For decades, conservationists in Kenya have struggled to protect African elephants from poachers, habitat loss and other threats. At long last, their efforts appear to be paying off.
In early 2017, the Kenya Wildlife Service conducted aerial surveys to assess animal populations in the country’s major natural parks and ecosystems. The recently released results are encouraging. In the Tsavo-Mkomazi ecosystem, surveyors counted 12,866 elephants, the population having increased by 14.7 per cent since the last census in 2014. In the Masai Mara ecosystem, the population had grown from 1,448 to 2,493, having increased by 72.2 per cent since 2014.
While elephant migration may have contributed in part to the rising populations in these ecosystems, it is also clear that the pressures imposed by poaching have lessened to manageable levels – and this is very good news indeed.
Elephants have been hit hard by poaching in the past. Between 1973 and 1990, Kenya lost about 90 per cent of its elephants to poachers, the population plummeting from 165,000 to just 16,000. Similar poaching patterns have decimated elephant herds across the continent.
So what is changing? Why are Kenyan elephant numbers on the rise?
Park rangers have played a big role in protecting herds. Speaking to the Kenyan newspaper Coastweek, Director General Kitili Mbathi of the Kenya Wildlife Service said that the addition of more well-trained and better-equipped rangers had helped thwart poachers in recent years.
Kenyan political figures have also made some serious contributions to conservation efforts.
In April 2016, Kenya burned its entire stockpile of confiscated ivory in a public demonstration of the country’s commitment to the preservation of elephants. Speaking to journalists from Capital FM Kenya that week, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said “We will not be the Africans who stood by as we lost our elephants”. It was the largest burning of ivory ever recorded. The bonfire destroyed 105 tonnes of elephant ivory worth over $100 million – reportedly five per cent of all ivory stockpiled in Africa.
Kenya has a special history in connection to these dramatic measures. In 1989, Kenya became the first country to burn ivory when the Kenyan president set fire to an illegal ivory cache. The act has since inspired other countries to do the same.
Today, international economic changes are also benefiting anti-poaching efforts.
In March of this year, the Guardian reported that raw ivory prices had dropped by almost two thirds since 2014, falling from $2,100 to just $730 per kilogram. The change in value is thought to be primarily due to China’s recent decision to shut down its domestic ivory market. Current economic conditions also mean that Chinese consumers are less inclined to buy luxury items like ivory. If there is no market for elephant tusks, there is no incentive for poachers to take risks.
Lastly, it looks like the future may bring even better chances for African elephants. According to articles by ZDNet, new anti-poaching technology is coming into play in countries across Africa.
American entrepreneurs have recently developed ‘Wiper’, a low power ballistic shock-wave detector intended to assist anti-poaching efforts. Taking the form of a wireless collar worn by a few elephants within a herd, Wiper registers any gunshots within a 50 metre radius and immediately notifies authorities with an alert and a GPS location.
If that wasn’t enough to intrigue you, American tech company Neurala also just partnered with WWF and the Lindbergh Foundation to fight elephant poaching with artificial intelligence and flying drones. Each battery-powered, infrared-capable drone is sent out at night, able to spot poachers and send a signal to its wireless operator, who can then send a team of rangers to stop the criminal activity. The drones have already been used in Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
From Kenyan park rangers and politicians, to the Chinese government, to American entrepreneurs – people all across the world are taking action to save African elephants. And in Kenya, at least, things are changing for the better.