Through the hard work of Save the Elephants and our partners in Northern Kenya, particularly the Kenya Wildlife Service, Northern Rangelands Trust and Lewa Conservancy, we have seen a remarkable change from the poaching disaster that unfolded from 2009-2013. The story of Samburu and its elephants is an incredible story of conservation success. Despite stubbornly high ivory prices, poaching rates here have substantially reduced over the past year, and 2014 was the first year of increase, where we had more babies born than elephants dying, since 2008! I can’t express how much it means to see this poaching epidemic start to show signs of defeat; to not spend my time in Kenya doing post mortem investigations of elephants I have known for years; to once again get to focus on trying to gain insight into the complex minds, behavior and lives of these wonderful animals!
But we certainly are not out of the woods yet. Despite all the signs of success, we still experience the tragedy of poaching on occasion. Sadly, we lost three elephants last week to illegal killing, including the matriarch of the Native Americans named Sioux. However, this killing was not the typical killing for ivory that is plaguing elephants across Africa. The poachers were hunting for uchawi, black magic trophies that give them protection during tribal warfare that they started the day following the killing. They killed Sioux and her nephew and cousin to remove their private parts and trunk tips, which they used in ceremonies and hung in trees along the battle front, in the belief that such an act would provide them strength and protection to defeat their enemies. These beliefs are deeply rooted and hard to overcome, and in this case resulted in the useless death of Sioux. The killers than proceeded to ambush their enemies, resulting in the death of six people.
The Native Americans are one of our big bond groups, having been led by Sioux for the last ten years after the original matriarch passed away of natural causes. She was a wonderfully calm individual, that led her family far and wide through the southwestern section of the ecosystem, but returned to the park regularly so we could monitor how they were fairing. Through the leadership of Sioux, they largely avoided the poaching that has destroyed so many groups. But this luck or skill has come to a tragic end.
Northern Kenya has always been wild country, prone to drought and warfare. Originally referred to as the Northern Frontier District by the colonial administration, this vast area is inhabited by diverse tribes that are often at war over precious water and grazing sources. While very hard on the communities, these tribal conflicts for resources can result in buffers between ethnic groups, that wildlife advantageously use (similar to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea). But using war buffer zones is risky, as such volatile areas are unpredictable.
While we mourn the loss of Sioux, the fact that the poachers did not remove her tusks is testament to the success we are having with the local communities around here. Despite illegally killing these elephants, the poachers left the valuable ivory. This killing was not for money. It was for something more valuable to them-survival during warfare. We hope this rare motivation for killing will not rear its head again.
The Native Americans are back in the park now, staying together in a tight group. Sioux’s eldest daughter is watching closely over her younger siblings, and they are all healthy and fairing well. Despite what they experienced and what humans did to them, they are not mad at us. It never ceases to amaze me how they differentiate between people, recognizing the threatening from harmless, the bad from good.
Rest in peace Sioux.