By Paula Kahumbu
World Elephant Day was celebrated around the world yesterday, with pageantry, song and dance, events and activities. Everyone was wearing grey.
My day could hardly be described as “fun.” I sat for nearly nine hours with my team in a government waiting room at the office of the Chief of Police, in Nairobi to deliver a letter. Inspector General David Kimaiyo had granted me an appointment at seven in the morning, and I’d left home at 5:30 to be there on time.
This was no ordinary letter. It was an offer to raise funds to help in the arrest of suspected ivory kingpin Feizal Ali Mohamed, who has been a fugitive since June 1. A warrant for his arrest had been issued in a Mombasa court in relation to his involvement in the smuggling of 2.1 tons of ivory, seized at a Mombasa warehouse on June 5.
Every hour that passed in that chilly room made me more determined. I bore the responsibility of delivering on a promise I’d made to 400 people who cosigned the letter.
Clearly David Kimaiyo was not happy about seeing me. After eight-and-a-half hours of waiting, the brusque Inspector General greeted me by saying that he couldn’t meet with me after all, since he was rushing to a press conference and was already late.
He invited us to wait yet another hour while he fulfilled that obligation. We politely declined, and instead, in the space of about three minutes, I handed him the letter and explained why this meeting was so important.
Mr. Kimaiyo glanced at the letter and assured me that nobody was more concerned about the poaching situation than the police. He said they were doing everything possible to stop it.
I had to stop him mid-sentence to tell him we weren’t there to talk about the poaching but to talk about Feizal Ali Mohamed, a notorious suspected ivory trafficker.
I reminded him that Kenya holds the dubious position of being number one in the world for transiting illegal ivory. In one long breath I told him that this involves corruption, organized crime, and transnational crime, which are all threatening our national security.
Mr Kimaiyo stared at me with a confused expression. This conversation was clearly not what he was expecting. After a moment he said, “Goodbye,” then turned on his heel and walked to the door.
For a moment I stood there bewildered that our offer to help the police crack down on organized crime had landed on deaf ears. Days earlier on the phone, Mr Kimaiyo had said he was very happy about our offer to run “WANTED” advertisements in the media and to raise funds for a reward for information leading to Feizal’s arrest. The man I’d just met—cold, harsh, and disrespectful—didn’t match the image I’d formed in that phone conversation.
I left the police headquarters shaking my head. Words fail me, and I’m not proud of the emotions that were coursing through my mind. Hundreds of responses on my Facebook timeline and on Twitter showed the anger and disappointment of fellow Kenyans, especially those who’d signed the letter.
Many people said I was wasting my time trying to get support from Mr. Kimaiyo.
But we can’t give up on him. The Inspector General of the Police is in charge of all wildlife security, and he therefore holds the key to the future of Kenya’s elephants.
That Feizal Ali Mohamed is still a fugitive two months after a warrant for his arrest was issued is ultimately Mr. Kimaiyo’s responsibility, and we must hold him to account.
I have to keep reminding myself that this is not just about elephants. Ivory trafficking is a serious international crime, and it involves organized criminal cartels. It threatens Kenya’s economy, security, and future aspirations. It’s every Kenyan’s business.
Upsetting as Elephant Day was for me, I refuse to be browbeaten. I believe that our persistence, honesty, and integrity will soften Mr. Kimaiyo’s heart.
On my list of bad guys are poachers, traffickers, corrupt government officials, and ivory buyers. I need Mr Kimaiyo to be on my list of heroes. In my next post, I hope to report on the outcome of a polite invitation from Mr. Kimaiyo for a proper conversation about how the citizens of Kenya can help save our heritage—and one of the world’s most magnificent species.
Elephants represent more than our economy, or even our environment.
Elephants are central to the identity of Kenyans. The slaughter of elephants to supply a trade in trinkets to people half a world away speaks volumes about our apathy about protecting that which is precious to us.
Dr. Paula Kahumbu is the CEO of WildlifeDirect and heads the HANDS OFF OUR ELEPHANTS campaign—an award-winning campaign with the support of Africans to take responsibility for saving elephants. She graduated from Princeton University where she studied ecology with a specialty on elephants.
She’s the winner of the Whitley Award for Conservation, the Howard Buffet/ National Geographic Award for Conservation Excellence in Africa, and is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer.