Who murdered Esmond Bradley Martin, the ivory investigator Prince William called a ‘great unsung hero’? (Kenya)


Joe Shute, The Telegraph

Date Published

See link for photos.

Esmond Bradley Martin was a man out of his time. Tall and dapper, moneyed and mannered: those who knew the 76-year-old say he lived as if in a bygone era. He preferred a fountain pen to a computer keyboard and adored opera and antiques. 

A seam of old-world style ran through him right down to the china cups he took tea out of at 5pm when his work investigating the illegal ivory and rhino-horn trade was finished – for the day, because Martin deemed it never done.

Unmistakable in any case due to a shock of white candy-floss hair, he was known in the wealthy gated community where he lived in Nairobi for his tailored suits and silk pocket squares.

Home was a stucco-pillared mansion and the surrounding 20 acres, set back from the main road and protected by wrought-iron gates swirling up into a gilded ‘M’. Some who have visited liken it to Tara, the plantation house in Gone with the Wind.

It was here, on the afternoon of Sunday 4 February, that Martin was found by his wife Chryssee, murdered. He had been stabbed in the neck. A safe had been opened; cash and documents relating to the estate are believed to have been stolen. Nothing else of any value was missing.

Martin’s death has sent ripples of shock through the wealthy suburb of Langata and the conservation world as a whole. Not least as only a few months earlier another prominent man investigating the illegal wildlife trade, Wayne Lotter, was assassinated in neighbouring Tanzania.

The 51-year-old South African was shot in August while travelling by taxi from the airport to his hotel in Dar es Salaam. Such a brazen mafia-style hit highlights the extent to which major organised crime gangs have moved into the illegal wildlife trade, recently valued by the UN at US $23 billion a year, making it the fourth most lucrative black-market industry after drugs, people and arms smuggling.

Among those moved to pay tribute to Martin is the Duke of Cambridge, royal patron of British conservation charity Tusk. In a statement to the Telegraph, he described Martin’s death as a ‘huge loss’ to the fight against wildlife crime.

‘The world has tragically lost one of the true unsung heroes of conservation,’ the Duke said. ‘No one knew the markets, recorded the data or understood how this sickening trade operated better than Esmond. I was deeply saddened to hear of his senseless murder at his home in Nairobi.’

Charlie Mayhew, chief executive of Tusk, says Martin’s monitoring of the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn provided ‘irrefutable evidence and effectively alerted the world’ to the scale of the crisis. To lose him, says Mayhew, is a ‘massive blow’.

At the end of February, it was announced eight people had been charged over the killing of Wayne Lotter and are awaiting trial. As for Esmond Martin, last Tuesday three unnamed men were arrested by Kenyan police. 

Detectives say it is believed the suspects are ‘remotely connected to the crime’, but at the time of writing no charges have yet been brought. Rumours swirl among the neighbouring compounds in Nairobi.

Esmond Bradley Martin was born in New York City on 17 April 1941. His great-grandfather was Harry Phipps, the Pittsburgh steel magnate and one-time partner of Andrew Carnegie. It was a world of fabulous wealth in which Martin never felt entirely comfortable. He would relate to friends an apocryphal tale of a relative once earning a place in the Guinness Book of Records for throwing the most expensive party ever.

In 1964, he went to Arizona University and met Chryssee. After finishing his master’s in rural land use in Kenya, he completed a geography PhD at the University of Liverpool in 1971. He remained a great Anglophile throughout his life, but Martin’s heart always lay in east Africa.

While still a student, he regularly undertook research trips to Kenya, where he came to the attention of Richard Leakey, the renowned conservationist, academic and political fixer whose parents, Louis and Mary Leakey, pioneered the archaeological exploration of the Great Rift Valley. At the time of Martin’s arrival, Leakey was in charge of the National Museum in Nairobi and recruited him to research historic Swahili sites along the Kenyan coast.

Sitting in his office in Langata, where he works as chairman of the board of trustees at the Kenyan Wildlife Service (established in 1989 to protect the country’s fauna), Leakey recalls Martin as an earnest young man eager for a purpose. ‘He was a bit of an oddball and didn’t fit into classic American society,’ he says. ‘He had his own means. He was looking for an activity rather than a salary.’

Martin and Chryssee settled in Nairobi, buying 20 acres on which to build their house. At first he began researching the dhow trade (movement of goods) across the Indian Ocean, but in 1977 he was appointed by Sir Peter Scott to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) African Elephant Specialist Group. Mapping the ivory and rhino horn trade became his raison d’être.

Friends say he and Chryssee decided early on never to have children. Instead, they devoted their lives to work and travel. Martin travelled the world investigating markets and compiling reports, going undercover to establish prices, exposing smuggling cartels and international trafficking routes. Forensic detail became his hallmark.

