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Features

The End For Elephants?

Gangsters use poachers to make a killing in the ivory trade. What can stop the bloodshed?

photo of a dead, decapitated elephantphoto by Chris Jordan

Koyaso Lekoloi shot his first elephant in anger. The hundred or so that followed he killed for money. During nearly two decades as a poacher, bandit, thief, and alleged murderer Lekoloi killed more elephants than any other individual in northern Kenya until, tired of life on the run, he decided to give up poaching.

I met Lekoloi by the side of a dry riverbed just outside Samburu National Reserve in Kenya’s arid, craggy north. We sat on the ground beneath a towering acacia tree to talk. The sand flies buzzing in our ears didn’t seem to bother him. “I had a happy childhood,” Lekoloi began, speaking in the local Samburu language. The youngest of eight children born to the last of his father’s six wives, Lekoloi grew up herding livestock, like many young boys in rural Kenya. With a switch in his hand he would trail the family’s goats, cows, and donkeys as they sought out grass or leaves among the whistling thorn shrubs of the sandy East African bush. There were no schools in or near his village of Larisolo, an hour’s walk northwest of Archers Post, so formal education was neither offered nor sought. “I never even went to nursery school,” Lekoloi told me.

Lekoloi embodies a contemporary melding of African modernity and tradition. On his belt a long knife in a beaded scabbard was clipped next to a smartphone in a nylon holster. He wore knock-off designer jeans, a secondhand soccer shirt, and battered Nikes. At the same time, his wiry body revealed its familiarity with the land, bending around thorn branches as he walked, his large flat feet sure on the uneven ground, moving always with the pastoralist’s loping gait. His lips were pursed before the absence where his front teeth once were, lending him the impression of a man constantly suppressing a bemused smile, which perhaps he is.

As Lekoloi remembers it, his father once had hundreds of animals. Then drought and cattle raiding by gangs of young men from competing clans whittled away the herd until there were just five cows left. It was the early 1990s (he can’t be sure of the year) and Lekoloi was in his early teens (he’s not sure of his age either) when he decided something had to change.

KoyasoLekoloi1-color.jpgphoto by Tristan McConnellFor two decades Koyaso Lekoloi was among the most aggressive elephant poachers in Northern
Kenya. He has since retired from poaching under a government amnesty program.

Selling the last of his father’s cattle for 30,000 shillings (roughly $500 at the time), Lekoloi bought an AK-47 assault rifle and 60 bullets in two curved magazines from a gun trader who tapped the flow of small arms washing through the remote border areas of Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda. “That was the first time I had a gun to hold,” he said. “My plan was to go and raid livestock.”

Joining a successful raiding party proves a young man’s masculinity, bravery, and risk-taking prowess. It also gains him the cattle that are prized above all else, and are used to pay the bride-price when he marries.

When Lekoloi, the aspiring cattle raider and proud owner of a secondhand AK-47, got home he found that his mother, too, had taken matters into her own hands. Invoking the traditional social obligation of paran, she had demanded from better-off relatives – and was given – a cow and seven goats. Instead of raiding, Lekoloi went back to herding, the switch replaced by the rifle slung over his shoulder.

One day he and his small herd had the misfortune of stumbling upon an elephant. It charged, striking the family’s only cow with its long curved tusks and tossing it to the ground dead. “That same day I went to kill that elephant,” Lekoloi said. “I tracked it and I shot it three times.”

From then on he was an outlaw. Rangers from the Kenya Wildlife Service were after him for killing the elephant, and he retreated deep into the bush, far from home. According to Samburu traditional beliefs, elephants are part of the clan, almost like ancestors, and to kill them is taboo. But separated from his family and clan connections Lekoloi became dangerously free of social norms. “I became a wild man,” he said with a shrug and a glimmer of a smile.

Lekoloi joined cattle raids, robbed tourists, broke into homes and was charged with – and later acquitted of – the 1998 murder of an Italian missionary in Archers Post. He soon began to poach for a living. “When I killed that first elephant the rangers were asking, ‘Is the ivory still there?’ Then they came and picked the ivory and took it away. That is when I realized it must be important,” Lekoloi said. “Poaching became the dominant business for me.”

