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Two Cheers on World Elephant Day 2016

Things have improved since the dark days of 2011 and 2012 when ivory poaching across Africa appeared to be spiralling out of control and conservations began to contemplate the unthinkable: the extinction of the African elephant. On World Elephant Day 2016 there are grounds for cautious optimism.

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In 2016, the mean estimate of the Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants (PIKE) dropped below 5 percent for first time since 2009, according to a report prepared for the 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP17) of CITES to be held in Johannesburg in September. PIKE is a key measure of poaching pressure and the 5 percent level is significant as this is considered to be the normal growth rate of elephant populations. So PIKE levels above 5 percent mean that elephant populations are likely to be declining; levels below 5 percent imply the possibility of recovery.

Prices of raw ivory in China dropped by more than 50 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to the latest survey by Save The Elephants (STE) researchers Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne. This provides welcome evidence of a fall in the consumer demand that has been fuelling the poaching crisis since the start of the decade.

These figures should be treated with caution. Data on elephant populations, poaching and the ivory trade is notoriously hard to verify, and causal relations between trends almost impossible to prove. Nevertheless the balance of evidence suggests hard work by governments, wildlife protection agencies, NGOs and campaigners in civil society organisations is making a difference. Maybe, just maybe, we have turned a corner at last.

Key initiatives over the last year have included the historic joint statement by the presidents of China and the USA that their two governments intend to halt all commercial trade in ivory, and bonfires of ivory stocks in a number of countries–notably Kenya’s massive burn of its entire 105 tonne ivory stockpile at the end of April. Statements and actions like these are evidence of a growing global consensus around a total ban in ivory trade across the planet.

Equally encouraging, African countries are asserting their right, and acknowledging their duty, to lead the fight to save Africa’s elephants. Both the Giants Club, led by the Presidents of Botswana, Gabon, Kenya and Uganda, and the 29-nation African Elephant Coalition (AECs) have played an increasingly prominent role over the past year.

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Paula Kahumbu delivers posters and presents a petition demanding the arrest of suspected ivory trafficker Feisal Mohamed Ali letter to the Inspector General of Police, David Kimaiyo, at his Nairobi office, 12 August 2014 Photograph: WildlifeDirect

The conviction and imprisonment of the ivory trafficker Feisal Ali Mohamed in Mombasa last month serves as a warning to high-level traffickers that they can no longer assume they are untouchable, and an inspiration to other African countries to emulate Kenya’s get-tough approach to wildlife crime. In Tanzania, ongoing proceedings against alleged “Ivory Queen” Yang Fenglan shows the determination of the authorities to cut off supply routes to China from a country that has lost more than 60 percent of its elephants since 2009.

Nevertheless, it is too soon to assert that Africa’s elephants are safe. The sudden and dramatic rise in poaching between 2009 and 2011 shows how quickly things can get out of control. Overall positive trends on poaching mask continuing crises in countries such as Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo where poaching continues on an industrial scale. Equally worrying is the sharp rise in poaching in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, until recently one of the most secure sites for elephants on the continent.

As consumer demand slows in China, traffickers have lost no time in moving in to expand other markets. According to recent reports by STE and the Environmental Investigation Agency, the ivory trade is booming in Vietnam  and Japan, two countries where the illegal trade is tolerated and whose governments have stood aside from global anti-poaching efforts.

In Japan, the legal domestic trade serves as the cover for massive inflows of illegal imports. The authors of the EIA report conclude that “no meaningful control exists even at the most basic level”. This highlights the fact that, in the market place, illegal and legal ivory are impossible to tell apart. In this context the recent decision of the EU not to support the AEC’s call for a global trade ban at CoP 17 is disappointing, to say the least.

Potentially even more dangerous, but thankfully unlikely to succeed, are the requests to CoP 17 by Zimbabwe and Namibia to remove their elephants from CITES protection, allowing them to sell their stockpiles. The arguments made by governments of these countries betray a view of elephants as simply one more commodity to be exploited. They are setting themselves apart from the growing consensus that elephants are worth more alive, and recognition that elephants have intrinsic, spiritual and cultural values that are just as important as any economic benefits they give rise to.

There must also be concern that the immediate threat from poaching is distracting attention away from other developing threats that are potentially as deadly as the poachers’ guns. Human population growth leads to loss and degradation of natural habitats, including in designated protected areas. Large-scale infrastructure project further fragment natural landscapes, cutting across vital migration routes on which elephants depend.

The effect of all this is to reduce the space for elephants and brings humans and elephants into ever-closer, often dangerous proximity. Human-elephant conflict turns people against elephants and erodes the public support that is essential for any successful conservation strategy. In 2016 alone, seven people have been killed in the Kajiado County (home of the famous Amboseli elephants), and at least eight elephants have be killed in retaliation by angered Maasai warriors who attack the elephants using spears.

The challenge for conservationists is to turn around the debate, so that it is no longer just about “saving”elephants, but focuses on building new, positive and mutually beneficial relations between humans and elephants.

