled in African conservation. In Big Life territory, the killing of lions has virtually stopped. In contrast, 200 lions were killed on the neighbouring ranches where the PCF programme does not exist. Recently, Britain's Prince William awarded Richard Bonham the "Prince William Lifetime Award for Conservation" for his work with the Maasai community and elephants.