Habitat loss due to drought and human-animal conflict is another major threat to wildlife. Here, the soil is eroded due to overgrazing, and elephants compete with livestock for food.

Kenya's wildlife warriors need our help

Words, pictures and video: Tessa Chan

“Not everyone can do this job,” says Rianto, deputy head of the anti-poaching team at the Borana Conservancy, in Laikipia, central Kenya.  “As rangers, we have to be constantly aware, asking ourselves, ‘What would I do if I came face to face with a poacher on this road? Or an elephant, or a rhino?’ Because it happens.”

We’re at a lookout with panoramic views over the conservancy – lush, fertile grasslands that stretch as far as the eye can see – and Rianto has been showing me how his two-man night patrol team sets up for an evening deployment.

The rangers are armed with rifles and dressed in camouflage, and have been trained by Kenyan private security company 51 Degrees.  Each one covers the other’s movements before they both disappear off into the hills.  Rianto (who prefers to use only his first name, for security reasons) points out a herd of elephants in the distance.  To one side, we spot a black rhino, barely a smudge on a binocular lens.  Rianto alerts his men by radio; their job is to make sure the wildlife doesn’t venture too close to the peripheral fence, where poachers could be lurking.

As darkness falls, Rianto and I get into our jeep and are about to make our way back to the rangers’ headquarters at the conservancy when the black rhino comes charging at us from the side.  We accelerate through a ditch, escaping just in time: he come within a metre or two of us, close enough for me to hear his snorting and smell his breath.  “Sh*t!” exclaims the Maasai, looking through his rear mirror to check we’re not being followed.  Once we’re at a safe distance, we burst out laughing – though it’s not that funny; black rhino have a reputation for being aggressive – partly due to fear or confusion caused by poor eyesight – and our friend’s 2.5-foot horn could have easily pierced the door of the jeep.

The anti-poaching unit at Borana Conservancy are briefed before their evening deployment. Apart from protecting the conservancy's wildlife, they also provide security to the local community; a sign inside the rangers’ quarters.

Animals are not the biggest risk the rangers face out here in the bush at night, however.

“The poachers are ready for anything,” says Rianto.  “If they see you, they will either shoot or run away.  We are trained to disarm them; we ambush them and take them to the police.”

Conservation efforts such as this have led to a decline in elephant poaching in Kenya, yet in Africa as a whole, the situation is critical.

Since China’s recent pledge to phase out its ivory trade by the end of the year, all eyes have turned to Hong Kong, the world’s largest retail market for ivory, despite a 1989 inter­national ban.  Ahead of the March 27 Legislative Council’s Panel on Environmental Affairs meeting, the first in a series of government discussions about a proposal to phase out the local ivory trade by 2021, I’ve come to Kenya to meet people who work day and night to keep elephants, and other vulner­able wildlife, alive.

Every year, an estimated 33,000 elephants are killed for their ivory across Africa; that’s nearly 100 a day, or one every 15 minutes.  A recent aerial survey revealed that the continent is experiencing its worst elephant population decline in 25 years, numbers having plummeted by nearly a third between 2007 and 2014.  The International Union for Conservation of Nature attributes this to a surge in ivory poaching that began in 2006, the worst Africa has seen since the 1970s and 80s.

And it’s not just elephants that are being affected.

“Wildlife creates jobs.  Ninety-five per cent of the employees we have in Borana are local people,” Rianto says.  The conservancy and related ranching and tourism operations employ a total of 298 people.  “So the community is benefiting directly from wildlife.”

Three local Maasai ladies discuss a new tourism initiative with representatives from Borana, to show visitors how they live in their nearby traditional village.

The conservancy also financially supports seven primary schools and has 23 children in a bursary programme.  A mobile clinic operated by Borana attends to more than 7,000 patients a year in Laikipia and Meru counties, according to the Borana Group’s 2015 corporate social responsibility report.

“We need to make people understand that,” says Rianto.  “And if you don’t care about how you’re affecting people on the other side the world, then it means you are mean, you are brutal; you don’t have any meaning in this world.”

Borana and neighbouring conservancy Lewa share 37,000 well-protected hectares.

“All of this land needs field officers, scouts, rangers,” says the conservancy’s managing director, Michael Dyer, whose family has been operating Borana for three generations.  “You need community liaison people who can deal with health and education issues.  You need people that can interact with investors, and come up with new ideas for micro enterprise.  So we’re trying to create a sustainable model.”

