Poachers close in on Tsavo elephants
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1999:
VOI, Kenya––Alone but brave,
the half-grown bull elephant held off five
Cape buffalo all afternoon at the smaller of
two water holes below the Voi Safari Lodge.
Refusing invitations to retreat with visiting
matriarchs, the young bull left the water hole
only long enough to break up a fight among
squabbling baboons with two quick swings of
his trunk. The gesture conveyed the message.
“He acts tough now,” said Care
For The Wild managing director Chris
Jordan, “but we’ll see how tough he really is
if a pride of lions comes around tonight.”
Around nine p.m. that evening
Jordan joined soft-spoken Tsavo East
National Park warden Naphtali Kio in
responding to aggressive questioning by CNN
reporter Anthony Van Marsh. Insisting that
elephants were leaving Tsavo to find water,
running amok and killing villagers, though
all the most accessible water holes are inside
the park, Van Marsh didn’t seem to want to
hear about villagers who cut park fences as
almost a daily routine in order to graze cattle,
sheep, and goats on park land––thereby
allowing elephants to wander out at night.
Tsavo chief law enforcement officer
Robert Obrien anticipated imminent confrontation
with the heavily armed 15-member
Somali poaching gang who killed one of his
rangers in July. Believed to be the most prolific
elephant killers in Kenya, they had just
been seen north of Tsavo, bearing semi-automatic
rifles and a grenade launcher.
Legendary elephant rehabilitator
Daphne Sheldrick was on the telephone
arranging to take in yet another orphan. By
the next morning she would have 11
orphaned elephants in custody, her most
ever. All were brought to her attention by
native Kenyans, chiefly poor farmers near
wildlife parks––the sort of people Van Marsh
seemed to think would want to cull elephants.
Below the lodge, the young bull
elephant found himself surrounded by 16 fullgrown
lions. The largest pride in Tsavo, they
split into three separate assault teams. Two
teams tried to distract him; the third sneaked
around behind. But the young bull made no
false moves. Again and again he bluffcharged
each lion team by turns. Together,
they might have pulled him down, but at cost
of a lion or two getting stomped.
Obrien watched the pride skulk
away from the water hole with a nightscope
brought by ANIMAL PEOPLE and later
turned over to him, anxious about the silence
from the rangers who were to tell him of any
further sighting of the Somalis. Obrien had
under 200 rangers to police a region the size of
Connecticut––less than a fourth of the
antipoaching staff on duty at Tsavo in 1992––
and until a truckload of old single-shot rifles
came from the Kenya Wildlife Service headquarters
in Nairobi a few days later, most
But the biggest threat to the young
elephant came neither from the Somalis, the
lions, nor the buffalo, but rather from South
Africa and Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia
all won permission at the 1997 CITES triennial
to auction stocks of culled and/or confiscated
elephant ivory. They were backed by South
Africa, which failed––by one vote––to get
approval to sell stockpiled rhino horn.
Purportedly, income from all of the sales was
to benefit conservation.
The World Wildlife Fund and the
Bill Clinton/Albert Gore U.S. presidential
administration actively advanced the ivory
sales, the first crack in the 1989 global embargo
on traffic in elephant ivory. They distanced
themselves––slightly––only after approval by
CITES was virtually assured.
As opponents predicted, reopening
legal ivory sales reopened the illegal traffic as
well. Aggressive poaching that cut the African
elephant population in half between 1980 and
1989 resumed after a 10-year break.
Since the first of the ivory auctions
approved in 1997 were held last winter, 60
elephants have been poached in Kenya alone,
says KWS biological advisor Paula Kahumbu:
five times the toll of the preceding six years.
Twenty-nine elephants were poached at Tsavo.
The next CITES triennial is to be
held in April 2000 in Nairobi, Kenya. KWS
elephant biologist Samuel Kasiki hopes to get
help from having a “home advantage” when
he asks that all elephants again be given full
CITES Appendix I protection––meaning no
more trade in their body parts.
But Kasiki faces an uphill fight
against master propagandists. Four members
of a South African elephant poaching gang
were arrested on October 10 in Lisbon,
Portugal, with 150 tusks. South African officials
said the bust came about, however, as
result of their own antipoaching intelligence.
On November 4, South Africa
released research purporting to show an urgent
need to kill more than 2,000 elephants to protect
vegetation in Kruger National Park. Then,
on November 9, before anyone had much
chance to rebut that finding, South African
environment minister Valli Moosa confirmed
that he will seek CITES approval this year to
sell both rhino horn and elephant ivory.
Poachers as far away as Keonjhar,
India responded to the expanded chance to sell
ivory. There they used cables hooked to highvoltage
electrical lines to electrocute three elephants.
In Zimbabwe, where poachers killed
53 elephants through October 1999, they
killed 31 more within the next two weeks.
Zimbabwean officials hinted to
media that “a number of poachers in the
Zambezi Valley are sponsored by nongovernmental
organizations and countries that want to
discredit Zimbabwe before CITES.”
The poachers may indeed have NGO
links––of sorts. As ANIMAL PEOPLE
reported in April 1999, some South African
military personnel poached elephants to support
covert operations of the former apartheid
regime. Circa 1987, personnel recruited from
some of the same units were funded to fight
poachers in the Zambezi Valley by Prince
Bernhardt of The Netherlands, a cofounder
and now global president of WWF. ANIMAL
P E O P L E mentioned recent indications that
some of the South Africans might again be
active in the Zambezi Valley.
Coincidental with the South African
confirmation of interest in selling ivory, the
U.S. CITES delegation released a list of triennial
“I am disappointed that there is no
mention at all of elephants,” Kenya Wildlife
Service director Nehemiah K. Rotich told
ANIMAL PEOPLE. Rotich urged Americans
to ask where the U.S. CITES delegation stands
on the Kenyan effort to save elephants.
[Look for upcoming A N I M A L
PEOPLE profiles of Care For The Wild, the
Kenya Wildlife Service, Kenya Youth For
Conservation, the Sheldrick Trust, the
African Environmental Film Society, and
other key players in the Kenyan effort to save