• The Price of Poaching

    Communities are taking a stand against poaching—and winning.
    By Charles Oluchina
    Photographs by Ami Vitale


n epidemic of poaching

is sweeping Central and East Africa. Countries such as Cameroon, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo are seeing their elephants slaughtered by the hundreds every year for their tusks. And rhinos, whose keratin horns are prized in traditional medicine, are badly suffering, too. In Kenya, 59 rhinos and 302 elephants were killed illegally in 2013. As I’m writing this, in spring of 2014, three rhinos have already been slaughtered in Nairobi National Park, one of the most heavily patrolled parks in the country. The killings happened within sight of a city of more than 3 million people.

It’s the worst outbreak of poaching since the 1980s, when more than 800 tons of ivory left Africa every year and the continent’s elephant populations plunged from 1.3 million to 600,000. Most of the ivory is bound for Asia, especially China, where a booming economy means more people are able to afford ivory products that are considered status symbols: bracelets, iPhone cases—even, in tragic irony, carved elephant figurines. By some estimates, ivory prices have risen tenfold in the past five years. Poaching has escalated on many levels: Heavily armed gangs, using automatic rifles and night-vision goggles, are backed by crime networks in Africa and Asia and have been linked to militant terrorist groups in Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The trade is sophisticated and coordinated, and it is fueled by forces both local and international—which is why we at The Nature Conservancy are working hard to reduce poaching from source to destination.

Poaching doesn’t just kill beautiful, intelligent and often endangered animals and leave their crucial role in the savanna empty. It also threatens the livelihoods—and lives—of people who live where elephants and rhinos range. Poaching fuels corruption, crime and community infighting, and it also scares away tourists who would otherwise pay handsomely to see the very animals that are being targeted.

That describes the situation in northern Kenya in the past few decades. But the surge of poaching in some areas has begun to decline through efforts of The Nature Conservancy and its partner the Northern Rangelands Trust, an umbrella organization that helps communities set up their own local wildlife conservancies. The trust brings together people connected by geography and kinship to manage their lands for mutual benefit: protecting animal habitat, negotiating grazing locations, offering economic development programs, and improving security for both people and wildlife.

Poverty and desperation open communities to the money that poaching offers. One of our primary goals is to give landholders an incentive to protect the animals they live alongside, every day. But it was not easy work at first.

When I began working with local residents in 2004 to set up conservancies, they were highly suspicious of our efforts, even hostile. Northern Kenya has long been a hardscrabble part of the county, with communities sometimes in violent conflict over limited water, land and other resources. Still, every evening we would sit by the fireside to talk with community leaders over bowls of rice and beans. At least four armed guards stood watch as we listened to the leaders’ stories and discussed how they could work collectively to move from the past to the future.
One evening at a beautiful riverside camp near Isiolo, we heard gunshots in the distance. Community members, worried that we were going to take away their land and make it a national park, were trying to scare us away. Then the same people set a brush fire nearby, and we knew it was time to leave—even though that meant a long drive in the dark over terrible roads plagued by bandits, with no security escort. I had never felt my life so threatened.

We made it out in one piece, but later we heard that an elephant had been shot dead as we were leaving. Despite the danger we faced attending these meetings, I could see an incredible opportunity to address the critical issue of security. If local people don’t consider themselves safe, how can they be expected to protect animals?

Since then, The Nature Conservancy has helped the Northern Rangelands Trust establish 27 community-level conservancies that, when taken as a group, cover more than 7 million acres of communal land in Kenya. This is conservation at the most local level, centered on residents and their way of life, but it also provides a clear financial stake in preserving wildlife. Animals bring tourists, and tourists bring money; after all, tourism is Kenya’s second-biggest source of foreign income. The participating communities can join in sustainable grazing programs that help them manage their lands while yielding higher market prices for their cattle. A portion of the revenues from these conservation-related programs is then reinvested in development projects, such as health clinics, microcredit finance programs and schools. When residents see these direct benefits, they say, “This wildlife is our education. This wildlife is our health.”

One of the most successful efforts in curbing poaching has been the community-supported ranger program, begun in 2004. Local conservancies aim to hire 15 to 30 rangers, who receive three months of intense training from the Kenya Wildlife Service and then perform armed patrols accompanied by Kenya police reservists. If they spot poachers, they radio for rapid-response teams of the wildlife service’s local law enforcement rangers, who are always on call.

Studies have shown that these patrols reduce poaching. Illegal hunters can’t operate as freely in these areas; once spotted, they are forced to move on or risk capture. And the animals can clearly sense this new security: Elephants and other wildlife are now showing up in places in northern Kenya where they haven’t been seen in some 25 years. The Northern Rangelands Trust reported that from 2012 to 2013, elephant poaching in its project area fell by more than half, from 108 animals taken to 45. It’s still a significant number of deaths, but the sharp decline proves that even small communities, when they work together, can deter poaching in their areas.

In a few areas, confessed or demobilized poachers have even been recruited as rangers. They enjoy a legal and more dependable livelihood and can use their intricate knowledge of the wilderness and old networks to root out their former accomplices.

Over and over, community members tell us the greatest benefit they see from their conservancies is security—something the government has unfortunately been unable to provide in this traditionally marginalized area. The community conservancy movement is a powerful tool, and the determination of the people themselves to bring about organization and good governance is the wind in our sail. We hope to see the program spread to other countries, such as Zambia and Tanzania.

In 2012, The Nature Conservancy helped create the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, which allows the many landowners and interest groups to engage directly with the Kenya Wildlife Service. This in turn influenced Kenya’s new Wildlife Conservation and Management Act, which for the first time gives legal recognition to community conservancies as a legitimate land use, just like parks. It also raises the penalties for poaching to the level of serious crimes. The fine for being caught with illegal ivory has jumped from about $600 to $240,000, and the maximum jail term has gone from 10 years to life in prison.

Internationally, The Nature Conservancy has encouraged governments in Asia to provide their citizens with honest facts about the trade: Elephants do not just shed their tusks like a deer at the end of a season, tusks are not sourced from animals that died naturally, and the profits related to poaching fuel extreme violence in other countries. The message has to go out: If you buy illegal ivory, you are putting families and communities at risk in Africa. The trade is killing economies and it is killing people.

The battle against poaching is a serious one, and it is far from over. Only by tackling the problem from its roots to its leaves—from a ranger’s dusty boots to the highest levels of government—will we be able to eliminate this threat to animals, people and the lands we all call home.

"Poachers have even been recruited as rangers. … and can use their intricate knowledge of the wilderness and old networks to root out their former accomplices."