Don’t Let Our Elephants Disappear
August 9, 2017 | Paula Kahumbu
World Elephant Day on August 12th is a both a day for global celebration of elephants and a reminder that their conservation requires a global effort. Kenya has a key role to play in ensuring the survival of these magnificent animals and World Elephant Day is also an opportunity to take stock. How have our elephants fared over the past 12 months? What are their prospects over the next year—and beyond?
The good news: Ivory poaching levels in Kenya remain low. While official figures for 2016 are not yet available, it is clear that deaths from poaching this year will be far fewer than the 300–400 elephants lost annually in the dark years of 2012–13. While every elephant killed by poachers is one too many, we should applaud the achievement of our law enforcement agencies in bringing ivory poaching under control and for putting one major ivory kingpin, Feisal Mohamed Ali behind bars for 20 years. In particular we should pay tribute to the unsung heroes, rangers and scouts who risk their lives every day in the war on poaching.
The bad news is that the conviction of Feisal had only a temporary effect on ivory trafficking. Kenya continues to be the major transit point for illegal ivory shipped out of Africa on its way to Asian markets. Though there was only one major seizure of ivory in Mombasa in 2016, several other large consignments known to have passed through the port were seized on arrival by authorities in Southeast Asia. We can only guess at the amount that flows through the port undetected, aided by lax security and, almost certainly, corruption among port officials.
We have been monitoring wildlife trials in Kenyan courts and despite much progress, many cases relating to major seizures remained stuck in the courts—in one instance since 2012.
We fear that Kenya will remain complicit in the ongoing slaughter of African elephants until we can secure its borders, bring the ivory traffickers to justice and stop the transit of illegal ivory through our ports and airports. We cannot do it alone, trade in ivory is a global issue and countries have to work together.
This is why we celebrated at the end of 2016 when China joined many other countries and announced that it will phase out the legal trade in ivory by the end of 2017. This was a major breakthrough since when all ivory is illegal law enforcement becomes much easier. There are already signs that the Chinese ban has resulted in a reduction in the price of both the legal and illegal ivory markets across Southeast Asia.
Taking a long view, we should remember that there were more than 150,000 elephants in Kenya as recently as the 1970s. A catastrophic decline reduced population numbers to only 16,000 in the late 1990s. The population has since increased and now stands at about 35,000 individuals, making Kenya one of the few countries in Africa where elephant populations are currently stable or increasing. Despite a surprising rise in poaching in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana, generally southern African elephants remain secure, but elephant numbers in Tanzania and Mozambique are plunging and the situation of the few remaining animals in Central and West Africa remains precarious. There is still much work to be done which is why Kenya’s First Lady has the following to say
“Elephants have lived in coexistence with human beings in Africa for millions of years. They are part of our natural environment our culture, our identity and our heritage. We are alarmed that trade in ivory in other parts of the world threaten the very existence of this majestic species and we call on all citizens of the world to celebrate World Elephant Day on 12th August, by renewing their commitment to end trade in ivory. The only place that it belongs is on the elephant. Let’s play our part in keeping them alive.” – H.E. First Lady of Kenya, Margaret Kenyatta.