After witnessing how illegal ivory was obtained, I really was speechless. After seeing these animals up close and watching them interact in loving and protective family groups, it was heart wrenching and deeply depressing to see them cruelly taken before their time.
People have spent their lives studying and living intimately with these animals and now, just like in 1989 before the international ivory trade was banned, they must spend their lives looking for bodies, using metal detectors to find bullets and conducting autopsies.
Unfortunately, I saw five poached elephants in close proximity to each other while in Kenya — an indication of the seriousness of the poaching crisis.
I’m told that until 1989, the international trade in ivory was legal. But in addition to legal ivory from natural deaths, huge amounts of illegal ivory were laundered into the trade despite years of attempted regulation. This “regulated” trade led to the halving of elephant numbers from 1.2 million to around 600,000 in two decades. West, Central and East Africa were hardest hit, while Southern African populations remained stable and even increased.
In 1989, the international community banned the trade. The price of ivory fell to a quarter of its previous levels as markets in the US, Europe and much of the world, collapsed. For a number of years, elephant numbers stabilized and poaching declined. Some South African countries pushed for re-opening ivory trade for their stockpiles, but each time this was done, poaching increased again on speculation of a renewed market.
Theoretically, we could have a market in ivory supplied from elephants that die naturally. But unfortunately, with the high amount of money at stake, few will wait for the elephant to die to make a profit. There are too many people with access to weapons to do the killing here and too many people ready to buy the ivory without questioning how it was obtained.
I also learned that at one point in history, the United States was the largest consumer of ivory. As of 1989, Japan and Hong Kong were the largest importers of ivory, with Hong Kong holding 127 tonnes in its stockpile.
But China’s economic boom has lead to greater buying power with few potential consumers exposed to the publicity surrounding the 1989 ban. This is why we really need to document what’s happening here in Africa, on the ground. I firmly believe that Chinese consumers will have a change of heart once we understand the consequences, but it hasn’t been covered widely enough in the media.
Unlike rhino horn (which was banned in 1993 in China), ivory is still legally available and side-by-side with illegal ivory from poached elephants, which I think is very confusing for people. If you see something openly on sale, you assume it is legal. An ivory carving is thousands of miles removed from the sad carcass of a poached elephant, but we need to make that connection.
It was a harrowing experience I never want to repeat, but something that everyone thinking of buying ivory should see — the wastefulness of these animals cruelly slaughtered just so a small part of them could be used.
Would anyone buy ivory if they had witnessed this?
On the way out of Daphne Sheldrick’s Orphanage, we turn a corner and come face-to-face with a large black rhino wandering loose. He snorts and comes to challenge us. It’s very intimidating.
Then his keeper arrives and starts tickling him and soothing him and he rolls to the ground in response. I am able to tickle him behind the ears. Another adopted orphan. A two-ton baby named Solio.
We leave Kenya stunned by the natural beauty, charmed by the welcome of the people, impressed by the elephants and their social interactions, the feeling that maybe we have more in common than I had thought, and shocked by the ferocity and brutality of the war being waged for their ivory.
From my conversations, it is clear that Kenya needs to pass legislation, which has languished in parliament for years, to increase the penalties for poaching. Currently, you can get a more severe punishment for stealing a few goats than for killing an elephant.
But they also need help from the international community, not just to support conservation work and enforcement efforts, but also to end the demand. This is a war that needs to be defunded and I hope we can raise public awareness to achieve this. As the WildAid slogan goes, “when the buying stops, the killing can, too.”
I have been heartened by the support that conservation work has received from both the people and government of China and I know we can do even more to help with increased enforcement and collaboration.
Back in Ol Pejeta, I visit some of the local community projects funded by the wildlife tourism. A school that now has a library and bank of computers some of the kids use to study (and play video games, I’m told).
The school teachers thanked me for coming and for all the good things China is doing in Kenya, like building a new road, but also appealed for our help in stopping the ivory poaching.
It’s clear that through the jobs provided by tourism, as well as the benefits to the local communities, wildlife is a very valuable resource for Kenya and many other African countries. Poaching robs communities of these benefits. When you buy ivory anywhere in the world, you are contributing to this theft.
Next stop, South Africa.
The baby elephants at Daphne Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage, on the edge of Nairobi National Park, have been orphaned by poaching and other causes. They are taken in, cared for, and ultimately reintroduced into the wild.
