To the horror of naturalists and lovers of wild animals, poachers of rhinos, elephants, and other large mammals in East Africa are bringing to their grim work the technology of sophisticated military operations, including night tracking devices and long-range sniper rifles. And they are winning the war.
The recent toll on East Africa's wildlife has been horrific. Big game animals are dying, not of natural causes but because they are being slaughtered for bones and skin. Last year some 385 elephants were butchered for their ivory tusks. In October 2013, officials in Mombasa seized a 4-ton cache of ivory as it was being loaded to a vessel in the harbor. Some species are now at risk of extinction. What drives this awful drama? The short answer is 'money.'
Ivory fetches between $ 200 and $ 500 per pound on the black market, while rhino horn, much harder to obtain, can easily bring $ 12,000 a pound in markets in China and Vietnam. For rewards like these, poachers are willing to train hard, as a military unit would, using assault rifles and night-vision goggles. They develop strong bush skills that make them formidable combatants when confronted by law enforcement. Modern, military-style poachers will not hesitate to kill park rangers who interfere with them. A year ago, in January 2013, Somali poachers working the Kasigau Wildlife Corridor in southeast Kenya fatally shot Wildlife Service Ranger Abdullahi Mohammed. A colleague was shot in the face, but survived with crippling injuries.
Kenya's legislators have slowly responded with tough new laws to combat the larger militarized poachers. Penalties for killing animals may be made more severe (the maximum punishment a poacher currently faces is a mere 36 months in prison). But more intriguing are proposals to turn technology against sophisticated poachers. For example, Kenya's game wardens announced in October that they will now routinely implant a microchip transponder into every rhinoceros within Kenya's borders. It is thought that only 900 living rhinos still roam Kenya's game parks, down from thousands only decades ago.
Ground-up rhino horn is considered a more powerful aphrodisiac than Viagra in many wealthy communities of Southeast Asia, where deluded males believe that drinking powdered rhino horn in their tea will give them massive penile erections. In fact, rhino horn is made of keratin, the same material as comprises human fingernails. Drinking powered rhino horn is thus chemically indistinguishable from drinking pulverized human fingernails. It has no effect whatever on sexual drive.
A British parachute regiment stationed at Nanyuki will coordinate the implantation of the microchips, which will greatly facilitate tracking the endangered rhinos.
Meanwhile, London-based conservation NGOs are convening discussions next February to explore economic incentives to reduce poaching. A significant challenge today is that poaching has become deeply integrated into East Africa's rural communities, where local economies may be unable to sustain themselves from the highly variable income from tourism.
As Kenyans who live side-by-side with the wild animals in the game parks soon discover, the temptation for a large one-time cash bonanza – as opposed to a trickle of income from tourism over many months – may prove irresistible.
Part of the logic of the London-based conferences stems from a recognition that those who are most likely to become involved in poaching are rural peoples with few opportunities to benefit legitimately from the game parks from which Kenya's government derives so much income.
A new idea in the conservation community is to develop strategies that help to provide legitimate cash from wildlife to people who can provide tourism services, act as guides, and perform other legitimate service tasks in the parks that preserve, rather than endanger, the animals.
"The cost-benefit equation to the rural Kenyan citizen has to be turned on its head," in the words of one wildlife enthusiast. "We need to make it profitable for the would-be poacher to save animals rather than kill them."
But demand for ivory, animal skins for leather shoes and boots, and rhino horn as an aphrodisiac, remains strong as prices rise because supply becomes scarce. The bottom line is simple for all to understand: if the value of East Africa's wild animals is greater as dead carcasses than as living creatures, it is only a matter of years before all the elephant, rhinos, buffalo, and cats will be gone for all eternity.