By Tristan McConnell
Gangsters use poachers to make a killing in the ivory trade. What can stop the bloodshed?
Koyaso Lekoloi shot his first elephant in anger. The hundred or so that followed he killed for money. During nearly two decades as a poacher, bandit, thief, and alleged murderer Lekoloi killed more elephants than any other individual in northern Kenya until, tired of life on the run, he decided to give up poaching.
I met Lekoloi by the side of a dry riverbed just outside Samburu National Reserve in Kenya’s arid, craggy north. We sat on the ground beneath a towering acacia tree to talk. The sand flies buzzing in our ears didn’t seem to bother him. “I had a happy childhood,” Lekoloi began, speaking in the local Samburu language. The youngest of eight children born to the last of his father’s six wives, Lekoloi grew up herding livestock, like many young boys in rural Kenya. With a switch in his hand he would trail the family’s goats, cows, and donkeys as they sought out grass or leaves among the whistling thorn shrubs of the sandy East African bush. There were no schools in or near his village of Larisolo, an hour’s walk northwest of Archers Post, so formal education was neither offered nor sought. “I never even went to nursery school,” Lekoloi told me.
Lekoloi embodies a contemporary melding of African modernity and tradition. On his belt a long knife in a beaded scabbard was clipped next to a smartphone in a nylon holster. He wore knock-off designer jeans, a secondhand soccer shirt, and battered Nikes. At the same time, his wiry body revealed its familiarity with the land, bending around thorn branches as he walked, his large flat feet sure on the uneven ground, moving always with the pastoralist’s loping gait. His lips were pursed before the absence where his front teeth once were, lending him the impression of a man constantly suppressing a bemused smile, which perhaps he is.
As Lekoloi remembers it, his father once had hundreds of animals. Then drought and cattle raiding by gangs of young men from competing clans whittled away the herd until there were just five cows left. It was the early 1990s (he can’t be sure of the year) and Lekoloi was in his early teens (he’s not sure of his age either) when he decided something had to change.
Selling the last of his father’s cattle for 30,000 shillings (roughly $500 at the time), Lekoloi bought an AK-47 assault rifle and 60 bullets in two curved magazines from a gun trader who tapped the flow of small arms washing through the remote border areas of Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda. “That was the first time I had a gun to hold,” he said. “My plan was to go and raid livestock.”
Joining a successful raiding party proves a young man’s masculinity, bravery, and risk-taking prowess. It also gains him the cattle that are prized above all else, and are used to pay the bride-price when he marries.
When Lekoloi, the aspiring cattle raider and proud owner of a secondhand AK-47, got home he found that his mother, too, had taken matters into her own hands. Invoking the traditional social obligation of paran, she had demanded from better-off relatives – and was given – a cow and seven goats. Instead of raiding, Lekoloi went back to herding, the switch replaced by the rifle slung over his shoulder.
One day he and his small herd had the misfortune of stumbling upon an elephant. It charged, striking the family’s only cow with its long curved tusks and tossing it to the ground dead. “That same day I went to kill that elephant,” Lekoloi said. “I tracked it and I shot it three times.”
From then on he was an outlaw. Rangers from the Kenya Wildlife Service were after him for killing the elephant, and he retreated deep into the bush, far from home. According to Samburu traditional beliefs, elephants are part of the clan, almost like ancestors, and to kill them is taboo. But separated from his family and clan connections Lekoloi became dangerously free of social norms. “I became a wild man,” he said with a shrug and a glimmer of a smile.
Lekoloi joined cattle raids, robbed tourists, broke into homes and was charged with – and later acquitted of – the 1998 murder of an Italian missionary in Archers Post. He soon began to poach for a living. “When I killed that first elephant the rangers were asking, ‘Is the ivory still there?’ Then they came and picked the ivory and took it away. That is when I realized it must be important,” Lekoloi said. “Poaching became the dominant business for me.”
He became good at it, working with others in ad hoc poaching gangs. “We would aim for the joint behind the shoulder. Sometimes they died there and then. Other times we followed the trail of blood for hours. At first we just killed just anyhow, but over time I learned to choose the ones with the big tusks.”
Once, after killing a mother and her calf, he felt an unfamiliar sadness. But for the most part the killing of an elephant was a cause for celebration. “I felt happy, because I was getting money.”
After shooting an elephant dead he would slice off the trunk with a knife, chop the tusks out with an axe, and hide them. Later a friend would take the ivory to Isiolo, 25 miles south of Archer’s Post, and sell it to Kenyan traders who, then as now, operated in the town. “If I killed two or three elephants I might get 60 to 80,000 shillings for the tusks,” he said, a sum worth about $1,000 to $1,300 in the mid-1990s. An average sized African elephant tusk weighs between three and four kilograms, which means even in the 1990s Lekoloi was earning a fraction of the ivory’s worth. He knew little of the ivory’s market value and earned little from it, spending the money on guns, good times, and livestock to eat or herd. (Even today, though the black market price of ivory has skyrocketed to a high of more than $2,000 per kilo, poachers only earn around $100 a kilo.)
Nor did Lekoloi understand – or care much about – the global illicit trade he fuelled. He knew the tusks were taken by road from Isiolo to Mombasa, Kenya’s main port city. But, he said, “After that I didn’t care. For me it was only about the money.”
Seventeen years after he began poaching, Lekoloi stopped. He had grown tired of his existence as a moran, or warrior, a life stage that most men give up after their youth. He had grown envious of his peers who were married with children and who had property. He was fearful of the curses threatened by elders who wanted an end to Lekoloi’s one-man crime wave.
Four years ago Lekoloi took advantage of a government-backed amnesty and joined others in handing over his guns (at the time, an assault rifle and a belt-fed machine gun) and renouncing his criminal ways. “It was a surrender,” he said. “I wanted to settle down and have kids.”
Today Lekoloi is back pretty much where he started: He’s living in Larisolo again, in a mud and stick hut just like the one he grew up in. He has a modest herd of 13 goats, seven cows and two donkeys, and he has a wife and two small children. “I wasted my time as a poacher,” he said, “I made no money.”
I asked him whether he missed his days of notoriety. “Those days young men would praise me! I became so confident that I would always succeed,” he said proudly, before pausing and quickly adding: “But those days are gone. Now I’m a responsible father.”
Koyaso Lekoloi’s story is unique only in the scale of his depredations. The arc of his autobiography from herder to outlaw to herder again is almost archetypal for many poor young men in Africa today. Poachers like Lekoloi are the bloody end of an illegal ivory supply chain that stretches from Africa to Asia to North America. The links of that chain are oiled by corruption, greed, and exploitation, a combination that fuels the mass slaughter of elephants driving the species toward extinction in the wild.
A detailed study published in August 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that poachers had killed more than 100,000 elephants in the previous three years, outstripping the animal’s rate of reproduction. The study, led by Professor George Wittemyer of Colorado State University, was based on figures compiled by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) through its Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants program, which runs at sites across Central and East Africa, including Samburu. The study found poaching was reducing elephant numbers by 7 percent each year, more than cancelling out the 5 percent annual population increase from by new births. More....