He became good at it, working with others in ad hoc poaching gangs. “We would aim for the joint behind the shoulder. Sometimes they died there and then. Other times we followed the trail of blood for hours. At first we just killed just anyhow, but over time I learned to choose the ones with the big tusks.”

Once, after killing a mother and her calf, he felt an unfamiliar sadness. But for the most part the killing of an elephant was a cause for celebration. “I felt happy, because I was getting money.”

“Poachers are organized by traffickers, and traffickers are organized by white collar criminals.”

After shooting an elephant dead he would slice off the trunk with a knife, chop the tusks out with an axe, and hide them. Later a friend would take the ivory to Isiolo, 25 miles south of Archer’s Post, and sell it to Kenyan traders who, then as now, operated in the town. “If I killed two or three elephants I might get 60 to 80,000 shillings for the tusks,” he said, a sum worth about $1,000 to $1,300 in the mid-1990s. An average sized African elephant tusk weighs between three and four kilograms, which means even in the 1990s Lekoloi was earning a fraction of the ivory’s worth. He knew little of the ivory’s market value and earned little from it, spending the money on guns, good times, and livestock to eat or herd. (Even today, though the black market price of ivory has skyrocketed to a high of more than $2,000 per kilo, poachers only earn around $100 a kilo.)

Nor did Lekoloi understand – or care much about – the global illicit trade he fuelled. He knew the tusks were taken by road from Isiolo to Mombasa, Kenya’s main port city. But, he said, “After that I didn’t care. For me it was only about the money.”

Seventeen years after he began poaching, Lekoloi stopped. He had grown tired of his existence as a moran, or warrior, a life stage that most men give up after their youth. He had grown envious of his peers who were married with children and who had property. He was fearful of the curses threatened by elders who wanted an end to Lekoloi’s one-man crime wave.

Four years ago Lekoloi took advantage of a government-backed amnesty and joined others in handing over his guns (at the time, an assault rifle and a belt-fed machine gun) and renouncing his criminal ways. “It was a surrender,” he said. “I wanted to settle down and have kids.”

Today Lekoloi is back pretty much where he started: He’s living in Larisolo again, in a mud and stick hut just like the one he grew up in. He has a modest herd of 13 goats, seven cows and two donkeys, and he has a wife and two small children. “I wasted my time as a poacher,” he said, “I made no money.”

I asked him whether he missed his days of notoriety. “Those days young men would praise me! I became so confident that I would always succeed,” he said proudly, before pausing and quickly adding: “But those days are gone. Now I’m a responsible father.”

Koyaso Lekoloi’s story is unique only in the scale of his depredations. The arc of his autobiography from herder to outlaw to herder again is almost archetypal for many poor young men in Africa today. Poachers like Lekoloi are the bloody end of an illegal ivory supply chain that stretches from Africa to Asia to North America. The links of that chain are oiled by corruption, greed, and exploitation, a combination that fuels the mass slaughter of elephants driving the species toward extinction in the wild.

click or tap to view entire graphic

A detailed study published in August 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that poachers had killed more than 100,000 elephants in the previous three years, outstripping the animal’s rate of reproduction. The study, led by Professor George Wittemyer of Colorado State University, was based on figures compiled by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) through its Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants program, which runs at sites across Central and East Africa, including Samburu. The study found poaching was reducing elephant numbers by 7 percent each year, more than cancelling out the 5 percent annual population increase from by new births.

The last major assault on elephant populations occurred during the 1970s and 1980s, when an estimated 100,000 elephants were being killed each year and the animal’s numbers fell from around three million to half a million. For a while the 1989 global ivory trade ban promised that elephant populations might begin to recover, but the animal’s numbers are falling once again. The International Union for Conservation of Nature says there are between 420,000 and 650,000 African elephants alive today. If the current rate of killing continues, the African elephant will eventually disappear from its native habitat.

