A Kenya Wildlife Service officer holds an elephant ivory tusk, as they are displayed outside the Port of Mombasa's police station, in Mombasa, Kenya, earlier this month, after a container ship containing more than 440 pieces of ivory were seized en route from Uganda to Malaysia.

Kenya's elephants may vanish in 10 years, warns prominent naturalist

Richard Leakey was in Nairobi this week with news that ivory poaching, and illegal sales in Asia, may accelerate overall trend downward.  

Kenya’s elephants could be wiped out by poaching in 10 years, unless urgent measures are taken to end the crisis, International wildlife conservationists warned here this week. 

A demand for ivory and rhino horns in the lucrative Asian black market has attracted cartels to Africa that are presently carrying-out cold blood killings of the animals, the conservationists say. In Kenya, the situation is at its worst now, according to Richard Leakey, an internationally famed paleontologist and founder of WildlifeDirect, a conservation charity.

“There has never been such a level of killing as we are experiencing today. Unless we do something now elephants will be gone from the wild within the next decade,” says Dr. Leakey, speaking at a presentation in the Kenyan capital. 

“I believe partnerships with private sectors are critical. We cannot afford any further delay and we have to be tough," Leakey added. 

In 1979, when 1.2 million elephants roamed Africa, Kenya had 167,000, according to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Today, Africa has an estimated 300,000 pachyderms, representing about a 75 per cent loss since 1979, figures compiled by WildlifeDirect.

Between January and May of this year, 117 elephants and 21 rhinos have been killed by poachers. In 2012, 384 elephants were killed compared to 278 in 2011 and 178 in 2010, according to Kenyan figures and the British newspaper The Telegraph. The Kenyan agency says there are between 30,000 and 38,000 elephants now living in Kenya, although no physical count has been done. Some conservationists think this figure could be lower.

The warning came with the launch in Nairobi of a conservation partnership called Hands off our Elephants on July 24, that brings together government, private sector, activist and community groups and individuals. The initiative seeks to create awareness about poaching and demands an escalation of anti-poaching efforts.

Hilary Clinton, former US secretary of state, announced a similar initiative in the US, according to a WildlifeDirect statement.

John Heminway, an American filmmaker and writer, said the news about the decline of the large and intelligent mammals has been on the wall for at least a decade. But he argues the intensity of poaching has increased in recent months.

Mr. Heminway's film, "Battle for the Elephants," was set to premiere in Nairobi July 26. The film outlines an elaborate illegal trade in ivory trophies and other illicit ivory products through East African ports to Asian countries such as China.

In China, an estimated 80 per cent of middle class families, those earning around $32,000 a year, have admitted purchasing ivory, according to Heminway. Of these, some 65 per cent are aware the purchases are of illegal ivory from poached elephants in Africa, he said.

Judi Wakhungu, Kenya’s presidential cabinet minister for the envirnment described the partnership as the beginning of the public awareness campaign to eradicate poaching and trade in ivory products.

“The security of elephants is a good indicator of the state of other species in our county,” said Dr. Wakhungu.

With increased poaching, Kenya has officially said that all poaching cases will be prosecuted as economic crimes. Kenya has also revised the punitive penalties upwards, with some as high as $62,5000 joined to prison time of up to 15 years.

Paula Kahumbu, executive head of WildlifeDirect Kenya, urged governments in Africa, Thailand, China and the USA to aid anti-poaching efforts by banning all sale of ivory, since legal markets were cover-ups for the illegal trade.

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