The battle for elephants has been raging on many fronts this year. In Kenya, our red line was crossed by the death of Changilla, a Samburu-born bull with a fighting spirit. It got worse as we watched a Chinese national walking away with a $350 fine for a $16,000 crime and the blood of elephants on his hands. So we began a year of marching around the country, of reforming poachers, of writing letters to the President of Kenya, of standing up and shouting out for many of our beloved elephants who we knew and have now lost. Slowly but surely, the victories began to trickle in.
The President’s inaugural speech in April in which he promised to fight poaching was the first major win. That his wife, the First Lady, joined in the struggle was a sure indication of the President’s commitment. Much credit should go to Paula Kahumbu, CEO of Wildlife Direct, whose campaign HANDS OFF OUR ELEPHANTS has brought new energy and awareness to the issue in Kenya, and has been backed by the Kenya Elephant Forum. The importance of unified action of this type to save elephants can’t be overstated.
As a result the Director of Public Prosecutions has taken wildlife crime cases into his own docket – another step in the right direction. But, even after parliament passed new legislation allowing punitive sentencing of 15 years for wildlife crime and 10M shilling ($115,000) fines up from 40,000/- ($450), not much changed in the following weeks in the courts of law. Offenders were still walking away with the slap-on-the-wrist fines. A sense of despair at poor implementation of the new laws began creeping in, especially when foreign smugglers time and time again pleaded guilty and then walked away. It felt like Kenya’s heritage was being carried off to far away lands and there was no will to stop it.
This August, something finally gave. Chinese national Chen Biemei, 30, was jailed for 31 months for trying to smuggle 6.9kg of worked ivory she had disguised as 15 bags of Kenyan macadamia nuts. During sentencing, the magistrate noted that the culprit had ‘malicious intentions and a guilty mind’ that necessitated a custodial sentence to reign on the menace.
Kenyans celebrated the bells of justice beginning to toll. “A precedent has been set by this sentencing,” said a Kenya Wildlife Service spokesman. “It is a sign that our judiciary is waking up to the scale of the crisis and the damage that is being done to our animals.”
It is our hope that the bells will keep ringing, sending a clear warning to anyone stepping onto Kenyan soil with “malicious intentions” towards our elephants, which are a symbol of Kenyan culture, a pillar of the economy and the engineers of the beautiful landscape for which Kenya is justly famous.