Men like Lekoloi pull the trigger that kills the elephant, but stopping them will not stop the poaching, said Ofir Drori, an Israeli-born wildlife crime investigator, when I met him in a Nairobi café. “Poachers are organized and coordinated by traffickers, and traffickers are coordinated and organized by white collar criminals,” explained Drori, whose Eagle Wildlife Law Enforcement network in West, Central, and East Africa has been responsible for the arrests of hundreds of traffickers. “Poachers are merely a hand stretched into the savannah, while the head and body of the wildlife crime monster is far from there in the main urban centers. Anti-poaching is therefore merely a slap on the hand leaving the head and body intact.”

Drori’s point that removing poachers doesn’t stop poaching was borne out in Samburu, where the year after the notorious Lekoloi retired was one of the worst on record for elephant killings. In December 2012 at least 39 elephants were killed in a single month in an area known as Mlanga, meaning “gate” in Swahili, where the animals are funneled into a narrow valley near the town of Isiolo during their seasonal migration southwards.

At its research camp on the edge of the Ewaso Nyiro River in Samburu, the conservation organization Save the Elephants monitors the animals and records their deaths on maps pinned to the walls. Green spots indicate a natural death. White dots are unknown causes. Pink dots represent human-elephant conflict – for example, a farmer who kills an elephant that tramples his crops. Orange dots indicated poached elephants. Between the bunched contour lines on the map that mark the Mlanga valley the orange dots coalesce into a thick smear. But that was 2012. On the 2014 map there’s only a single orange dot in Mlanga.

“To the west of Isiolo terrible poaching was going on,” said Chris Leadismo, the group’s imposing head of security. Most of it happened on 77,000 square miles of scorched badlands called Nasuulu, where the hot plains winds throw up twisting dust devils hundreds of feet into the air and where the Borana, Samburu, Somali, and Turkana people vie for cattle and land. The area includes Mlanga. Poaching gangs would roam out of Nasuulu into the Samburu reserve and across the Laikipia plateau, hunting elephants and taking their tusks to merchants in Isiolo.

Outsiders didn’t venture into Nasuulu, not even the police, but Leadismo decided to poke a stick into the hornets’ nest. “It was high risk. We were ambushed several times and shot at,” he said. In the exchanges of fire “several poachers were gunned down,” he said. Others were arrested.

click or tap to view entire graphic

There are no roads around Mlanga, not even rough ones made of dirt and stone. Once Leadismo hiked 14 miles through acacia woods and over rocky outcrops to find a poached elephant carcass. But confronting the poachers and killing or arresting them had only a limited impact as the elephant hunters were quickly replaced by new ones. A longer-term solution had to be found.

The effort to find such a solution began with meetings beneath trees. Discussions were held with community elders who were cajoled and encouraged to rein in the young warriors in thrall to poaching and the money it offered. Jobs were created as rangers to track and protect – rather than kill – the animals, and were evenly distributed among members of the four competing tribes. Nasuulu was made a community conservancy, under the umbrella of Kenya’s Northern Rangelands Trust, a designation that comes with access to funds worth $61,000 a year and the promise of tourism in the future.

While anti-poaching patrols and bullets put some pressure on the poachers, Leadismo offers another explanation for why, in the space of two years, the number of elephants killed in Nasuulu fell from scores to a handful. “The creation of this conservancy is what made the huge difference,” he said. Nasuulu is now one of 20 community conservancies established by the Northern Rangelands Trust since 2004. The idea is that having local people involved in, and benefitting from, conservation is a more effective long-term strategy than building fences and arming guards. For the thousands of people living in Nasuulu, nearby conservancies offer a vision of a different, safer, and more prosperous future, with tourism replacing cattle rustling, conflict, poaching, and poverty. At the Il Ngwesi Group Ranch and the Lekurruki Conservation Trust, boutique eco-lodges perched on rocky hillsides with dramatic views across Kenya’s northern plains attract tourists who pay more than $500 a night for their exclusive fly-in safaris, with much of the money reinvested in the land, the wildlife, and the people who live on it. As poverty drives people to poach, jobs mean they don’t have to.