One early report documented a visit to a Hong Kong ivory workshop in 1979. As well as logging every conceivable aspect of the process of whittling down the tusks, Martin concluded by meticulously listing every item he could see in the workshop: air-conditioning units, a television, even the mah-jong board the carvers used in their spare time.

Over the decades, Martin included three main collaborators in his research trips: his wife; another Kenya-based US wildlife consultant called Daniel Stiles; and Lucy Vigne, who in recent years was his co-author on several major reports on the rhino horn and ivory trade. Their latest report, published at the end of last year, was on the ivory trade in Laos, exposing it as the fastest-growing market in the world.

Vigne, who is South Africa-born and London-raised, read zoology at the University of Oxford. The 57-year-old has not spoken publicly since Martin’s murder and now, sitting in the study of her Nairobi home looking at one of his diaries from their latest trip to Burma, she admits she is ‘still in a state of disbelief’. 

At the end of that trip on 12 December last year, she recalls Martin breathing a sigh of relief as the plane took off from Yangon and declaring, ‘Ah, we’re safe.’ ‘There was a sense of risk and it was increasing,’ she says.

Martin’s unique sense of style and tall, gangly frame made him an unlikely undercover investigator. In Yemen, Vigne remembers unsuccessfully attempting to cover his mass of white hair under a hat, only for it to spring out the sides. 

Another fellow investigator recalls him barging through the middle of a souk, beating his way through the crowds with a battered leather suitcase. However dangerous the situation, he felt shielded by academic purpose. Rather than naming individuals, Martin’s modus operandi was simply to collect the data.

‘I very much admired Esmond’s integrity and straightforwardness,’ Vigne says. ‘He was level-headed and didn’t jump to conclusions. A quote that rings in my ears is, “Let’s get on with the work.” He never took a day off. He lived for his work.’

Vigne was with Martin on the day of his murder, at the annual barbecue organised by Friends of the Nairobi National Park. Chryssee is a long-term supporter of the Nairobi Animal Orphanage in the park, which borders the city, and would visit most days when Martin was writing at his desk, gaining the nickname ‘Mama Orphanage’ for her efforts.

After lunch Vigne left the barbecue to go on a game drive. Martin returned home around 2.30pm. Around 4pm, as the heat of the sun died down, Chryssee returned from a walk in the grounds of their garden and, upon discovering her husband’s body upstairs, raised the alarm.

Most residents on the Mukoma estate rely on a coterie of staff to help run their expansive homes. Every morning, ‘house boys’ fan out into the privately maintained streets, taking their owners’ pedigree dogs for a walk. Every household is under the protection of a private security firm as few trust the police. 

At 7pm each evening a duty officer calls in and many residents have panic buttons installed at home. Watchmen stand guard at the gates. Several years ago the man guarding the Martin estate was murdered at his post.

Jonathan Scott, a British wildlife photographer and zoologist, settled in Langata 25 years ago and lives a few minutes away from the Martins’ house. He was a regular visitor, often invited over for afternoon tea in the ground-floor living room that the Martins treated like a 19th-century salon – wood-panelled walls, antique furniture and a visitors’ book bearing the names of the great and good of Nairobi. ‘That house was idiosyncratic, but it was very much who they were and their private domain,’ he says. ‘However close I was to them, I always felt you gave them and their way of life the respect it deserved.’

Scott, 69, had been invited over the day before the murder. It was hot, nearing the end of the dry season with the rains yet to arrive, so Martin suggested they sit on the veranda. At 6pm, Chryssee returned from the orphanage as usual and together the three of them chatted and ate ice cream.

‘You never noticed the staff around the house,’ he says. ‘Chryssee was very much in charge. Their relationship with the staff was very low-key. There was nothing ostentatious about it. Even though they lived seemingly in a different era.’ Scott dismisses the suggestion Martin may have been murdered as a result of his investigative work. ‘He never spoke about feeling in danger,’ he says.

More recently, Scott recalls, Martin had been concerned with the development of a new Seventh-Day Adventist Church on the fringes of his land that the Karen Langata District Association (KLDA), of which Scott and Martin were members, was campaigning against.

Martin was a vocal critic of the development and had been fundraising to support the KLDA in its attempt to halt construction. A cease-and-desist order against the church to investigate potential environmental infringements was issued two days after his death.

The injunction names two powerful local figures, the minister of internal security Fred Okengo Matiang’i and former commissioner of lands Zablon Mabea, as interested parties in the development. Despite the obvious juxtapositions, Duncan Munyua, a KLDA official, has told local media he does not believe the murder is connected to the row over the church.

What else, then? Corruption remains rife in Kenya and few still trust the rule of law. The night of the murder, Chryssee (who is staying with friends and so far has not spoken publicly) hired a local company of private investigators, Salama Fikira, to work alongside police. The firm is headed up by Conrad Thorpe, a former Royal Marine.

