On the Ground for Elephants in KenyaPosted by Joyce Tischler, ALDF Founder and General Counsel on January 7, 2014
In December, I traveled to Kenya to attend the first National Judicial Dialogue on Wildlife and Environmental Crimes.
For the first time in Kenya’s 50 year history as an independent country, judges, magistrates, prosecutors, police officers, customs agents, representatives of the Kenya Wildlife Service and conservation/animal welfare agencies came together to engage in an open and honest conversation about the need for more effective investigations, prosecutions, convictions and sentencing of those who are responsible for the slaughter of elephants.
Why Are Elephants Being Slaughtered?
The poaching (slaughter) of African elephants has once again reached dangerously high levels. The major reason for the killing is the demand for ivory (elephant tusks) from China and other parts of the Far East. As the Chinese middle class is growing, people are looking for status symbols and ivory fits the bill. Other countries are also importing ivory, but China is where the demand is greatest. Another cause of the slaughter is said to be terrorists trying to raise substantial funds to support their activities. Finally, the increased human population in Africa has taken over the traditional lands where elephants once roamed and human-elephant conflicts account for additional slaughter. Experts predict that if the poaching of elephants is not halted, African elephants will be extinct in one decade. If that is not a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.
What Came Out of this Event?
The workshop was held at Amboseli National Park, home to approximately 1,500 elephants. Soon after we arrived, we went on a game drive, where we were able to see five families of elephants. Family units usually consist of 10-12 females and their calves, led by a matriarch. The adult males (bulls) associate with the family only to mate. As we drove, Katito Sayialel, a research assistant who has spent twenty years working for the Amboseli Trust for Elephants identified the elephant families we were viewing, and gave background that was helpful to the law enforcement representatives. For me personally, this was the realization of a dream I have had for many years: viewing African elephants in the wild, with none of the cages, chains, and beatings that occur in the U.S. We then visited the Elephant Research Center where Katito works and saw the skulls of every elephant who has lived and died in Amboseli. This set a powerful context for the next day’s workshop.
At the workshop, we learned that:
- Poaching is generally carried out by people in the communities near where the elephants live. Elephants are shot and killed, and their tusks are removed by cutting most of their faces off, often with a chainsaw. The poachers make relatively little money from the animals they kill, as was mentioned by a former poacher who attended the workshop and now works to end poaching. The poachers sell to middlemen who sell the animal products for substantially more money overseas.
- Prosecuting these poachers is like putting a Band-Aid on a surgical wound. The middlemen need to be targeted.
- By some estimates, 40,000 elephants are being slaughtered annually. Poachers target the elephants with the longest tusks, which means the matriarch and the bull elephants. The result to the elephant families is disastrous, and the killings of the elephants are now outpacing their birth rate.
- The penalties for conviction of poaching are too low to be effective and there was consensus that penalties must be substantially increased.
- Several key problems were identified with regard to how the various agencies currently handle these cases—from the police reports sheets, to prosecutorial control of the evidence and exhibits, to sentencing. There was discussion about how to remedy these problems through better internal systems, greater independence of the judiciary, and interagency cooperation.
- The poaching of elephants is a complex problem. It requires a focus not only on Kenyan poachers, but also on poaching as an international wildlife crime.
The agenda included break-out sessions in which the participants had informal discussions about the challenges and opportunities, which were then reported back to the whole group. I was heartened to see that the Kenyan law enforcement officials seemed engaged and willing to work to protect their native wildlife.
This event was planned and sponsored by Africa Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW) and Kenyans United Against Poaching (KUAPO), in partnership with the Kenyan Judiciary Training Institute (JTI). If you want to support this groundbreaking work, please visit the website of Africa Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW) and donate generously.
The sponsors of the workshop announced that the same parties will be invited to meet in six months, to continue the momentum that started at this important first event.
In future blogs, I’ll write about my impressions of Kenya and Kenyan wildlife.