The number of Elephants in Africa including Kenya over the past 75 years has declined dramatically. These elephants which are decreasing rapidly every year never get a happy ending. According to Experts, 96 elephants are killed across Africa every day thanks to poachers. At the start of 2013, a family of 12 elephants including several mothers with unweaned infants were killed in a Kenyan wildlife reserve and their tusks were hacked off by poachers. Recently, five elephants appearing to be a family were also gunned-down at national park, Tsavo and their tusks chopped out. Little Simotua, a baby elephant was currently found barely alive wandering, lost and alone, through central Kenya’s Rumuruti Forest. The continuous mass killing of elephants is not only crushing the conservation community in African, it is also limiting the chances of our future generations seeing live elephant. It is quite worrying as the killing of elephants might never cease as long as the wounding and depressing Asian demand for ivory continues to linger. More worryingly, Kenya’s government caught in a disruptive election cycle, seem not to notice. A handful of wildlife rangers were demoted or suspended. To date, no one has been prosecuted.
However, a strikingly different action was taken last week, when five elephants were gunned down in the same national park, Tsavo. Skillful chasing teams with sniffer dogs carried out an organised search for their killers. Just within a few hours, two Kenyans suspected of conspiring with the poachers were in custody.
Afterwards, Professor Judi Wakhungu, Kenya’s new minister in charge of wildlife, dedicated her life to helping the elephants. She flew down to join the search for the rest of the gang, and to sign off on whatever was required to arrest everybody involved in the heinous act. Professor Wakhungu, an academic with a background in petroleum geology and a PhD in energy resources management poured out her true emotions to The Independent in her first interview with a British newspaper since she took over office in May 2013, saying the following:
It was shocking, deeply shocking, We’re still reeling from losing these five elephants; it’s the worst incident for a long time. It’s my job to stop this menace, and I want to be there to show the government i’m committed to this, to boost the morale of the rangers, to help however we can.”
Professor Wakhungu, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for the environment and natural resources,reveals that despite the fact conservation is her “number one area of responsibility, she is not a professional.
Many people who are also advocating for the prevention of wildlife are hugely commending her hands-on attention, which was exclusively required. With their combined hard work, they hope to control the number of elephants killed for their ivory in Kenya which leapt from an average of 70 each year in the mid-2000s, to almost 400 in 2012 and it is still more than halved, to 164 in 2014.
But with a single elephant tusk selling on the black market in China for as much as $100,000 to $200,000, the poachers have a strong financial motive to keep up the slaughter.
Poachers working elsewhere across Africa are using Kenya more and more as a transit state to transfer their loot to Indian Ocean sea ports to ship it to the Far East. Rhinoceros populations, heavily poached in Southern Africa, are now under threat in Kenya as well.
The enormous numbers of less spectacular species such as warthogs and antelopes killed to make available illegal “bushmeat” markets in Nairobi can’t be overlooked. These poachers have been acting in different wicked ways and the few apprehended were charged with what Professor Wakhungu described as “ridiculous” fines so low as to be no discouragement to the hard-hearted poachers. That however turned a new leaf to people’s shock within a few months of her resuming office.
The great woman accepted quickly a powerful wildlife law that had been “a work in progress for 20 years” according to her which allows both the government and conservationists to be greatly involved in the complicated task with differing approaches. In her words:
We were very clear about our sincerity… we wanted very high penalties, we wanted a real disincentive for the poachers,”
Within weeks, a Chinese ivory smuggler who might previously have faced a £200 wrist-slap was instead sentenced to a £150,000 fine or seven years in a Kenyan prison. He could not pay, and remains behind bars today.
Feisal Ali Mohammed, allegedly one of East Africa’s poaching kingpins, was caught in December. Attempts by his lawyers to have him bailed have failed as the frowning face of Kenya’s judiciary renders all attempts unsuccessful. “I say, keep them locked up,” Professor Wakhungu added. Sentences under Kenya’s new Wildlife Conservation and Management Act are the most rigid in Africa.
In May, Professor Wakhungu invented a wildlife forensics laboratory, the first in eastern Africa, to analyse samples from kill sites to offer more proof with which to prosecute poachers. She says:
“We still have to work better in law enforcement,” . “We need to educate the judiciary that this is a serious, economic crime, that affects all of Kenya.
I’m doing my best to give [rangers] the latest tech, the night-vision goggles, better vehicles, better communications. The poachers have this stuff, it’s a tough war, our side needs to come armed appropriately, too.”
The conservation community is still not convinced this aggressive response is the most effective. Many of them rather believe more in transitioning and altering in better ways the “hearts and minds” of the communities living among the animals, where the poachers recruit foot soldiers with promises of easy earnings. Professor Wakhungu said
It is true, we are seeing more rewards with the carrot than the stick,” . She encourages programmes that deliver tangible benefits from wildlife left alive rather than poached, with tourism helping to pay to lease land for conservation, or to fund schools and clinics.
It’s becoming easier and easier to illustrate the value of a live elephant compared to a dead one,” she said.
Professor Wakhungu admits that corruption is a big problem and stressed.
“It is an issue that the President has taken on squarely himself, and I know I have his support 500 per cent,”
We are dealing with corruption in a culturally sensitive way,” “We know we have to go slowly but effectively. There can be penalties if you try to rush people.”
Conservationists say that much of the credit for the new momentum lies with Professor Wakhungu.
She shoves that away by saying “It’s the conservationists who have allowed us to make these strides,”
There is so much better co-operation than before. At the beginning, I would be told, ‘this guy or that guy is a poacher’, and I would say, ‘chase him, get him’, and nothing would happen and we would reach a dead end.
Today, that’s different. That guy, we’re going after him all the way now.”