In Kenya, Violent Elephant Poaching Increases at an Alarming Rate

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Rising demand from China and elsewhere in Asia drives lots of industries these days, even illegal ones like ivory smuggling. Authorities in China have reported a sharp increase in the amount of illegal ivory shipments they intercept. And of course just yesterday there was news of the latest massacre of elephants, killed by poachers for their ivory tusks in Kenya. Jeffrey Gettleman covers the illicit ivory trade for The New York Times. He's in Nairobi. Jeff, you wrote that this was one of the worst episodes of poaching in Kenya. Tell us what exactly happened.

Jeffrey Gettleman: Eleven elephants, who all were in one same family, were shot dead by poachers and had their ivory hacked out in one of the more scenic and visited parks in the country, Tsavo East National Park. And what really scared people is that that level of poaching could wipe out an entire, you know, 11 elephants in one fell swoop, is reminiscent of what was happening in Kenya in the 1980s when poaching was completely out of control, and half the elephants in Africa—went from like 1.2 million to 600,000 elephants in a span of ten years until the poaching was brought under control. And a lot of people are worried that we're heading into a similar situation now.

Werman: What are the numbers today on poaching?

Gettleman: So it's really hard to figure out exactly what's happening out there, because elephants live deep in the forests and savannahs. Often they're killed by poachers and nobody ever finds the carcasses. They decompose, they're ripped apart by scavengers like hyenas and vultures. So sometimes you don't know exactly how many elephants are getting killed. But that said, the best estimates indicate that there are tens of thousands of elephants being poached every year across Africa, somewhere between ten, twenty, thirty thousand, maybe more, and that is a higher number than any time since the mid-to-late 1980s.

Werman: Wow. What is the population approximately of elephants in Kenya?

Gettleman: I think it's around 50,000, forty to fifty thousand, and in Africa, the total continent, there was 1.2 million in 1980. In 1990 there was 600,000.

Werman: I'm just curious, how do events like this affect Kenyans?

Gettleman: They get really upset, because Kenya derives a lot of income and pride and identity from its wildlife. Tourism is one of the biggest industries in Kenya. It generates over a billion dollars per year and something like five or six hundred thousand jobs. So it's really scary to Kenyans to have their wildlife being wiped out, especially when the demand for the ivory is 8,000 miles away in China.

Werman: I mean, given how lucrative ivory is, if you look just at the case of Kenya, is it time for the Kenyan government to think about a full-scale military operation to protect the elephants, and not just park ranger protection?

Gettleman: You know, they sometimes call on the military to help out in some of these African countries, but like in Congo, they use the military to fight poachers. It's just the distances are too vast. And it's like the war on drugs. I mean, think of how much money the American government and others spend on trying to intercept drug shipments and to patrol the skies, and the seas, and the borders. You know, billions of dollars and lots of resources and the drugs are still hitting the streets in the United States. So the idea is, no matter how much you beef up law enforcement, that's not going to stop it if there's just this insatiable demand. And so the efforts a lot of the wildlife groups are trying to do right now is trying to convince people in China that buying ivory is bad. It doesn't just result in the death of elephants, it results in the death of people, and they're trying to change the culture. And to me what's interesting, and I haven't been to China, but what's interesting is these countries are getting increasingly modern and sophisticated, yet they still adhere to these traditional values and beliefs. Vietnam's economy is booming, but people there still believe rhino horn powder can cure cancer, and there's absolutely no scientific proof of that. So things like these beliefs are so deeply seated that it's going to be very difficult to reverse them. But everybody I talk to say that's the answer and that's the only answer.

Werman: The New York Times' Jeff Gettleman speaking with us from Nairobi. Much obliged, Jeff. Thank you.

Gettleman: Glad to help.