The War on Wildlife and Its Protectors


Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker

Date Published

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The shooting, by armed raiders, of the wildlife conservationist Kuki Gallmann, on April 23rd, is the latest in a series of attacks against environmental activists in Kenya and neighboring African countries. Gallmann, who is seventy-three years old and the author of the best-selling book “I Dreamed of Africa,” the basis for the Hollywood movie of the same title, was shot twice in the stomach. She survived the attack, and is recovering in a hospital in Nairobi.

Others have been less fortunate. Joy Adamson, the lion conservationist and author of “Born Free,” was murdered at her bush camp in Kenya, in 1980, by a former employee. Nine years later, George Adamson, her widower, was murdered by poachers in a Kenyan national park. Dian Fossey, the mountain-gorilla expert and author of “Gorillas in the Mist,” was murdered at her wilderness camp in Rwanda, in 1985. As in many of these crimes, the specific motive remains unclear, but the pattern of danger is not. More recently, in 2006, Joan Root, a well-known wildlife filmmaker, was gunned down at her home in Lake Naivasha, where she had waged a controversial campaign to curb commercial farming and fishing interests.

Gallmann, who was born in Italy, moved to Kenya in 1972 and fell in love with the country; she stayed on, and eventually became a Kenyan citizen. She is the owner of a ninety-eight-thousand-acre tract of land that she turned into a wildlife conservancy. Gallmann’s land is located in Laikipia, a stunning area of temperate Rift Valley highlands that borders Kenya’s dry northern plains, which are the traditional rangelands of pastoralist tribesmen, including the Samburu and Pokot people. An East African drought has severely affected the rangelands, and cattle herders, who nowadays are armed with AK-47s, have in recent months been aggressively pushing into Laikipia’s mosaic of privately owned wildlife conservancies, ranches, and safari lodges with their livestock. In response, the Kenyan Army has made several attempts to dislodge the herders from Laikipia’s privately owned lands, including Gallmann’s, and have gone so far as to shoot their cattle. In retaliation, the herders have become raiders, torching buildings, poaching wildlife, and sometimes killing people. In March, they killed a British Kenyan who was inspecting the remains of his safari lodge, which they had burned down. Several policemen have also been killed. One of Gallmann’s own safari lodges was burned down, on March 29th, and, in the incident, the raiders also shot at her daughter, Sveva, who escaped unharmed. The attack that wounded Gallmann took place as she was returning from a visit to her burned-out lodge, accompanied by armed guards. Pokot raiders apparently fired on her vehicle from a nearby hill.

As ever, tribal politics and duelling economic interests are involved. A Kenyan M.P. from northern Laikipia was recently arrested and charged with inciting the herdsmen to attack the area’s conservancies and lodges, which attract well-heeled Western tourists; he has denied the charges. The Kenyan government’s key constituency is ethnic Kikuyu, and in the north it also has the loyalty of the ethnic Turkana people, while the Samburu and Pokot are aligned with the opposition.

The attacks on conservationists aren’t only taking place in Africa, however. As the world’s natural resources become scarcer and their plunder for profit ever more lucrative, the assassinations of environmental activists and conservationists have become disturbingly commonplace. Nowadays, Latin America is especially murderous. Six years ago, I wrote about the murders, in Brazil, of the environmental activist José (Zé) Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife, Maria, by contract killers in the Amazonian backwoods. Their killings came just a few months after Zé Cláudio had spoken, at a tedx conference in the city of Manaus, about Brazil’s environmental struggles. As with his more famous Brazilian predecessor, Chico Mendes, who was gunned down in 1988, Zé Cláudio was killed because he was a highly visible and effective campaigner. In 2005, Dorothy Stang, an American nun who also lived in Brazil’s Amazonian region and was an outspoken environmental lobbyist, was also murdered.

