Kenya: How Can We Change Attitudes to Save Elephants?


Dr Paula Kahumbu, The Star

Date Published
In Kenya, as in most countries, elephants are at risk because the laws that exist to ensure their safety are ineffective; either due to lack of funding, lack of enforcement, corruption or some combination of these. If law enforcement is effective then all wildlife can flourish. In response to the crisis facing elephants, Kenya, in 2014, enacted new legislation with severe penalties, and introduced far-reaching legal reforms throughout the law enforcement chain. It has resulted in high level arrests and more effective prosecution, and for the first time, convicted poachers and ivory traffickers are being sentenced to lengthy jail terms; Kenya can no longer be considered a safe haven for ivory traffickers.
The Kenya Wildlife Service recently announced that poaching had declined by more than 50 per cent as a result of these reforms. But the success in Kenya may simply be a shifting of the battle front: as long as there is growing demand for ivory in Asia, African elephants will continue to be slaughtered across the continent. Once elephants have been wiped out in Congo and Tanzania, the battle front will swing back even more aggressively because the most easily available elephants will be in Kenya.
This is the reason why Richard Leakey and I travelled to Hong Kong, reputed to be the world’s largest market for ivory, to find out for ourselves what could be done to reduce the demand for ivory and therefore its price.
Over the course of five days, we spoke to more than 3,000 people including government officials, the media, school children, the business community and conservation charities. We gave lectures, held meetings, and I even visited ivory shops. We showed pictures of dead elephants that reduced school children to tears, and we heard government officials report on efforts to preventing illegal ivory trade. Our most surprising meeting was with Hong Kong government officials who explained how strictly they were destroying seized ivory.
“We were very impressed by the commitment of the Government of Hong Kong to destroy all seized ivory. By the end of June, Hong Kong will have destroyed 30 tonnes of ivory! Kenya has only ever destroyed 12 tonnes of our own and that was in 1989. We criticize them, but they are actually doing much more than us,” said Dr Leakey.
Dr Richard Leakey speaks at a forum in Hong Kong. The writer, Dr Paula Kahumbu, holding an ivory at a shop in Hong Kong
However, in spite of this, conservation NGOs on the ground cautioned that the government of Hong Kong is not doing enough. According to Alex Hofford of Wild Aid, the scale of the demand is unfathomable; 25.3 million containers enter Hong Kong seaport annually, and only one per cent of these are checked. In addition, 47 million tourists from China visited Hong Kong in 2014, many of them purchase luxury goods including ivory. Moreover, despite the ivory destruction, the message has not deterred the buyers or sellers of ivory and brisk ivory business was going on. According to one NGO, this is facilitated by forging the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) certificates.
I went to two ivory shops to find out for myself. Richard Leakey would not accompany me as he said it would depress him. The shelves in the shops were stacked with small and medium carvings, jewellery and cheaply made figurines. In one shop, I found carvings that were clearly from Africa; they were African women figurines. The shop assistant confirmed that the sculptures were produced in Africa, and that he had imported them from London. He had a Cites certificate verifying that he imported the pieces in December 2014 and that the sculptures were pre-1920 which would make them pre-convention and perfectly legal. I feigned deep interest in a carving made by my ancestors, and offered to buy it to take it back to London. He was aghast and warned me that I could not take it out of Hong Kong despite the “official” Cites permit.
My personal assessment was that the carving could in fact be from recent ivory. I suspected the same of many of the raw tusks and recent carvings in his shop. These were not works of ancient art, they were not even beautiful. These were mass produced pieces including jewellery, carvings of Buddhist and Christian religious icons, and ironically, miniature elephants. I asked if I could buy earrings or chopsticks as gifts for friends, arguing that I would hide them in my suitcase and smuggle them into London. He aggressively warned me against it and said I would get caught and arrested. When I asked what the penalty would be, he said he had no idea.
Despite aggressive awareness campaigns against buying ivory, the demand for ivory in Hong Kong and mainland China is growing, prices are rising and so too is the killing of elephants . It’s easy to see why so many people are despondent about the future of elephants.
When we left Kenya, we had been told that reducing the demand for ivory in China and Hong Kong would be near impossible due to its strong cultural roots. The culture is strong, but that does not mean it cannot change. China, and indeed the world, has abandoned many cultural beliefs and attitudes from slavery, to foot binding and the rights of women.
The government officials that we met were keen to help. In one meeting, a Hong Kong official asked Dr Leakey: “What can we do to move the Hong Kong Government to ban ivory trade? How can we move the people to support it?” Leakey responded that Japanese attitudes were changed in the 1980s and like Japan, China and Hong Kong governments do not want to see Africa’s elephants go extinct.
Dr Leakey is persuaded that he can fast-track this attitude change through the voice of Brad Pitt who will be playing him in the Angelina Jolie-directed bio epic titled ‘Africa’. According to Leakey, “The film allows Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to say what needs to be said and to influence hundreds of millions of people. In buying ivory, the Chinese people may not be directly killing elephants, but by not buying ivory they can directly help to stop the killing. I am persuaded that the people of Hong Kong can be shamed into stopping the buying ivory.”
Leakey explains that ‘Africa’ will change behaviour because it is a love affair with elephants. It is due to be released at the end of 2016, but until then, an enormous amount of awareness and stronger law enforcement must be built across China, Hong Kong and other market countries. This cannot be done by one country or one organisation, but will require enormous cooperation across organisations and governments.