TOPICS > World

Racing to save Kenya’s wild elephants from poachers

September 29, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
For the African elephant, poaching has reached crisis levels, according to some advocates. Killed for their magnificent ivory tusks, activists worry that wild elephants could near extinction in a decade. Jeffrey Brown reports from Amboseli National Park in Kenya about the efforts underway to save the species and confront the poaching industry.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the threat to Africa’s elephants reaching crisis proportions. The world is taking notice. And this coming weekend, an international march for elephants will be held in cities in the U.S. and around the globe, including in Kenya, where Jeff Brown visited recently and had a close-up look at the situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: The African elephant, it is the largest land animal on earth. Weighing up to seven tons, these behemoths move more gracefully and sometimes faster than seems possible.

When you’re up close, it can take your breath away. And yet today, they’re among the most threatened animals.

There’s perhaps no better place in the world to see elephants in the wild than here at Amboseli National Park in Kenya under the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. But there is a massive slaughter of elephants going on throughout Africa now. And there are great fears that scenes like this might be impossible in the not-so-distant future.

PAULA KAHUMBU, CEO, Wildlife Direct: The poaching situation of elephants in Africa is actually at crisis levels. At this rate, most of our wild elephants will be gone within 10 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Paul Kahumbu of the group Wildlife Direct is referring to scenes like this, horrific, gruesome and all too common, elephants killed for their magnificent ivory tusks.

Elephants need their tusk for fighting, feeding and playing. But to poachers the, tusks mean big money. Despite the 1989 international ban on the trade of African elephant ivory, demand for tusks has grown, especially in China, where ivory carvings have long been prized and new wealth has pushed the price per pound to historic highs.

Poachers can make more than a year’s salary by killing one elephant. And experts say, today, they are organized and well-armed, with clear connections to cartels, militias, even terrorist groups.

MAN: He’s a victim of ivory poaching.

JEFFREY BROWN: Here’s one casualty, orphaned elephants, aged 2 months to 3 years, from all over Kenya, given shelter at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi National Park.

Edward Lucici has been caring for them for more than a decade.

MAN: We see their mood. We see their emotions when they come in.

JEFFREY BROWN: You do?

MAN: Most of them are sad. They’re stressed.

JEFFREY BROWN: How you can tell?

MAN: You can tell because they don’t want to — for us to sit with you or with us. They don’t want to feed from us. They don’t want to play with us. They’re most of the time, like, looking down, like crying, like moaning.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

MAN: And you can tell that is a mood of sadness.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s amazing to walk among them, like a group of young children, jostling one another and you, older ones caring for the babies, their trunks and keen sense of smell used to identify a visitor.

In Amboseli National Park, we learned more about the elephant’s complex and highly developed family and social lives and about their communication skills, their ability, for example, to sense danger. Using one of more than 70 different sounds, they can warn friends and family of potential threats or just say hello.

Katito Sayialel is deputy director of research at the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, based near the swamplands of the national park, where elephants eat, drink and escape the dry, dusty salt plains. Sayialel says she knows every one of the park’s 1,500 elephants.

KATITO SAYIALEL, Amboseli Trust for Elephants: And we know all of them individually by names.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not just by name, but also by date of birth, family history, and even personality. And the elephants know her so well, they don’t mind when she drives her Land Rover into the center of their herd, the sound of her voice, scent of her shirt all familiar to them.

The founder of the trust, Cynthia Moss, sums up the research.

CYNTHIA MOSS, Amboseli Trust for Elephants: They’re very complex, very highly intelligent. They have very large brains, very complex and convoluted brains. And they have a very rich social life.

But Moss ads:

CYNTHIA MOSS: They are smart, but they’re not smart enough not to get killed by people with AK-47s, so…

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s where these men come in. They’re among the 300-plus rangers who patrol in and around the park trained by Big Life, a private foundation dedicated to stopping the poaching of elephants and rhinos.

It’s a huge area, some two million acres, impossible to cover fully. And it’s grueling work. Big Life rangers hike through thick, thorny bush, sometimes for days at a time in search of threats and signs of the animals themselves.

MAN: Normally, an elephant go to a tree and scrub themselves where the injury is, so it can see the blood.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, I see.

MAN: Once you come across that incident, you have to follow that until we get it.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a dense lava forest home to endangered rhinos hunted for their prized horns, officer Joseph Makoki explained the dangers and difficulties of catching poachers before they strike.

MAN: They have got the binoculars. They have got the GPS. So, they have got everything.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. And they can come quickly.

MAN: They can come quickly.

JEFFREY BROWN: As soon as they know where an elephant or rhino is.

MAN: So it will be easy for him to come down straight, hit the ellie and go up.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you have to act really quickly too.

MAN: Yes. Yes. So we have to be always ahead of them.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Big Life has had an impact, making thousands of arrests in its four-year existence.

RICHARD BONHAM, Big Life: That’s a huge deterrent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Co-founder Richard Bonham says they have worked hard to engage the locals, mostly members of the Maasai Tribe, including using them as paid informants.

RICHARD BONHAM: If you can get the community behind them who are living with these animals, if they are behind it, then that is 90 percent of the battle won. You’re not fighting the community. They’re fighting for you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does the word get out, do you think, or is it getting out that they’re…

RICHARD BONHAM: Oh, it’s instant. The Bush telegraph works so fast.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Bush telegraph?

RICHARD BONHAM: Yes. Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARD BONHAM: You know, you make an arrest this morning, and by lunchtime, everybody in the whole area knows about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Still, it’s a small success in a war that Bonham and others fear is being lost.

RICHARD BONHAM: I think we are containing. Well, we are containing it here. But when you put that against what is happening across the rest of the continent, you know, the situation is out of control.

JEFFREY BROWN: Controversially, the agency charged with the task of protecting the elephants, the Kenya Wildlife Service, believes the situation is not that dire.

Assistant director Julius Cheptei told us that the government takes this very seriously and is throwing resources into it.

JULIUS CHEPTEI, Kenya Wildlife Service: This is a mission that people are saying, that poaching is out of control. From Kenya Wildlife Service’s point of view, that is not the case.

JEFFREY BROWN: Activist Paula Kahumbu scoffs at that and says the government is afraid of scaring off tourists.

PAULA KAHUMBU: At the moment, tourists are wondering whether it is safe to come to Kenya in part because they are seeing photographs of dead elephants. It means there are people running around those protected areas with guns. It doesn’t make you feel very secure.

JEFFREY BROWN: If things are bad here, she and others say, they’re even worse elsewhere in the continent, where war and other problems make it impossible to fight poaching.

As the sunset on this day at least, all seemed peaceful for the mighty beast living under Mount Kilimanjaro. The looming question, how much longer will it remain that way?

SHARE VIA TEXT