Once upon a time, Africa alone was home to 26 million elephants. The giants roamed the continent knowing not what lay in store, that their habitats would dwindle and so would their majestic numbers.
From millions, they are now in their thousands, falling faster than trees – all for their ivory tusks.
Approximately 97 elephants are gunned down daily by poachers for their tusks. This means by 2030 there could be no elephants left in the wild.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the African elephant population dropped from 550,000 in 2006 to about 350,000. In East Africa, the decline is far more alarming – from 150,000 to about 100,000.
Other parts of the world have also seen a drastic decline of the elephant population. In Asia, it’s estimated less than 50,000 elephants still roam the region; more than half of them in India.
These figures are frightening – what deforestation and poaching can do.
Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times said: “Like blood diamonds from Sierra Leone or plundered minerals from Congo, ivory, it seems, is the latest conflict resource in Africa, dragged out of remote battle zones, easily converted into cash and now fueling conflicts across the continent.”
It’s hard not to notice the mammoths disappearing.
Dr. Paula Kahumbu, the CEO of WildlifeDirect, a Kenyan conservation NGO, is currently leading a campaign, Hands Off Our Elephants – civil society, corporations, government agencies as well as other conservation organizations in a unified approach towards ending the poaching crisis in Kenya.
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, to an English mother and Kenyan father, Kahumbu is one of eight siblings. Being out in the wilderness as a child interacting with animals made her the committed eco-warrior she is today.
“My mother was often home alone and because we were so many, mother would literally tell us to get lost and we would do just that,” says Kahumbu.
“We’d go exploring – catching anything you can imagine; birds, mice, snakes, frogs. We’d go fishing and swimming in the rivers, make our way through to forests and swamps. We spent our entire childhoods in the wilderness.”
“We did the kind of stuff you would never allow children to do today actually but it was very safe at that time,” she continues.
Soon, these trysts led to an encounter with Richard Leakey, a Kenyan paleoanthropologist, conservationist and politician.
“We didn’t know all that much about wildlife so we would visit our neighbor, Richard Leakey, head of the Kenya Museum Associates. He was someone who knew a lot about animals and whenever we would spend time with him he would teach us about their ecology, behavior, and the like.”
Between the 1960s and 1980s, elephant poaching was at a dramatic high, according to the Convention of International Trade and Endangered Species (CITES).
“When I finished high school, it was very difficult at that time to get into university. My parents could not afford to take us to the local university,” says Kahumbu, who then, just as she had done countless times as a girl, returned to Leakey.
She knocked on his door, which at the time was at the National Museum, and said, “I want to be a ranger”. That got her in.
“There was one particular place I wanted to go to, Kora National Park, best known for the lions and George Adamson who is famously known as Baba ya Simba, which translates to ‘father of lions’. My dream was to be his ranger. And Richard Leakey said ‘are you sure about this’? I was 17 years old and that’s all I wanted to do. I ended up in a research facility which focused on monkeys and that’s when I realized the importance of science in studying animals,” says Kahumbu.
That was the motivation for years of study. Kahumbu was the first in her family to attend university.
“My mum was not keen on the idea of a career in animal conservation… She sent me to secretarial college because she thought that the safe [career] option is to be a secretary because everyone needs a secretary. I detested it and the day I ran to Richard Leakey’s office was the day I ran away from secretarial college.”
Kahumu did a lot of field work early in her career.
“I went to some of the remote corners of the country, some really dangerous areas to study this wildlife. This left my mother very anxious.”
Her “conservative” mother always threatened: “I am going to speak to this Richard Leakey because it’s unacceptable that a young woman can live in the bush for months on end counting monkeys on her own.”
Her father, on the other hand, encouraged her. Kahumbu clearly broke boundaries.
“I remember my male colleagues were very angry with me because it was very uncommon for a woman, particularly a Kenyan woman, to be working in the forest usually by herself, so they would beg me to stop but of course I never did,” she says.
That did not deter her from her course.
“My son was actually born when I started working on my PhD and he was two-and-a-half years old when I had to spend extended periods of time in the wilderness conducting my research. I worked in a rainforest on top of a mountain with huge trees.”
Kahumbu and a small team of researchers were studying trees, a main source of nourishment for the elephants.
“We wanted to gauge how elephants living and eating in the forest was changing the landscape of the forest. My son was still so small, I would sit him on a mat, give him some toys to play with and go on measuring trees.”
“One day, the trees started moving as though they were being consumed by strong winds, it was actually a herd of elephants calmly making their way through the forest… But we were so busy we had not noticed they had moved in around us and I hadn’t really realized they were around us until I was about to measure what I thought was the trunk of a tree and then I realized it was the leg of an elephant,” she laughs.
“When I did [realize], I slowly tiptoed backwards and picked up the baby.”
Kahumbu was persuaded to study elephants after her bachelor’s degree and “was offered an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead the stocktake of ivory in 1989 in Kenya”.