Early investigations appear to have centred around Martin’s staff and whether it could have been an inside job. Following the murder four staff members were arrested and later released. For the past few weeks one unnamed staff member has been assisting police with their inquiries. Detectives are now focusing on an attempt to transfer ownership of documents relating to the Martin estate following the murder. It is understood this is now the main line of inquiry.

‘Land is gold in Kenya,’ Scott says. And as climate change and population growth now begin to bite, territorial disputes and violent land grabs are becoming ever more common. Outside leafy Langata, Nairobi booms. While nothing on the scale of the 88,000-acre Great Rift Valley estate belonging to the Italian author Kuki Gallmann, who was shot last year in a suspected land grab, the proximity of Martin’s 20 acres to Nairobi means they are valued at more than £400,000 an acre.

However, attempting to steal the Martin estate in such a blatant manner seems reckless and some do not believe that the motive of land theft can explain the murder. ‘My instinct is that it was probably a mistake,’ says Leakey. ‘If somebody seriously thought by killing him they would get his land, they don’t understand the processes in this country. I don’t believe that. His title was correctly registered years ago in the national registry.’

For friends and neighbours, the Martin Christmas card was always a high point of the social calendar. The couple would send a card bearing a photograph of them (Esmond petting an antelope was a recent example) with a long note inside detailing their travels and achievements of the year.

Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the British zoologist and founder of the charity Save the Elephants, commissioned the bulk of the recent joint reports by Martin and Vigne, and says the 76-year-old had entered his most productive stage, despite ill health. ‘His death has left a huge sadness,’ he says. ‘He had an inexhaustible appetite for the latest accurate information.’

The Laos study published last year was, Douglas-Hamilton says, in many ways the most ‘spectacular’ Martin and Vigne had produced. ‘Certainly he observed prostitution and gambling along with the ivory trade in Laos, and this may have been pushing the edge a bit. We now know that there are connections between human trade, drugs, arms dealers and wildlife.’

Douglas-Hamilton says those involved in investigating the illegal ivory and rhino-horn trade are beginning to realise the strength of criminal networks right across Africa, rather than operating in single countries. It means the gangs are far more difficult to counter, and the sums at stake far greater.

While Douglas-Hamilton is sceptical that Martin was targeted for his work, he admits at this stage he is keeping an open mind. ‘I think the risk to people doing investigations is going to get increasingly high,’ he says.

The wildlife conservancies represent the front line in Kenya’s battle against this illegal trade. The Joint Operations Centre for the Northern Rangelands Trust, covering some 4.5 million hectares, is based at Lewa, a World Heritage Site one hour’s flight north of Nairobi, on whose board Martin sat for five years. 

Here, the cat-and-mouse game between 800 rangers (60 of whom are armed and specially trained) and poachers is played out live across its military-grade communication and satellite feeds.

The situation in Kenya has improved. According to the Kenya Wildlife Service, 47 elephants were poached nationwide in 2017, down from 86 in 2016 and 384 in 2012. And last year, seven rhinos were poached, compared to 59 in 2013 – also the last year Lewa lost a rhino. Prior to that in the conservancy, 70 rhinos were killed between 2009 and 2011.

That is not to say the overall threat has diminished, however. Rather, the gangs are operating elsewhere. ‘The guys who drive this are also involved in drug trafficking, human trafficking – even terrorism,’ explains Edward Ndiritu, the head of the anti-poaching unit at Lewa, who has worked for 23 years in the field. ‘It is a syndicate. Not desperate people. The ones driving it – you never get them.’

Ian Craig, who lives on the Lewa conservancy and is director of conservation at the Northern Rangelands Trust, says worldwide bans such as China’s, which came in this year, significantly drive down the black market value of ivory. According to Craig, while in 2012 poachers could expect to earn about US $160 from each kilo of ivory today, they might receive $30.

In parts of Africa, elephant populations (and, to a lesser extent, rhino) are slowly recovering. The fear, however, is in countries where the security situation is insecure, poaching gangs still operate with impunity. Mozambique, for example, is feared to have lost more than half of its elephant population in recent years.

Craig knew Esmond Martin and Wayne Lotter. According to the softly spoken 66-year-old, who in 2016 was awarded an OBE for services to conservation and security to communities in Kenya, both murdered men were vital for different reasons. ‘Esmond was feeding us what was happening in the world. Wayne was digging into the bad guys.’

Craig, who has been shot at more times than he cares to remember and admits he sleeps with a revolver close by, believes those seeking to expose the illegal wildlife trade require far more institutional support. Where criminal cartels are involved, it is not the place of conservationists to put their heads upon the block, Craig insists. ‘Rather than [looking at] a legacy, I would ask if those two guys died in vain.’

He admits he is still struggling to come to terms with the ‘hollow feeling’ following Martin’s death. ‘We live in an aggressive world and Esmond just didn’t,’ he says. It was a particularly unjust end for a gentle, refined man who had spent 40 years investigating other, more brutal worlds. Finally the violence reared up to claim him.