Originally a ranch, Borana was dedicated to wildlife conservation in 1992.  As a non-profit organisation, its core costs are underwritten by share­holders.  Some funding comes from a cattle herd, international institutions such as the United States Agency for International Development (for projects that benefit the local community), bespoke private foundations such as Save the Rhino and individual philanthropists, but much of its income derives from safari tourism and takings at the Borana Lodge, which accommodates tourists in eight cottages.

“Tourism is a fickle industry”, however, says Dyer.  “It’s largely driven by pricing, it’s driven by quality and it’s driven by fashion – what’s fashionable now might not be tomorrow.”

Political instability and negative press coverage also affect the tourism industry in Kenya.  People hope the August general election will be more peaceful than that in 2007, but there is already tension in the air, stoked by the armed pastoralists who have been entering conservancies and private land in northern Kenya, bringing with them huge herds of livestock to graze, following severe droughts in the country.

“When the tourism numbers drop, it’s massively detrimental to wildlife,” says Richard Roberts, co-founder of the Mara Elephant Project, which protects elephants in the greater Mara ecosystem, the northern portion of the Serengeti plains.  “Our national parks fail, and our community conservation areas can’t survive.  Without tourism, our remaining wildlife would all disappear.”

Roberts, a third-generation Kenyan who owns Richard’s Camp, which offers tented accommodation in the Mara North Conservancy, says the thousands of visitors drawn each year to the Maasai Mara – a large game reserve in southwestern Kenya, contiguous with Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park – provide a crucial cash injection to the land and its people, the Maasai, who own it.

“It’s rich, fertile land that supports the biggest number of wildlife, large mammals on the planet per acre,” Roberts says.  “After the terrorism we had in Nairobi [including the 2013 Westgate shopping mall siege] and the last election violence, no tourists came.  The Maasai were getting almost no revenue off their incredibly valuable land.  Now, in Mara North, we lease the land off 800 land owners just in our conservancy.”

Not all tourism is good, however.

“The big problem in the Maasai Mara is that it is unregulated.  We’re fighting battles all the time against people wanting to develop [mass-tourism projects].  In the Mara North Conservancy, we restrict it to 700 acres per room,” says Roberts.  “There are some safari camps down there which have up to 200 beds in them and if they’re all driving out on game drives at the same time in the morning and there’s a pride of lions there, there’ll be 40 to 50 cars around them.  When the migration’s on – we have wildebeest that come through on this great migration that starts in July – it’s even more crowded.”

That evening, on the way back to Borana Lodge, my guide turns off the jeep’s engine and points to a male lion lazing in the grass by the side of the dirt track, preening himself.  The big cat sniffs the air and looks at us, then blinks and lets out a roar of a yawn, baring his teeth.  It’s this thrill of seeing wild animals up close that most visitors seek when they come to Kenya.  They take jeep, helicopter or horseback safaris, carry picnics and cocktails out on game drives and cheerfully sign away their lives on indemnity forms.  Most of the tourists I meet are repeat visitors from Britain or America, although lodge owners tell me they also have regular Chinese guests, some of whom contribute significant funding towards conservation efforts.

The following day I head to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, where I meet one of its founders, Ian Craig, who is director of conservation at the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT).  A community organisation set up to liaise between tribal elders and the conservation and tourism industries, the NRT employs more than 1,500 people in northern Kenya.

“Ten years ago these jobs didn’t exist and wildlife was a pest – nobody wanted it.  Now suddenly it’s got value,” says Craig.  “But it’s vulnerable.  It’s vulnerable to climate change; it’s vulnerable to poaching.”

Craig says the positive impact of China’s ivory ban, announced in December, is already being felt.

“The price a poacher would receive for ivory that was at US$180 per kilo has come down to US$70 per kilo – not just since the ban but since it became more obvious to everybody that ivory was no longer something to invest in.  So why would Hong Kong hold on to this relic?”

“The Environment Bureau has perhaps decided that if the government curtailed the [five-year licences traders need to legally sell ivory] before their expiry this would open them up to a judicial review from the ivory trade,” says Alex Hofford, wildlife campaigner at WildAid in Hong Kong.  However, he adds, a recent legal feasibility study by WWF showed that the trade could be banned within two years.  “So it’s likely the real reason is that the government is playing a political game and is trying not to appear too extreme before the powerful business interests in Hong Kong that oppose the ivory ban.”