While the tragic circumstances of their arrival is depressing, the atmosphere and relationship the elephants have with their keepers is very moving.
For the new arrivals, they are so traumatized by losing their family that a keeper must sleep in their stall to keep them company. They are fed from bottles from behind a blanket to replicate the shade their mother’s belly would provide.
Not only do they get the care from the keeper, but the other elephants quickly adopt them and protect them as we’ve seen in the wild.
The latest addition, Kinango, barely comes up to my knee.
He’s only two weeks old and is here because of poaching – his mother was killed for her ivory tusks.
He pushes against me partly for contact, but also testing his strength.
He greedily guzzles the milk formula I feed him from a bottle.
Every day, a parade of elephants walks out into the park to feed and exercise. It’s a chaotic, comical bustle as they charge around looking for tasty leaves and wrestle with each other by locking trunks and shoving backwards and forwards.
They like to lean on you and push against you, but can also be very gentle with their amazing trunks – displaying both strength and precision. The little ones are quite hairy with dense black bristle. They lose this hair as they grow. I also notice how warm the babies are – their skin is thinner and they loose heat quickly so they are kept with blankets wrapped over them to keep out the morning chill.
Just like human babies, they need to be fed regularly – every three hours.
At one point, something in the bush scares them and they all stampede through our group and despite the chaos, they manage to avoid us. Though, everyone counts their toes afterwards since even these little guys weigh several hundred pounds.
The good news is the orphanage has perfected the process and if the bables can survive the first few weeks and take to food, they can usually make it to be eventually released to join a wild herd. The bad news is they may not be safe from poachers once back in the wild.
Visiting the orphanage is a fantastic experience. It is open to the public, which helps subsidize the considerable cost of this rehabilitation.
On the way out, we turn a corner to come face-to-face with large black rhino wandering loose.
Check back to find out what happens…
Back in Nairobi, we visit the headquarters of the Kenya Wildlife Service where I meet the Director, Julius Kipng’etich. He shows me a monument to rangers that have fallen in the line of duty. It’s a sobering moment as a reminder that this really is a war with casualties on both sides. There are no monuments to the poachers of course, but many have been killed in the process of stealing Kenya’s ivory.
We are taken to the “ivory room” in an underground vault where confiscated wildlife products are stored. It’s a veritable Aladdin’s cave of wildlife remains.
On the one side, a huge pile of skins, and on the other side, a stack of thousands of ivory tusks from miniature to enormous, with some covered in dirt as they had been buried to escape detection. Each one is marked with a weight and location. A sad testimony to the trade. If this was what was found, how much more was shipped out undetected?
They tell me that 3 tonnes of ivory have recently been stolen from Zambia’s stockpile and certainly this is like having gold bullion in a vault — very tempting for theft or corrupt activities. I’m told they will probably burn the confiscated ivory at some point.
After the graveyard of the ivory room, we meet some of the survivors at Daphne Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage, on the edge of Nairobi National Park.
More to come on that…
We then visit the Save the Elephants field station. A crushed pick-up sits outside as a monument to what can happen if you get on the wrong side of an elephant. Every panel was crushed as it was rolled over during a clash between two bulls.
Living next to elephants isn’t always easy — in some areas, crop raiding is a real problem. But here, where people rely on goats and camels rather than crops, there seems to be a peaceful co-existence.
En route, we see a mother lioness and two cubs sitting probably eight feet from our open vehicle. Peter Knights tells me as long as you remain in the vehicle, the lions will show no interest in you — step out and they’ll either run away or run after you. I’m a nice “medium rare” from the equatorial African sun, but I’d rather not be on the menu today!
As we watch, I notice movement behind me and see an elephant sniffing the air and then trumpeting and spreading its ears to make it seem much larger. We move out of the way and then the elephant shows who’s boss and clears the lions out shaking its head at them. They scamper off, occasionally turning back to consider trying their luck, but discretion is the better part of valor.
Sir Iain Douglas Hamilton tells me they know all of the elephant families and track their movements using radio collars that would break our backs, but are lightweight for the elephants. Using Google Earth, they are able to track an individual animal’s movements and identify corridors between parks, which can then be protected. At another site in the Maasai Mara, they have a male elephant named after me. I tell Iain I was a Rocket, not a Bull, but I am looking forward to being able to track my elephant namesake. I hope he stays safe.
