An epidemic of poaching is sweeping Central and East Africa. Countries such as Cameroon, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo are seeing their elephants slaughtered by the hundreds every year for their tusks. And rhinos, whose keratin horns are prized in traditional medicine, are badly suffering, too. In Kenya, 59 rhinos and 302 elephants were killed illegally in 2013. As I’m writing this, in spring of 2014, three rhinos have already been slaughtered in Nairobi National Park, one of the most heavily patrolled parks in the country. The killings happened within sight of a city of more than 3 million people.
It’s the worst outbreak of poaching since the 1980s, when more than 800 tons of ivory left Africa every year and the continent’s elephant populations plunged from 1.3 million to 600,000. Most of the ivory is bound for Asia, especially China, where a booming economy means more people are able to afford ivory products that are considered status symbols: bracelets, iPhone cases—even, in tragic irony, carved elephant figurines. By some estimates, ivory prices have risen tenfold in the past five years. Poaching has escalated on many levels: Heavily armed gangs, using automatic rifles and night-vision goggles, are backed by crime networks in Africa and Asia and have been linked to militant terrorist groups in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The trade is sophisticated and coordinated, and it is fueled by forces both local and international—which is why we at The Nature Conservancy are working hard to reduce poaching from source to destination.
Poaching doesn’t just kill beautiful, intelligent and often endangered animals and leave their crucial role in the savanna empty. It also threatens the livelihoods—and lives—of people who live where elephants and rhinos range. Poaching fuels corruption, crime and community infighting, and it also scares away tourists who would otherwise pay handsomely to see the very animals that are being targeted.
That describes the situation in northern Kenya in the past few decades. But the surge of poaching in some areas has begun to decline through efforts of The Nature Conservancy and its partner the Northern Rangelands Trust, an umbrella organization that helps communities set up their own local wildlife conservancies. The trust brings together people connected by geography and kinship to manage their lands for mutual benefit: protecting animal habitat, negotiating grazing locations, offering economic development programs, and improving security for both people and wildlife.
Poverty and desperation open communities to the money that poaching offers. One of our primary goals is to give landholders an incentive to protect the animals they live alongside, every day. But it was not easy work at first.
When I began working with local residents in 2004 to set up conservancies, they were highly suspicious of our efforts, even hostile. Northern Kenya has long been a hardscrabble part of the county, with communities sometimes in violent conflict over limited water, land and other resources. Still, every evening we would sit by the fireside to talk with community leaders over bowls of rice and beans. At least four armed guards stood watch as we listened to the leaders’ stories and discussed how they could work collectively to move from the past to the future. -
See more at: http://magazine.nature.org/features/the-price-of-poaching.xml?intc=nature.hp.sp1#sthash.wex2yRKs.dpuf
article by Charles Oluchina
photos by Ami Vitale (her website can be found here, instagram and twitter)