That (Richard) Leakey is back on the antipoaching campaign trail is good news for African conservationists. When he last rode to the rescue 25 years ago, appointed by the then Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi to be the head of a bankrupt, corrupt and incompetent Wildlife and Conservation Department, Leakey stopped a tidal wave of poaching.
He turned the department, which was renamed the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), into a paramilitary organisation that had presidential permission to shoot poachers on sight
One conservationist said, “If Richard Leakey hadn’t been around then we’d have probably lost our wildlife by now.”
Now the wildlife of Kenya, indeed of the entire African continent, is in crisis again. It is threatened by a combination of growing demand for ivory and rhino horn in the Far East, increased activity from Al-Shabaab terrorists and Somali criminal gangs, and endemic corruption in the wildlife services. The soaring value of wildlife products has driven this latest poaching pandemic – in the Far East a single elephant’s tusks that weighs 10kg will fetch more than $30,000, while rhino horn is selling at $65,000 a kilogram, more than twice the price of gold.
In August, it was announced that a tipping point had been reached: more African elephants are being killed each year than are being born.
Their end is in sight. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that between 2010 and 2013, Africa lost an average of 7% of its elephant population each year; at this rate, the animals could be wiped out in 100 years.
According to the KWS, last year Kenya lost 59 rhinos, a significant number because the entire population numbers only around 1,000.
Also, according to KWS, 300 elephants were poached last year, a figure that draws snorts of derision from Leakey. “They’re lying,” he says. “We think it is ten times that number.”
There are now more than 30,000 African elephants a year being poached for their ivory, according to conservation groups, and in South Africa, which has more than 85% of the continent’s remaining rhino, they are losing a rhino every 8 hours to poachers. Lion populations are also threatened, with five lions a day being killed illegally. At this rate these signature species will no longer exist in the wild within a generation or two.
“My Elephants, My Heritage”
Perhaps most importantly, Leakey and Kahumbu have, through the use of social media, engaged their fellow Kenyans in citizen conservation. Kahumbu says there is now an unprecedented groundswell of “citizen concern”, a significant shift in public engagement. The slogan “My elephants, my heritage” is constantly retweeted because “elephants are part of our heritage,” she says.
Kahumbu adds that while white conservationists have sometimes dominated the African wildlife theatre and propagated the view that black Africans are uninterested in their wild animals, “Our social media traffic completely undermines that stereotyping.”
Leakey cites recent evidence of corruption within the KWS – six senior deputy directors were recently suspended and more than 30 KWS rangers have also been suspended – as reason to radically reform the organisation at the heart of Kenyan anti-poaching operations. He has also made a formal request to President Uhuru Kenyatta to declare a state of national emergency on wildlife poaching. At the time of writing the president has not responded.