The Environmental Warriors Standing up Against Poachers and Profiteers


Lance Richardson, New York Times

Date Published

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Every twenty minutes, an entire species becomes extinct. Rhino poaching has increased 7,700 per cent since 2007 — last year was a record — and their horns are now more valuable than cocaine or gold.“When I was born, there were 22,000 elephants in Garamba National Park, and 500 rhinos,” said Kate Brooks, a conflict photojournalist and director of The Last Animals, at the Women in the World New York Summit on Thursday. “Today there are zero rhinos. There are 1300 elephants. And there are more militia than there are giraffe.”

Speaking with Katty Kay from BBC World News America, Brooks was joined by Dr. Paula Kahumbu, CEO of Kenya’s WildlifeDirect, and Mélanie Gouby, an investigative journalist whose work came to prominence through 2014’s Oscar-nominated documentary Virunga, to discuss an escalating crisis currently engulfing the world’s animal populations.

In the 1980s, Kahumbu explained, a previous poaching epidemic was driven by the demand for ivory in Europe, Japan and the US. “Kenya and many African countries took the initiative of destroying ivory to send a world message that these animals are worth more alive,” she said. “That message translated into decisions that banned the international trade in ivory. The prices collapsed.”

Over time, however, the demand has returned — this time in China. “You can imagine a country where ivory is believed to be precious, to confer prestige on the owners of it,” Kahumbu continued. Elsewhere, in Vietnam, rhino horn are being used in medicinal remedies believed (inaccurately) to cure headaches and cancer. “This just resulted in an epidemic of poaching across the entire continent,” Kahumbu said, “and this is fueled by corruption in Africa.”

Brooks has witnessed this epidemic up close, and describes the frontline as comparable to any war she has covered, which includes Afghanistan after 9/11. In Garamba, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Lord’s Resistance Army and various rebel factions plunder the natural resources to fund terrorism activities. “You also have multiple military helicopter incursions into the park whereby elephants are machine-gunned down,” Brooks said, before pointing out the human cost that also goes along with this: Over 1,000 park rangers have been killed in the last ten years for trying to protect the animals.

Gouby argued that poverty in Africa is also a serious part of the problem, pointing to the poaching of pangolins in a national park in Cameroon. “On the border there is a town where everyone is linked to poaching. Everyone survives thanks to poaching” she said. “There is nothing else, and people don’t have an alternative.”

“Do you think poverty is an excuse for poaching?” asked Katty Kay.

“If you don’t have food to put on your table at night for your children, I don’t think anything else matters,” Gouby said, shaking her head. “That’s the way it is. People are desperately poor in a lot of these places.”

But Gouby also showed that things are far from hopeless when it comes to change. In Virunga, her filmed exposé of the illegal activities of Soco International, a British oil company, blind corporate interests threatened a national park home to many of the world’s last 900 mountain gorillas. After Virunga was released, Soco denied allegations of bribery and coercion laid out in the documentary. “But a number of their shareholders didn’t think that was enough,” Gouby explained. “They were very shocked by what the film showed.” Some shareholders divested from the company, and Soco eventually halted its oil exploration of the park. “The company didn’t renew its license,” Gouby said, to thunderous applause.

There are other success stories, other reasons to hope. Not long ago, many Kenyans cared very little about the fate of their wildlife; last week, however, a lion killing in Nairobi caused local outrage: “Public opinion canchange,” said Kahumbu, who attributes some of this shift to a television series promoting Kenyan wildlife to Kenyans. At the end of this month, Kenya will also destroy 106 tons of ivory and rhino horn—more than a billion dollar’s worth—to make a new statement to the world that poaching is unacceptable.

And it is the world’s problem. Towards the end of the discussion, Brooks showed a shocking photograph: shelves lined with tiger and leopard heads. The photograph was taken not in Africa, or China, but at the National Eagle and Wildlife Property Repository in Denver, Colorado, a 16,000-square-foot facility containing more than 1.5 million specimens seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The reality is that the US is the second largest consumer of wildlife products after China,” Brooks said. The issue is closer to home than many people realize.

“The only way to deal with this crisis is a global response,” said Kahumbu.