It Will Take More Than Good Laws to Combat Elephant Poaching!

by Iregi Mwenja, Kenya, ELP 2013


Elephant Walk Man, Jim Nyamu recently walked over 2,000 kms to raise awareness on elephant poaching in Kenya. On his way, he managed to mobilize people from all walks of life to support his cause including none other than Kenya’s First Lady! This was happening simultaneously as President Obama signed an Executive Order on combating wildlife trafficking while still on African soil. Back in Kenya, there was more good news as Parliament had recently passed wildlife laws that gave stiffer penalties for wildlife crimes!

But even with all these measures and good intentions, a container with ivory destined for Asia was intercepted in Mombasa a few days ago (the second in just one week)! Moreover, it is estimated that Kenya loses between 2-4 elephants to poaching daily and sadly, there are no indications that the situation will change for the better in the feasible future.

It will take more than good laws and media campaigns to combat elephant poaching in Africa, just as harsh penalties and high profile awareness campaigns have never stopped the illicit drug trade. Unless the main drivers of the trade are addressed, the pace at which our effort will bear fruits will be painstakingly slow. Stopping the market forces of supply and demand will be at the heart if winning this fight. And history can offer good lessons here. Allow me to explain.

In 1979, there were an estimated 1.3 million African elephants. By 1989 only 600,000 remained when CITES banned trade in Ivory, 16,000 of which were in Kenya. Twenty years later, the downturn in illegal killing following the 1989 ban was reversed; significant population increase was recorded in Kenya. Elephant population had increased to 35,000!


All sources of data show clearly that the killing of African elephants has accelerated to reach a level in 2012 nearly triple that of the preceding decade. And this is why. According to New York Times, Africa’s elephants are being slaughtered at the highest rate in two decades, largely to satisfy soaring demand among China’s growing middle class.


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Iregi Mwenja at an ivory shop in China Town in San Francisco


On the other hand, Kenya’s soaring human population is estimated to be over 43 million this year. This increasing human population results in rising levels of poverty and unemployment.

A combination of growing demand (from rising middle class in China) and rising poverty (from rising human population) in Africa offer a perfect recipe for a disaster. When there are millions of people with millions of dollars to spend on illegal ivory in China and a poor guy with a dollar to die for in Africa, these magnificent giants are doomed!

Listen to what the renowned elephant researcher Dr Cynthia Moss had to say 2 years ago when Kenya’s President burned 5 tons of ivory to send a strong message to the world that an elephant is worth more live than dead.

Until we address the demand side of the trade, there will always be someone willing to kill for money!