Protecting and monitoring Samburu’s elephants is a constant and expensive activity. In mid-March I joined a team from Save the Elephants as they tried to locate a 26-year-old bull called Melako. He is one of 30 elephants in the Samburu/Laikipia area fitted with collars that transmit their locations, allowing Save the Elephants’ team of researchers to track and map their ranges and habits in real-time.

Melako was of particular interest because “he’s a huge mover,” said field operations manager David Daballen. “We’re very interested in land-use planning and wildlife corridors, and seeing how these elephants move helps us a lot,” said Daballen, who is focused on finding ways for elephants and people to co-exist. There had not been a signal from Melako’s collar in nearly three weeks and the fear was that he might have fallen victim to poachers who have taken to burying the collars along with the elephant’s carcass in an effort to delay detection of a kill.

The scale of trafficked ivory points to a new sophistication in the illegal trade.

We took off from a gravel airstrip in the Samburu hills with Frank Pope, the group’s chief operating officer, steering a single-propeller 1974 Cessna 185 northward towards the Matthews Range. Daballen sat in the co-pilot’s chair and acted as our navigator, constantly consulting a GPS, a radio receiver, and a pile of maps.

A wildfire burned along a steep mountain ridge and the flames threw up a cloud of smoke that muddied the clear blue sky. It had not rained properly in a year and the land had become a tinderbox. Honey-hunters smoking out wild forest bees from their nests had accidentally ignited the mountain forest and the fire burned for days, fanned by the hot, gusting wind.

Our two-hour flight tracing Melako’s usual pathways through seasonal riverbeds and copses of trees found no signal. Pope dropped the little plane to treetop height then climbed up and up to over 10,000 feet. Two other collared elephants – Betsy and Matt – were found, and two small groups of animals without collars. But there was no sign of Melako. With the sun sinking fast, Pope turned the aircraft back toward Samburu.

The next morning during a dawn flight Daballen found Melako’s signal, but despite a series of low sweeping passes there was no sighting of the animal. “At the moment we don’t know what has happened,” Daballen said. He planned to go out again in the days ahead, flying in a two-seater Piper Super Cub with fat sand tires in order to land in the dry riverbed next to where the signal was coming from. “The collar may have fallen off or Melako may have been poached and buried,” he said. “Either way, we’ll find out.”

If Melako had, in fact, been killed by poachers, there’s every chance his tusks would find their way to Isiolo. “It is the headquarters of the ivory dealers,” said Jerenimo Lepirei, a young Samburu man who runs Save the Elephants’ community outreach programs. Isiolo is a tough, loosely governed frontier town of sun-bleached cinder block buildings and drifts of trash bisected by a smooth-paved road. It sprawls against the fringes of numerous wildlife sanctuaries, all of them bigger than their rangers can protect. By bus or car it’s roughly a five-hour drive to the capital, Nairobi, the route cutting southward across the pastures of the Laikipia plateau, skirting Mount Kenya’s succession of jagged peaks to the east, and then weaving and bobbing through the corrugated green farmland of Kenya’s central highlands and into the city.

photo of elephants on a wide grassy plainphoto by Boyd NortonThe IUCN says there are between 420,00 and 650,000 African elephants alive today. If the curent rate of killing continues, the African elephant will eventually disappear from its native habitat.

At as many as a dozen random points along the 125-mile road Kenyan police throw up makeshift roadblocks, sometimes laying spiked girders across the road to force vehicles to a halt. More often, the police simply point at drivers and wave them to stop on the ragged verge where the asphalt crumbles into dirt. But these security measures are mostly bluster. Kenya’s police force is one of the most corrupt in the region, and everyone – from uninsured or unlicensed drivers to human traffickers and arms and ivory smugglers – either ignores the cops altogether or simply pays them off to sail through the roadblocks.

From Nairobi it’s a further ten-hour drive along a single-lane highway to Mombasa, where the steady stream of ivory is consolidated into multi-ton shipments and smuggled out of Africa through the city’s busy Indian Ocean container port. According to data compiled by the research nonprofit C4ADS, a total of nearly 19 tons of ivory was seized in Mombasa between 2009 and 2014, hidden among the million shipping containers that move through the port every year. Varun Vira, chief of analysis at C4ADS, told me Mombasa is the continent’s “single most active ivory export hub.”

