One way to catch a poacher is by smell.
Winding up a hill in southern Kenya, a tracker dog is guided by a scent — past thorned bushes and through brush.
On the other end of the leash is ranger Mutinda Ndivo. He keeps his eyes on the red earth, looking for footprints.
Today this is a training exercise, but the pair have caught many poachers — or attempted poachers — this way.
Ndivo knows the way poachers work, because he was one. A notorious one at that. My translator, Joseph, said Ndivo’s name and photo were in the news back in the day.
Ndivo’s father taught him how to poach, using poisoned arrows. By 1989 he’d made a name for himself, killing up to seven elephants a day.
But even if he was notorious, Ndivo was still at the bottom of the wildlife crime chain. He had no idea where the ivory went or who it funded. He just took his money, and didn’t ask too many questions.
It was the law that ultimately stopped Ndivo. He was caught, imprisoned, and had to sell off most of what he owned to pay a $100,000 fine. And ultimately that was it — it was too expensive, too risky for him to poach. He got a job with wildlife NGO Big Life for $200 a month.
The Kenyan government is hoping these same economic forces will prevent others from poaching. Last year they put into effect a strict wildlife act. It imposes life sentences or fines up to $200,000 for poaching elephants or other wildlife.
The law’s just one of the tools being used to combat poaching. The Kenyan government has increased funding to the wildlife service. It built a new forensic lab to test wildlife products to aid in prosecution.
Also key has been the government’s openness to work with NGOs, like Big Life.
Bernard Kiptoo works with Big Life to monitor wildlife crime and makes sure incidents are prosecuted. “We have to be there,” he says, “because we doubt that these people will actually be brought before the courts.”
When cases do go through the system, however, the results are striking. He points to a white board with past cases of elephant poaching.
“On July 27, 2011, somebody was arrested for spearing an elephant at Olpakai. And when he was taken to the courts he was fined 30,000 and released,” Kiptoo says.
That’s about $300 US, not even worth the cost of one cow.
In a similar case last year, after the bill was passed, a man was charged with seven years in prison.
Now, that may help deter smaller poachers, but not the sophisticated poachers who are more likely to be connected to large criminal groups. Stopping them will take an even bigger effort.
“Their insurances, their connections, their income is so large that it should probably take some time to really try to squeeze these guys to make this law a deterrent,” says Johan Bergenas, who studies transnational security with the Stimson Center and works extensively with Kenyan anti-poaching initiatives. He says that while it may still be too early to know the real effect of the wildlife bill, it’s a big step in African conservation.
“The way I would look at this bill ... [is] that this is no longer a western-led, big NGOs in Washington, Brussels, [and] Stockholm ... making money off of elephants looking cute,” he says. “I would look at it as a way where Africans are taking ownership of their economic assets. Africans are seeing the impact of wildlife crime and what it does to their economies, what it does to their security, what it does to their development.”
Here around Amboseli National Park, local communities are active in this fight.
Big Life rangers have received a call — an elephant has trampled a garden.
These rangers are all locals, and they know it’s not easy living alongside wildlife. The landowner stands with arms crossed, tears in her eyes. She says this garden is the only way she can afford to pay for her three kids’ education.
Here’s where an NGO like Big Life makes the difference. Rangers provide her with flares to scare away wildlife, and will compensate her if any of her own animals are killed.
Where before there may have been a retaliatory poaching of the elephant, now these rangers have won over a community member. This woman will likely become part of Big Life’s informer network — people who notify rangers of any suspicious activity.
And a community that values wildlife is key. Tourism — mostly from wildlife — is huge here, making up about 12 percent of Kenya’s economy. Security expert Johan Bergenas says for the economic security of the country, Kenya needs to keep these animals alive.
“Over the next 15 to 20 years, as they are transitioning their economy into a more industrial economy, they cannot afford to have sectors of their society squashed by transnational criminals and not being able to make that transition into a more developed country,” he says.
After a day’s work, the rangers go back to their base and make a meal of maize flour mash and greens. They spend about 23 days out of the month deployed here.
For Muimo Yiambat, who has five kids and a wife at home, wildlife, more than anything, means money.
“We get a sponsorship because of wildlife,” he says. “We get a profit because of wildlife. So I am happy. I am happy to work even a very hard job because we benefit through the wildlife.”
Here, along Kenya’s other front line, it comes down to economic incentives.
And for the wildlife to thrive, their protectors have to believe they're more beneficial alive than they are dead.