At the end of last year, Hong Kong’s ivory stockpile weighed in at 75 tonnes, according to the government, though Hofford estimates that, including illegal sources, the actual figure could be more than 700 tonnes.  Based on a study of long-term sales trends, the city’s stocks of ivory from before 1989, when an international ban on the trade came into force, should have been depleted by 2005; so how is it possible that there is still so much “legal” ivory in Hong Kong?

“Since the international trade ban, old stock of ivory has been gradually consumed in the local market,” says the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, via email, when I pose this question.  “However, in view of the generally inactive trade of ivory, the local demand for ivory has been reduced over the years.”

Hofford counters: “The simple fact is that any legal market for ivory will always mask a parallel, yet hidden, illegal market.

"The simple fact is that any legal market for ivory will always mask a parallel, yet hidden, illegal market." Alex Hofford

“The current situation in Hong Kong is a mess, and that’s why we encourage the government to clean it up as fast as possible – much faster than the appallingly slow five-year time frame they have proposed for debate in Legco.”

Ivory carving is still designated as “intangible cultural heritage” in Hong Kong and the mainland, yet a 2015 University of Hong Kong survey found 75 per cent of respondents supported an ivory sales ban.

“In 2016, we handed over 90,000 signatures calling on the government to ban the ivory trade to the chief executive to show that local people care,” says Cheryl Lo, senior wildlife crime officer at WWF Hong Kong.  “We engaged students to create a new Chinese character for ivory, because it literally translates as ‘elephant teeth’ – one of the reasons behind the misconception that an elephant isn’t killed in the making of ivory products.”

A ranger heads out for the night shift at Borana. He will spend the night ensuring elephants and rhinos don’t venture too close to the conservancy boundaries where poachers could lurk.

Back in Africa, there’s also a cost in human lives to consider.

“In the past 10 to 15 years, over 1,000 rangers have been killed in the line of duty worldwide.  It’s often overlooked,” says Sam Taylor, head of conservation projects at 51 Degrees and co-founder of the charity For Rangers.  “The tragedy is, wildlife conservation is like a little war escalated by the increasing price fetched for illicit wildlife goods.

“It will be economists and global leaders that save the wildlife in the long term.  But the rangers on the ground are needed to buy them the time to do it.”

Taylor drops me off at the Joint Operation Command Centre for Lewa and the Northern Rangelands, run by 51 Degrees, where I meet John Tanui, head of radio communications, who talks me through some of the tech used in conservation efforts.  He pulls up a Google Earth satellite image of Lewa on a screen, where icons indicate elephants wearing GPS collars, as well as rangers.

“We track for security purposes, and also for research,” he says.  “We look at where the concentration of these elephants is.  Don’t forget, elephants are smart.  They know which areas are safe for them and which are not.”

Using reports and published data, as well as airborne electronic counting, the Great Elephant Census shows elephant numbers have dropped from 1.3 million in 1979 to less than 600,000 in 2015.

Last year, 25 elephants were lost to poaching in the NRT conservancies area: in 2012, 104 were killed.  The number is dropping partly thanks to tracker dogs, helicopters and more men on the ground, some of them rangers employed by the state-run Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

“We work very closely with Lewa, Borana and other conservancies in intelligence gathering, and they also provide logistical support for joint anti-poaching operations [outside the conservancies],” says Kitili Mbathi, director general of the KWS.

Mbathi says that, in order to carry weapons, private conservancy rangers must enrol as police reservists.

“Their mandate as Kenya police reservists extends slightly beyond wildlife protection because they’re also involved in curtailing cattle rustling.

“We have well-armed poachers, so when we confront them it’s going to be a firefight.  So, when they see us coming, they will shoot first, because they know it’s going to be a firefight.  This year we’ve lost two rangers.  And we’ve killed six poachers.”

The people on Kenya’s conservation frontline send a message to Hong Kong.

Some conservancies can also count on the support of a grateful local community, as those such as Lewa and the NRT provide health care and education, security and assistance when there is human-animal conflict, banditry or livestock theft.

“Now, when the local community see an elephant, they see health, they see security, they see books for their children,” says Tanui.  “They see an animal as profit, not just a problem.”