The groups controlling the illegal ivory supply chain and the export of ivory out of Africa are neither small-time operators nor opportunists.

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A joint United Nations Environment Programme and INTERPOL study published in 2014 reckoned that the trade in illegal African elephant ivory is worth up to $188 million a year, part of an illicit flora and fauna trade – including timber, live animals and rare birds, rhino horn and pelts – worth an astonishing $19 billion a year, making it one of the largest illicit trades on the globe, after narcotics, counterfeit currency, and human trafficking. Such a lucrative business attracts powerful, well-connected and professional criminal networks highly skilled at moving valuable illicit commodities from one side of the world to another. According to US law enforcement officials, the ivory trade has been linked to Irish organized crime, the Russian mob, and the Chinese mafia. Shooting or arresting poachers and seizing consignments of illegal ivory diminishes supply and might push up prices, but it only scrapes at the surface of the trade. Stopping the illegal business altogether means targeting the international criminal syndicates that control it, and that is a more difficult, and sometimes more dangerous, task than stopping poachers.

If Koyaso Lekoloi is the archetypal poacher, Feisal Mohamed Ali is, according to law enforcement officials, his smuggler counterpart, a man whose story reveals much about how challenging it is to cut off the transport of illegal ivory. Late last year Ali, a 46-year-old suspected ivory trafficker from Lamu in Kenya who was wanted by INTERPOL, was apprehended in Tanzania and extradited to Kenya to face trial. The story of Ali’s arrest began seven months earlier with a two-ton ivory bust at a secondhand car dealership in one of Mombasa’s dirty, chaotic industrial neighborhoods. In late May 2014, a Mitsubishi truck drove into Fuji Motors East Africa, a tarp stretched across its flatbed concealing a cargo of 228 tusks and 74 smaller pieces of ivory weighing a combined 2,152 kilograms.

An anonymous tip-off triggered a Kenya police raid five days later. Two men, Abdul Halim Omar and Ghalib Sadik Kara, who had supervised the offloading of the ivory, were arrested. Incredibly, officers turned down a 5 million shilling ($54,000) bribe, and the tusks were seized in what was to be one of the biggest busts in Kenya’s history. Ali was the suspected mastermind behind the shipment, and two days after Omar and Kara appeared before a Mombasa court a warrant was issued for Ali’s arrest. But he had already fled the country.

In November, INTERPOL listed Ali among the world’s nine most wanted environment criminals, “alleged to be the ringleader of an ivory smuggling ring in Kenya,” according to the notice. A month later he was arrested in neighboring Tanzania in an operation coordinated by INTERPOL, extradited to Kenya, and charged with illegally dealing in wildlife trophies.

Conservationists welcomed Ali’s arrest. “People who get apprehended are mainly the foot soldiers, the poachers, or foreign middlemen,” Mary Rice, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, told me by phone from her London office. “There hasn’t been a single kingpin prosecuted.”

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“Seizures happen every month, every week, but you never hear about the arrest of the kingpins,” Drori said. “Our biggest enemy in this fight is the myth that poachers are responsible. Forget about poachers, this is organized crime. Many times those involved in the wildlife trade are also in the drugs trade, the arms trade. It’s not an African problem. The trade is international.”

DNA tests on five years worth of large ivory seizures, carried out at a specialist laboratory at the University of Washington in Seattle, have found that the vast majority of illegal tusks is sourced from just two broad areas: Tanzania’s Selous Reserve and Central Africa’s Congo Basin rainforest. Almost all of the ivory – whether it has come from a few hundred or many thousands of miles away – ends up in large, consolidated shipments at the East African ports of Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar and, especially, Mombasa. In its report to CITES in 2013, the Elephant Trade Information System, mandated to track the illegal ivory trade since 1997, noted that in the previous three years, “Kenya and Tanzania have rapidly ascended to become the two most prominent countries connecting African ivory with Asian demand.” It said this represented “a major shift in trade routes, with the East African subregion eclipsing the Central/West African Atlantic Ocean seaports.”

