The Kenyan elephant reserve that’s fighting back against poachers


Stanley Johnson, The Guardian

Date Published
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I was lucky to find Cynthia Moss at home. Though she has studied elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli national park for over 40 years in the longest-running elephant research project in Africa, she is now not able to spend us as much time in thefield as she would like, given other commitments in Nairobi and elsewhere.
“I have that horrible déjà vu feeling,” she told me as we sat together outside her tent at her camp in the park’s heart. She compared elephant deaths from poaching today to the 15 years before the international ivory ban in 1989, whenKenya lost almost 90% of its elephants.

Moss is director and founder of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project and, like many others, recognises that dealing with ivory demand is crucial in the battle to save elephants.

And China, of course, is the key. The Chinese, she said, had been involved in the construction of two major roads in southern Kenya, establishing big camps for their workers. Illegal ivory had been exported through Mombasa and other ports. China’s ivory factories were back in business and with the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory, fuelled by China’s ever-growing middle-class, the future for the elephants seemed bleak.

“In the 1990s there was no Chinese middle class. You weren’t allowed to own pretty things. But now we have the big boom. Ivory in China is the big status symbol. Companies give it to other companies. People who don’t know about Cites think it’s a conservation group. It’s not. It’s a trade-based organisation.”

Moss reminded me that the next Cites meeting would be held in South Africa in 2016. The prospect filled her with gloom. President Robert Mugabe, who chaired the 1997 Cites meeting in Harare that critically weakened international measures to protect elephants, would be attending the South Africa session too. And there would certainly be further proposals from Southern African countries, for example Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa itself, that could worsen the problem.

Gloomy though the immediate outlook may seem, what is happening in Amboseli offers some hope that the sickening rate of slaughter – over 30,000 elephants a year on a worldwide basis – can be stemmed, at least temporarily, while the crucial battle to curb demand for ivory continues.

Amboseli’s elephant population is around 1,600. The Amboseli Elephant research project has established that it consists of 55 families. During my brief stay there, I must have seen many of them out in the savannah or roaming the great salt pans in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.

That population of 1,600 is currently stable, or even increasing. The poaching which has had such an impact elsewhere in Kenya has been largely absent here.

As Moss explained that morning, outside assistance has undoubtedly made a difference. The Big Life Foundation, for example, set up by wildlife photographer Nick Brandt, is supporting 350 scouts or community rangers. Big Life also runs a ‘consolation’ programme, aimed at compensating Masai pastoralists for the loss of stock. Another NGO, the Born Free Foundation has helped to construct so far nearly 200 predator-proof ‘bomas’, hardened wooden posts and chain-link fences, thus further strengthening the rapport between farmer and conservationist.

While I was in Kenya, I had a chance to meet Stefano Cheli and his wife, pioneers in the battle to bring sustainable tourism to Africa.

“The community must benefit from the tourist dollar if wildlife is to survive,” Cheli told me. “From the outset, we partnered with the local community, leasing a 12,000-hectare [30,000-acre] wildlife corridor between Amboseli national park and Tanzania from 3,000 collective landowners.”

Tortilis, the Cheli and Peacock-owned safari camp where I stayed, employs at least 60% of its permanent staff and dozens of additional staff from the local community.

Since 2011, the Cheli and Peacock Community Trust, supported by tourist donations, has funded schools and medical centres, as well as conservation education, not only in the Masai Mara but in other parts of Kenya too, as well as in Tanzania.

With 70% of Kenya’s wildlife roaming outside protected areas, measures to strengthen community involvement and to create ‘parks beyond parks’, are of fundamental importance. Combined with continued efforts to deal with poaching through monitoring and enforcement, such measures provide grounds for hope that it may be possible to stem the current slaughter of elephants on the African continent.

On my last morning in Kenya, I telephoned an old friend, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who fought hard and successfully for the 1989 ivory ban and who probably knows more about elephants than any man alive. When I rang, he was ‘up-country’ in Samburu, a national reserve relatively near the Somali border.

“Shall I tell you the good news?” he began. “This is the first year in a long while that we have seen more elephants born in Samburu than there are elephants killed.”

Community-based conservation measures of the kind introduced in Kenya, admirable though they are, may still not be enough to save the elephant.

More effective action has to be taken on the demand side as well. There is a marvellous opportunity here for the new UK government to take a stand. TheConservative manifesto, which David Cameron has pledged to implement, commits the UK “to press for a total ban on ivory sales”.

Now is the time for newly-empowered ministers to step up to the plate. Britain should enforce a domestic ban on the sale, or transit, of both raw and worked ivory. And we should make every effort, by diplomatic and other means, to ensure that other key players, such as the EU, US, China and India, follow suit.