“I had to measure every single tusk, which is a great source of information about the sex of the elephant and age. We gathered data from about 3,000 tusks and drew a timeline as every tusk had a marker of when and where it was seized.”
What the timelines showed was alarming. The tusks got smaller and smaller. This showed poachers were going for smaller elephants, calves essentially.
“Juxtaposing the data with the demography of animals, we saw there were no adults left, the species was basically finished because there were no longer breeding individuals; poachers are going for any kind of elephant, even if it had half a kilogram of ivory.”
Following that, Kahumbu decided she was not going to study the pachyderms, not only because they were virtually extinct but also because there was the threat of her becoming a target for poachers in the area.
“So, for my master’s degree, I decided to study monkeys and even from time to time, when we were out doing research in the wilderness, we’d hear gunshots and subsequently come across dead elephants on our trail and I remember thinking, ‘thank goodness I’m not studying elephants’ because every single day, I would be heartbroken.”
For three years, she refused to study them.
After her master’s, she became a senior scientist at Kenya Wildlife Service. While there, the organization hired 30 young Kenyans to conduct research on elephants.
The ban on poaching was now in place so their task was to work out how to save the remaining elephants as well as replenish the population. This formed the thesis of Kahumbu’s PhD.
When she became CEO of WildlifeDirect, she led a campaign exposing the poaching crisis in Kenya, leading to major reforms in the laws and practices against ivory poachers and traffickers.
Poaching dropped by 80% in three years. Kenya burned her entire ivory stockpile of 105 tonnes in April 2016, an event that garnered global attention.
“The world was very surprised – how was it that a country suffering economically would forego millions of dollars’ worth of a payout to prove a point?” says Kahumbu.
It was a start, and conservation continues.
“Even after decades of working in this area, I still can’t understand the inhumanity and greed of poachers. The elephant is an extraordinary animal. They can live in any habitat except the ocean. They can climb close to the ice on Mount Kilimanjaro, they can live in deserts as they do in Namibia and northern Africa. They can live in forests and in savannahs. Elephants can also eat almost anything.
“They are a lot like humans in that way because they can easily adapt to an environment. Their brain is three to six times larger than the human brain, designed to store vast amounts of information. Further, elephant families are actually governed by females because the male leave the herd at an early age and only return to mate.”
The trade of ivory is inextricably linked to the trading of slaves. Kahumbu explains, in the late 1800s, the British could not take ivory out of Africa without the help of slaves because they did not have the means to carry it. Ivory was stolen from the homesteads of people in the Congo.
“In those days, Africans did not see the monetary value poachers saw; they would use the tusks as fence posts around their homesteads and the British would raid these villages and steal all the ivory and ship it to Zanzibar and Mombasa and then it would be taken to Europe. It was so valuable, 100 tons a year were being shipped out to be used as billiard balls.”
And then ivory found its way to America; the volume of ivory coming into one part alone gave birth to two cities on the back of ivory trade and slavery. Business boomed. Technology was developed to transform ivory into how we know it today – thin veneers used as piano keys and hair combs.
“That was a major driver. And by the end of the 1800s, there was about 1.2 million elephants – a drastic decline. In Japan, ivory was a symbol of luck, pens and stamps were made with ivory and of course this caused the trade to skyrocket in the region.”
At the moment, various species of the elephant are on the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) list of critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable and threatened animals, sharing the list with another dwindling animal – the rhinoceros. The illegal rhino horn trade has decimated the world’s rhino population by more than 90% over the past 40 years.
But has the world awakened to the plight of these animals?
According to research, the common strategy adopted by many countries is to destroy stockpiles of ivory. An article in The Guardian quotes WWF: “This has been the case not only for African countries but also some developed countries that have intercepted ivory originating from Africa. The idea is to remove the ivory from the market and thus reduce the incentive for people to engage in smuggling. In Kenya, the problem of elephant poaching has spiraled out of control and destroying ivory has become the common practice in dealing with the stockpiles.”
The torching of stockpiles of ivory has not been the only way governments have tried to mitigate the poaching of elephants. Countries such as France, China, the United States, and the Philippines have destroyed ivory worth millions of dollars. However, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe oppose the destruction of illegal ivory; this according to an article published in National Geographic in 2016.
But does destroying ivory translate to less poaching? The Conservation Trust, a nongovernmental organization sites that in 2015, elephant poaching was at its highest level in more than three decades.
The ornaments made from the tusks form part of a billion-dollar industry – prevalent and as dangerous as ever.
Kahumbu’s Hands Off Our Elephants has generated unprecedented public and political awareness and support for wildlife conservation in Kenya.
According to WildlifeDirect, the most severe financial penalty for convicted poachers was $400, and fewer than 4% of convicted offenders were going to jail, a safe haven for poachers. Since then, the Kenyan government has allocated $20 million for anti-poaching activities.
In January last year, Kahumbu partnered with media and wildlife authorities to launch Kenya’s first wildlife documentary series, NTV Wild. It shines a light on issues of poaching and the very real prospect that in the near future, the world may be without elephants.