The scale of trafficked ivory – indicated by the frequency of multi-ton busts, the distances covered, and the complexity of the operations – points to a new sophistication in the trade.

“There’s been a substantial shift in the nature of the people involved in the ivory trade,” Vira said when I reached him at the C4ADS headquarters in Washington, DC. In a pair of linked reports commissioned by wildlife charity Born Free USA, he investigated and then described the criminal syndicates involved. “Ivory isn’t as bulky as timber and therefore able to fill a shipping container, nor as small as rhino horn and able to be carried in a suitcase, so to make a proper worthwhile shipment you need 400 to 1,000 tusks,” he said. Often, consignments of raw tusks are packed in 20- or 40-foot containers, buried beneath legally exported products such as nuts, garlic, seashells, and dried fish, or secreted behind false walls and floors.

According to investigators, there may be a dozen mafia-like organizations running the illegal ivory trade. Corruption facilitates a flow of raw tusks that is, for the most part, uninterrupted. Hunters, drivers, park rangers, police officers, shipping agents, freight forwarders, customs officials, detectives, lawyers, judges, and politicians are all paid off or put on the payroll. Cash ensures compliance, whether at a police checkpoint, a customs desk, or a courthouse.

Asian and African criminal gangs control the supply chain from source to market, working in partnerships that are so close it becomes almost impossible – even pointless – to try to distinguish between them. The gangs are increasingly integrated with Asian criminals living and working in Africa, where they can maintain closer control over operations and “nest” illicit businesses within legal import-export companies.

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Those working to stem the flow of illegal ivory are waking up to the scale and complexity of the criminal enterprises they are fighting. “Initially, the poaching in Kenya was seen as one for the poor who were just trying to put some food on the table,” said Paul Gathitu Masela, spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service. “But we know that it has evolved and it has reached the scale where you have international cartels.” Masela admitted that, “ordinarily you are just catching the small fish.”

Ivory trafficking has been a high-profit, low-risk business with arrests and convictions rare, and penalties low even for those who are caught and found guilty. A five-year study of wildlife cases before Kenyan courts published last year by conservation group Wildlife Direct found that only 7 percent of people convicted of offenses against elephants and rhinos actually went to jail, despite new laws allowing for up to ten-year sentences.

This is why Feisal Mohamed Ali’s trial is being watched so closely, and why it is already causing such dismay. By early April, four months after his arrest and extradition, the case against him had barely begun. Weeks of back-and-forth arguments over whether Ali should be granted bail on medical grounds were eventually settled by a High Court judge who overruled a local magistrate, ordering his continued detention. Court officials and local police have been called to explain why vehicles listed as evidence in the case were removed from the supposedly secure crime scene at the Mombasa car lot. Activists who cheered Ali’s arrest and extradition late last year are worried. The odd decision by the trial judge to grant bail, reversing an earlier ruling that Ali was indeed a flight risk (as proven by his escape to Tanzania), plus the disappearance of the vehicles from the lot have led some to speculate that officials are already being paid off in a bid to subvert the trial. Paula Kahumbu, chief executive of Wildlife Direct, which is monitoring the trial, told me she’s worried the “case is being compromised.”

Given the far-reaching and powerful criminal networks now involved in the ivory trade, most conservation groups say it’s essential to maintain the global ban on ivory and to enforce a zero-tolerance policy on international sales. (Some conservationists disagree, and liken the ivory ban to the unsuccessful War on Drugs. See Plus-Minus, page 44.) Many African countries are still sitting on significant stockpiles of confiscated ivory, and conservation groups say the best thing to do is destroy them.

In February, on the edge of Nairobi National Park – a 45-square-mile reserve pretty much surrounded by the growing city yet still home to lions, rhinos, zebras, and giraffes – Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta set fire to a pyre of ivory tusks in a ceremony that mirrored previous burnings by his predecessors Mwai Kibaki, who burned five tons of ivory in 2011, and Daniel Arap Moi, who burned 12 tons in 1989. The following month Ethiopia followed Kenya’s lead, setting fire to six tons of ivory. Next, Republic of Congo incinerated its four-ton ivory stockpile.

