Early this year, a story in the New York Times described how 72 boxes of trinkets were all that remained after more than 100 elephants were slaughtered for their incisor teeth. The trinkets included beads, chess sets, bone-white animal figures, bangles and toys, earrings, pendants and bracelets. Similarly, rhino horn is regarded as an irreplaceable ingredient of traditional Chinese medicine. Its collection is responsible for the shameful massacre of tens of thousands of rhinos.
The largest land creatures on the planet are being slaughtered to extinction for vanity and myth of healing. Like biting your fingernails or munching equine hooves, rhino horn has no effect against pain or inflammation, or muscle spasm or stomach ailments.
Elephants and rhinos are not nondescript organisms. They are fascinating, gentle giants. For instance, a recent study in which researchers played voice recordings to wild African elephants revealed that elephants are able to differentiate between ethnicities – Maasai and Kamba – and gender. Moreover, elephants are intelligent and social creatures. Invariably, poaching of adult elephants ravages their social structure, reducing elephant populations to leaderless units of traumatized orphans.
Half a kilogram of ivory is worth about US$1,500 in the black market. The price of rhino horn varies between US$65,000 and US$100,000 a kilogram, which is about 2.5 times more than the value of a kilogram of gold. Profits from illegal wildlife trafficking are now worth an estimated US$8-10 billion annually, making it the fifth most profitable form of transnational organized crime after narcotics, human trafficking, oil, and counterfeiting.
Poachers are now slaughtering up to 35,000 of the estimated 500,000 African elephants every year for their tusks. In 2013 about 1100 rhinos were killed in Kenya and South Africa. Over 95 percent of the dead rhinos were killed in South Africa where poachers are using GPS, helicopters and semi-automatic weapons. This year alone, Kenya has lost 13 rhinos and 14 elephants, a majority of them killed inside the most well protected sanctuaries.
Illegal wildlife trade is big, with organized-crime syndicate modus operandi, which operates locally, with links of couriers, buyers and exporters who sell to Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand, the primary ivory and rhino horn consuming nations in the world. Quoting a recent Interpol report, Kenya’s foremost conservationist, Richard Leakey, said Kenya is now the preeminent conduit for trafficking ivory and rhino horn in East Africa. The Kenyan port of Mombasa and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania are the two largest exit points for illicit ivory.
According to former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, there is growing evidence that terrorist groups including Al-Shabaab with its unspeakable attack on Westgate fund their activities from ivory trafficking. It is believed that Al-Shabaab raises circa US$600,000 a month from poaching to funds its activities. Janjaweed, a militia that operates in Darfur and Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, also raise money directly from poaching.
Poaching and illegal wildlife trafficking poses a grave threat to national security, political, social and economic stability. There is credible evidence money made from poaching is funding Al-Shabaab, giving them the financial and organizational wherewithal to kill and maim innocent Kenyans. It is plausible that the haul of money made from poaching is used to corrupt public officials, thus undermining the integrity and capability of our institutions.
The inexorable decline of rhino and elephant will change irreversibly, the structure and workings of savanna ecosystems, including pastoralism. Such dramatic habitat changes will wipe Kenya off the list of leading wildlife tourism destinations. What is scary is that this will happen before 2030. The collapse of tourism will have a Tsunami effect on our economy. Tourism contributes nearly 15 percent of our GDP and supports nearly 900,000 jobs. Poaching is therefore an economic crime of grave proportions.
It is inconceivable that Kenya’s ubiquitous security and intelligence resources cannot find and bring to justice the individuals behind the nefarious wildlife trafficking. Like the priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, we have chosen to pass by on the other side. But like the Samaritan, we must stop and save for posterity, the rich wildlife heritage bequeathed to us by our forebears.
In honor of these gentle giants, I rephrase the eternal words of English poet and preacher John Donne. Any elephant or rhino death diminishes me, because I am involved in all of nature’s bounty.