Finally, we head out to record a Public Service Announcement with the elephants. They obligingly march right past me in the vehicle as if they know we need their help to get the message out to please not buy their ivory.
Next, Bernard takes me to visit the local Samburu village.
We arrive to a greeting from the women of the village looking stunning in their traditional dress with an amazing array of beadwork around their necks. He explains that they accumulate jewelry as unmarried women and then distribute it to their families as they are married. The women with the most jewelry are the most eligible. They serenade me with their amazing voices as we enter their village.
There, I meet the village elders. Branded baseball caps meets African traditional wear. It’s a blend of traditional and modern. They make me feel welcome and the eldest blesses me with a chorus of his fellows and as he speaks we are instructed to curl our fingers in acceptance of the blessing and I pat my forehead in acceptance of his benevolence.
Elephant Watch and Save the Elephants have been working with this community for decades and their appreciation is clear. Support for education and other community projects comes directly from the tourism conservation fees.
Peter Knights of WildAid told me on his last trip he met a a fully-qualified Samburu doctor, whose training had been paid for by those fees. He asked the doctor what a poached elephant meant to him personally and the response was, “one poached elephants is 200 Samburu children without an education.”
In China, we rightly value education very highly. For most parents, our greatest aspiration is the best possible education for our children. I’m sure if people realized that buying illegal ivory undermined education in Africa, they wouldn’t want to buy it anymore.
Next, I get to scout the local basketball talent. I’m looking for some new signings for the team I now manage, the Shanghai Sharks. There’s a great exuberance and some talent and thankfully on my turn I make my shots to a roar of approval. By the fourth basket, we manage to break the rickety rim, so I’m going have buy them a new hoop. It’s great to see such enthusiasm and ball-handling on a dirt court.
Next, the children come to sing for me accompanied by a burlap sack elephant with a few vision challenges. The smaller children run off in fright, but the two-man elephant hands me a basketball from its makeshift trunk.
A wonderful morning and they could not have made me feel more welcome. I feel deeply honored. The Samburu have a simple life, but they live it with dignity, humor and what appears to be an inner contentment we have a hard time achieving in the “modern” world.
I am in the middle of an interview when David and Oria move the vehicles around in a protective circle, like a wagon train from an old cowboy movie, and we get in to watch the action. As a herd of 40 or more elephants comes straight towards us, a large bull in musth (when they are ready for romance they drip a strong smelling secretion from the glands at the side of the head) comes striding across the river.
Bulls in musth can sometimes be aggressive and unpredictable so it’s quite intimidating when one comes marching into the herd less than 20 feet from me. The great deep rumbles and the excited trumpets sound all around me and there’s a lot of charging around and elephant bumper car action going on. The ladies get excited when the big man in town arrives, David tells me. But it all ends peacefully and the herd heads off into the bush.
They have another surprise for me. As the sun starts to go down, I head up to a hill with a spectacular 360 degree view flanked by a dozen Samburu warriors, some of whom work at the camp, singing traditional songs.
As the last light of day slips away, they present me with an 8ft spear and ask me to become an honorary Samburu warrior with the name Lenasakalai, a legendary warrior who protected the Samburu people.
“Please go back and fight for the elephants for the Samburu people” says Bernard Lesirin, a young warrior and top guide at Elephant Watch. They then begin their dancing, jumping straight up into the air and all around me. If the cameras weren’t on me, I would join in.
They light our fire literally by rubbing two sticks together in the traditional way and as a thousand stars and the Milky Way appear above my head, accompanied by the hypnotic chanting of the warriors, I feel like I am being taken back in time. Until the ring of a cellphone in one of the warrior’s pockets reminds me that here the past and the present intermingle.
We then retire to the Elephant Watch Camp, a beautiful tented camp shaded by large trees overlooking the Ewaso Nyiro River. As well as paying guests it is frequented by vervet monkeys, who are quick to steal any food left unclaimed even for a second.
It has a very organic feel to it and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, our host, had even brought in a Shanghai-style Chinese chef, Mr Tang, to make me feel at home. They have built me a custom made bed with my name spelled out in wood, made from fallen trees around the camp.
This is still the bush and Pete warns me to shake out my shoes before putting them on to check for scorpions. I’m a bit disappointed that I never actually find one!
I leave exhausted, having packed a week’s adventure into a single afternoon with a warm glow and perhaps a little sadness that if we are not careful, these ceremonies and the traditional Samburu way of life, like the elephants, may not be around forever.