In Kenya we can see the outlines of strategy to convert this vision into a reality. Our aim is to link anti-poaching campaigns to poverty alleviation initiatives and wider efforts to tackle corruption and strengthen democracy. This makes sense, since studies have consistently shown that elephant sites where high levels of poverty prevail (as measured by subnational infant mortality rates), and countries with poor governance scores (as measured by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index), tend to experience higher poaching levels.

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A key first step is to bring Africans back into contact with wildlife. Most Africans today are increasingly moving to cities and have never even seen their continent’s iconic wildlife, not even on TV. ‘NTV Wild’ and a companion talk show called NTV Wild Talk  is a ground-breaking series that screens award-winning documentaries and informed debates about wildlife on prime-time Kenyan TV. This hugely successful series is transforming public attitudes and helping to mainstream wildlife conservation in policy debates.

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Design sample for a conservation poster

NTV Wild is a collaboration between a national TV station called NTV, WildlifeDirect and the Kenya Wildlife Service. Our goal is to educate our people about wildlife and to inspire everyone to become a conservationist. We shine a light on heroes at the front line, communities, scientists, rangers, companies, children, and tour guides. The show links in to other initiatives to bring Kenyans into closer contact with wildlife, such as wildlife clubs in schools, citizen science projects, and the promotion of domestic wildlife tourism—opening up access by Kenyans to our country’s national parks.

The logic of this approach is simple. Informed citizens who appreciate the value of wildlife are more likely to support efforts to protect it—and be outraged by the ease with which all too often those accused of ivory trafficking are able to walk free from the courts.

The recent conviction of ivory trafficker Feisal Ali Mohamed, following a prolonged campaign by civil society organisations to expose and prevent irregularities in the judicial process, sent a positive message to Kenyans worried about corruption that justice can be achieved. In this way anti-poaching campaigns resonate with more general concerns about corruption and the need to strengthen democracy.

The private sector has emerged as a key supporter of NTV Wild. Private businesses like Safarilink, Fairmont Group and Serena Hotels provide travel and accommodation to NTV film crews. They sponsor campaigns and offer prizes, such as overnight stays in national parks, for on-air and online competitions. Their involvement reflects a conviction that wildlife conservation is good for business.

Women Ambassadors for Elephants

At a local level, this vision is embodied by the Oltome-Nadupo Women’s Company (the name means “successful elephant” in the Maasai language), a business venture set up by women in Amboseli. The women members of the company have given up commercial horticulture—one of the principal ‘conflict zones’ with elephants—in favor of more wildlife-friendly, and profitable, income-generating activities, including the production of beaded denim jackets for sale in fashion outlets in Nairobi and London. Today the women have stated that they are ambassadors for elephants and have started a door-to-door education campaign in their area.

It’s hard not to be hugely enthusiastic — from where we sit in Kenya, a new paradigm is emerging for socioeconomic development in Amboseli and other similar areas across Africa. Poor communities that currently view wildlife as a threat are transformed into dynamic local economies, where the local cultural and wildlife heritage is seen as both a source of pride and a profitable business opportunity.

And we are not the only ones making a difference on the ground; Kenya is home to many exciting elephant projects by organizations like the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Tsavo Trust, Big Life Foundation, Mara Elephant Project, Elephant Voices, Save the Elephants, Amboseli Trust for Elephants, Space for Giants, Freeland Foundation, Born Free Foundation, African Wildlife Foundation, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and so many others. There’s a reason that they are all in Kenya. It’s because Kenyans are ready to accept this diverse support.

But to save elephants, we have to replicate and expand our dreams and actions to a much a wider level. This is no less than to inspire a new vision for the future of Africa, in which the well-being of humans and wildlife, including elephants, are inextricably linked.

People in cities: Watch elephants playing at the waterhole on a live cam at MpalaLive.org any time. Turn up the volume and listen to the birds.

kRCPKAck_400x400Dr. Paula Kahumbu is the CEO of Kenyan Conservation NGO WildlifeDirect and is leading the hard-hitting Hands Off Our Elephants Campaign with Kenya’s First Lady Margaret Kenyatta. Hands Off Our Elephants is a campaign to restore Kenyan leadership in elephant conservation through behaviour change at all levels of society, from rural communities, to business leaders and political decision makers. 

She is a Kenyan conservationist with a PhD from Princeton University where she studied Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and conducted her field research on elephants in Kenya 

In addition to running WildlifeDirect Paula lectures undergraduate community conservation at Princeton during an annual field course in Kenya. 

Paula is the winner of the Whitley Award 2014, Brand Kenya Ambassador (2013), Presidential award Order of the Grand Warrior (2013), winner of the National Geographic/Howard Buffet Conservation Leader for Africa (2011) and is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer (2011).

She formerly worked for the Kenya Wildlife Service and ran the CITES office and headed the Kenyan delegation. In 2005 she joined Bamburi Cement and ran Lafarge Eco Systems, a company that specializes in forest restoration of limestone quarries.

Paula is also an accomplished writer and she has co-authored a global best selling children’s book on a true story about a hippopotamus and a tortoise called Owen and Mzee: the true story of a remarkable friendship, it’s sequel Owen and Mzee: the language of Friendships, and Looking for Miza a story about an orphaned mountain gorilla in Democratic Republic of Congo in the same series.

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