Not only was Kenyatta’s ceremonial destruction the largest ever, it also tipped from symbolism to practical impact when the president promised that by the end of 2015 Kenya’s entire stockpile of illegal ivory would be destroyed. “Ivory and wildlife trophies must be put beyond use everywhere in the world,” Kenyatta told the assembled conservationists and dignitaries during the ceremony. “As part of Kenya’s policy to put ivory beyond economic use I will burn 15 tons of ivory in order to underline our determination to put an end to poaching. We will burn the rest of the stockpile we have within the year.”

The precise size of Kenya’s stock of contraband ivory is a tightly kept secret, but is estimated to be more than 115 tons. Kenya Wildlife Service won’t disclose the precise figure, and an agency spokesman, citing unspecified “security concerns,” told me the information was “sensitive.” The reticence has caused some to question whether years of corruption and pilfering might mean the strongroom contains less that it ought to. In his investigations Drori said he has “documented so many instances where ivory stocks are illegally sold to traffickers by corrupt officials.” To prove the point he showed me a photograph on his iPhone of a stash of tusks sent by a Chinese buyer seeking “more of the same.” The blue-inked catalog numbers inscribed by a government agency were clearly visible on the yellowing ivory.

The destruction of the ivory sends a clear message to both African elephant poachers and Asian ivory buyers, said Ian Craig, chief executive of Kenya’s Northern Rangelands Trust, as pipes of jet fuel were laid beneath the stacked tusks to get them burning. “It’s a symbolic act to bring the world’s attention to the elephant crisis, but it’s also a clear message to people who buy ivory that all they’re buying is a dead animal’s body,” Craig told me. “I would like to see every tusk in Africa go up in flames.”

The ivory pyre at Nairobi National Park burned for five days. Afterward, all that was left of the ivory hacked from the faces of more than 1,500 elephants was a heap of worthless grey ash.

Tristan McConnell has lived and worked in Africa since 2004. He has written for the Times of London, the London Review of Books, Harper’s and the Virginia Quarterly Review, among many other publications.

Infographic Sources: C4ADS, Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, International Fund for Animal Welfare, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Save the Elephants, TRAFFIC, Wildlife Conservation Society, World Wildlife Fund.

   

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Comments

Great article. Apart from the poachers and cartels, the bigger problem is that northern Kenya is like the Wild West 200 years ago: law enforcement is thin on the ground, rustling is rife, and people use guns to protect livestock, steal it, or as in this article, to poach wildlife.

By Ronald on Tue, January 19, 2016 at 9:08 am

Well, maybe now that the Chinese stock market has crashed, elephants will make it after all.

By GDiFonzo on Fri, July 17, 2015 at 4:05 am

Thank you for this very informative article. I knew that elephants were being killed for their ivory but never realized, until recently, the numbers of deaths.  I am looking into ways that I, as an individual, can help stop this from happening.

By Mary Ann Budin on Tue, June 30, 2015 at 12:32 pm

So the first man in this story kills and mutilates all those elephants, robs tourists at gunpoint, steels livestock and gets to live happily ever after? Gee that’s justice…rangers died trying to protect the animals he slaughtered, there was no happily ever after for them…

By Denise on Sun, June 14, 2015 at 7:56 am

Thank you for this story! What humans are doing to wildlife in the name of greed is an awful thing… In honor of my upcoming 40th birthday, I have dedicated it to raising $$ for rhinos, in hopes that even the small amount I am able to raise will help make a difference! http://www.crowdrise.com/jeremysrhinowish

By Jeremy Taylor on Fri, June 12, 2015 at 1:11 pm

Thanks for writing and publishing this.

Do you ever do reviews of films relevant to the subjects you write about?  The Video Project (well-known to John Knox and others there) distributes a new film on elephant slaughter called Pembe Ya Ndovu.  You can learn more about the film here—http://www.videoproject.com/tusk.html —and we’d be happy to offer a preview copy for review.

Thanks—Steve

By Steve Ladd on Thu, June 11, 2015 at 5:44 pm

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