From Lewa I’m given a short lift on a little plane into Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy.  Katie Rowe, of the Sarara Camp, a safari lodge with six luxury tents and a family cottage that lies in the heart of the conservancy, takes me to the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, which opened in August and which she helps run.  With a shady fenced-off area where rescued orphaned elephants can roam, feed and splash in a small pond, the intention behind this sanctuary, says Rowe, is to return its charges to the wild as quickly as possible.

A small group of tourists listens intently as she shares the life stories of the orphans, some of whose mothers were vic­tims of poaching, others human-animal conflict, which often arises when elephants wander into villages and trample crops or even people.  We’re asked to keep our distance while the caregivers feed the calves with giant milk bottles.

How do animals survive when they're left orphaned by poachers? Watch to find out.

“They’re very sensitive.  One day the workers were wearing new camo jackets and Shaba, who’s 1-and-a-half years old, went for them,” says Rowe.  “She also doesn’t like a camera aimed at her, or metallic sounds.  Her mother was probably a victim of poaching.”

Six-month-old Bawa fell into the nearby “singing wells” – 20- to 30-metre-deep holes dug into a dusty riverbed – while trying to reach water.  It’s been a dry year, and the lack of precipitation is another threat to the fragile ecosystem in Kenya, as livestock and wild animals compete for food and water.

“He was in very bad shape, he’d sunken up to his eyes,” says Rowe, of Bawa.  “He had sunburnt eyes from staring up at the sun; they were all sunken back into his skull.”

Bawa’s herd would probably have waited a while for the trapped calf, before moving on.

“We give ourselves 48 hours to give them back to their mothers if they have been abandoned,” says Rowe.  “We aim for a quick turnaround.  The herd usually comes back to drink at the wells.”

At the sanctuary, the calves guzzle away greedily.  They each get through five tins of milk formula a day, says Rowe.

“We have seven [abandoned calves] at the moment, so that’s 35 tins a day.”

Commercial bushmeat poaching is another serious problem.  The trapping of wild animals is common in areas such as the Mara Triangle, the northwestern part of the Maasai Mara.  Later that week, an elephant calf will get its trunk caught in a snare in the Mara Triangle, which is managed by the Mara North Conservancy, and have to be separated from its mother for treatment.

See the airlift operation to save the baby elephant's trunk.  Warning, some images are distressing.
To read more about the baby elephant's rescue operation click here.

At dusk, the singing wells are a hub of activity: three bull elephants are drinking and throwing dust over themselves; some baby warthogs, impalas and a hyena stop by.

“One of the bulls is in his 50s,” whispers Rowe’s husband, Jeremy Bastard.  “So he’s witnessed, and survived, the most unstable years of poaching.”

The next morning I return with Rowe to the wells, to find a different scene.  People and hundreds of head of livestock have come from up to 60km away to find water.  Namunyak literally means “place of peace”, says Rowe, adding that those who work at the camp stick to a no-photo policy out of respect for the semi-nomadic Samburu people, some of whom are deep in the wells, singing, bathing, washing their clothes and passing up water to their cows, goats and the odd donkey, which drink from wooden troughs.  Some of the Samburu are wearing colourful beads and shukas (a traditional blanket), but many are naked.

Each family has its own variation on one song, which they’ve been singing for hundreds of years and which helps identify them to their livestock.  From one well to the next, the hypnotic, rhythmic tune rises from beneath the surface: “My sweet goats,” sings one, in Samburu.  “This sweet cow,” sings another.

The water’s good.  It’s full of minerals, and the elephants seem to know this, just as they know that the morning shift belongs to the humans and their livestock, and their own starts at sundown.

Elephants are not the only animals being protected by conservancies in Kenya, where many species, including zebras, rhinoceros, giraffes and big cats also roam.

By the end of the week, the rare or endangered species that are ubiquitous here almost feel like part of the furniture.  Reticulated giraffes peep curiously over the treetops; habitat loss and bushmeat poaching has reduced their population by 70 per cent over the past few decades.  Grévy’s zebra graze peacefully; their population has halved in the past two decades and there are only 2,000 left in the world.  Lions are among the most robust species, and literally rub up against safari jeeps, while one cheetah uses our vehicle’s shade to hide and stalk impalas.

“Conservation is a global issue,” says Craig.  “Our children are reading books about elephants.  They’re reading books about giraffes and the wonders of nature.  But that’s where it ends.  The reality is that these animals need our care.

“They need their place on Earth just the same as we need our place on Earth.”

Tessa Chan was hosted by Borana Lodge, Richard’s Camp and Sarara Camp.

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