In these high-profile cases, the killings were investigated and revealed to have been ordered by ranchers whose motive appeared to be greed: they were determined to stop their victims’ efforts to preserve Brazil’s natural habitats by promoting sustainable farming and forestry methods. But, often, such killings go unsolved and unpunished, and since Zé Cláudio and Maria’s killings that trend has worsened. In 2015, the worst-ever year for such murders, according to the international environmental watchdog Global Witness, there were a hundred and twenty-two murders of activists in Latin America. The greatest number of them, fifty victims in all, took place in Brazil.

Brazil may win out in sheer numbers, but Honduras, with a population of eight million, compared to Brazil’s two hundred million, may be the worst place overall to be an environmentalist: there have been a hundred and twenty murders of activists in Honduras since 2010.  Last year, in March, it was the turn of Berta Cáceres, a prominent activist who had devoted herself to fighting against a controversial dam project owned by a company linked to the congressional vice-president’s family. Military men have been implicated in her killing. (The government has denied a state connection to the murder.) This January, in Chihuahua, Mexico, Isidro Baldenegro López, an indigenous activist who had fought for years to preserve his homeland’s ancient forests from illegal loggers, was also shot dead.

Both Cáceres and López were recipients of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize—López in 2005, and Cáceres in 2015, just months before her murder—depressing proof that global recognition offers no protection from gunmen or corrupt local interests. Lack of effective rule of law, and widespread police and judicial corruption in Brazil, Honduras, and Mexico, make it easy for those determined to turn a profit at any cost to order and carry out killings—and to get away with it.

All of this environmental violence has an end-of-time quality to it. Just as the people protecting natural habitats or certain species of wildlife are coming under attack, whether in Africa or Latin America, so, too, are some of the last great mammals of their species still living in the wild. At times, there are so few of them left that we have come to know their names, as if they were favorite zoo animals. There was Cecil the black-maned lion, in Zimbabwe, killed in 2015 by an American dentist from Minnesota, and the elephant Satao II, one of the last great “tuskers” believed to survive in all of Africa, killed in March of this year, in Kenya. Poachers are thought to have shot Satao II with a poisoned arrow. Bull elephants are called “tuskers” when their tusks become so large they reach the ground, which takes many years to happen. Satao II was believed to be around fifty years old; he was named after Kenya’s greatest tusker, Satao, who was killed by poachers in 2014. (Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about Satao’s death.) Attaining such an age is itself an increasingly rare feat for Africa’s elephants, who have been hunted down in frighteningly large numbers in recent years by poachers seeking their ivory. (The Chinese government’s recent decision to ban domestic ivory sales in that country, the main consumer of elephant ivory in the world, may help rescue the species from extinction.)

Last week, in New York, I attended a screening of a documentary called “The Last Animals,” at the Tribeca Film Festival. The filmmaker, Kate Brooks, who is a friend of mine, used to cover wars, but after becoming sickened by all the bloodshed she turned her attention to Africa’s wildlife, and soon found herself drawn into another kind of battleground. In order to complete her documentary, Kate spent three years filming in Africa, Europe, and Asia. The film is an investigation into the poaching of Africa’s elephants and rhinos, centered on their predicament in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo; at one point, Kate travelled to Vietnam, where she posed as a buyer with a trafficker in illegal rhino horn, wearing a wire to record their conversation. Three of the rangers Kate spent time with in the D.R.C.’s Garamba National Park—where elephant poaching has become a full-on militarized activity—were killed by poachers after she finished shooting her footage. (Peter Canby wrote about the violence in Garamba, where two more rangers were killed by elephant poacherslast week.) It is an emotional film, sad and beautiful, and left many of the audience in tears.

Kate also spent time with what were then the last five northern white rhinos in existence, getting to know two of them—one in the San Diego Zoo, and the other in a Czech zoo—before they died, of old age. The last three northern white rhinos are named Najin, Fatu, and Sudan, and they are living out their days under the watch of a special contingent of armed guards in the Ol Pejeta nature conservancy, in Laikipia, not far from where Kuki Gallmann was shot last week. In everything but name, this is a war.