Animals: They were here first
Elephant Hero - Richard Leakey
If you were an elephant now, life would be full of woe. Everywhere you go, skeletal remains of relatives lay baking in the sun. You feel hopeless, certain that your species will be wiped out by the greed of man’s lust for your ivory tusks. Thankfully, your old hero, Richard Leakey has heard your call and has turned the full force of his media influence to put a stop to these atrocities.
The following is an excerpt of an article by Graham Boynton in Newsweek, August 28, 2014:
Best known for digging up skulls that shed light on humanity’s origins, Leakey is back to pursuing the other great passion of his life—saving elephants and other endangered species threatened by poachers. The 69-year-old has made this trip with his protégée, Dr. Paula Kahumbu, who now heads up Wildlife Direct, the activist organization he founded in 2006.
This is Leakey’s third, fourth or even fifth coming, depending on how you measure these things, and it is certainly a remarkable comeback. Last September he had a liver transplant at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital and by all accounts was very close to death. He has already endured two kidney transplants, one in 1980 and the second in 2006, and he lost both his legs in a light aircraft accident in 1993 that he is convinced was an assassination attempt in retaliation for his conservation work. Leakey warns Kahumbu that she should be careful and think seriously about employing a bodyguard. “When I was head of the Kenya Wildlife Service I had five bodyguards, night and day, 24/7,” he says. “And I needed them. There were many, shall we say, interesting incidents.”
That Leakey is back on the anti-poaching campaign trail is good news for African conservationists. When he last rode to the rescue 25 years ago, appointed by the then Kenyan president, Daniel arap Moi, as the head of a bankrupt, corrupt and incompetent Wildlife and Conservation Department, Leakey stopped a tidal wave of poaching. He turned the department, which was renamed the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), into a paramilitary organization that had presidential permission to shoot poachers on sight. One conservationist said, “If Richard Leakey hadn’t been around then, we’d have probably lost our wildlife by now.”
Now the wildlife of Kenya, indeed of the entire African continent, is in crisis again. It is threatened by a combination of growing demand for ivory and rhino horn in the Far East, increased activity from al-Shabaab terrorists and Somali criminal gangs, and endemic corruption within the wildlife services. The soaring value of wildlife products has driven this latest poaching pandemic—in the Far East a single elephant’s tusks that weighs 10 kilograms, about 22 pounds, will fetch more than $30,000, while rhino horn is selling at $65,000 a kilogram (2 pounds, 3 ounces), more than twice the price of gold.
In August, it was announced that a tipping point had been reached: More African elephants are being killed each year than are being born. Their end is in sight. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that between 2010 and 2013, Africa lost an average of 7 percent of its elephant population each year; at this rate, the animals could be wiped out in 100 years. According to the KWS, last year Kenya lost 59 rhinos, a significant number because the entire population numbers around 1,000. Also, according to KWS, 300 elephants were poached last year, a figure that draws snorts of derision from Leakey. “They’re lying,” he says. “We think it is 10 times that number.”
There are now more than 30,000 African elephants a year being poached for their ivory, according to conservation groups, and South Africa, which has more than 85 percent of the continent’s remaining rhino, is losing a rhino every eight hours to poachers. Lion populations are also threatened, with five lions a day being killed illegally. At this rate, these signature species will no longer exist in the wild within a generation or two.
Although Leakey has now formally handed over the reins of Wildlife Direct to the feisty, articulate Kahumbu, he is very much the strategic driving force behind this small nongovernmental organization that has already had an impact.
The group has been instrumental in the introduction of dramatic new laws for wildlife trafficking offenses that increased penalties for possession of ivory or rhino horn from 40,000 ($450) to 20 million Kenyan shillings ($230,000), the most severe on the continent. It also helped force the government to ban the use of Furadan, an insecticide used by farmers that has been found responsible for poisoning lions, hyenas, vultures and other animals. And it has successfully pressured the courts to stop the government from going ahead with a Chinese-built, four-lane highway through Nairobi National Park, the country’s oldest wildlife reserve.
Perhaps most important, Leakey and Kahumbu have, through the use of social media, engaged their fellow Kenyans in citizen conservation. Kahumbu says there is now an unprecedented groundswell of “citizen concern,” a significant shift in public engagement. The slogan “My elephants, my heritage” is constantly re-tweeted because “elephants are part of our heritage,” she says.
Kahumbu adds that while white conservationists have sometimes dominated the African wildlife theater and propagated the view that black Africans are uninterested in their wild animals, “our social media traffic completely undermines that stereotyping.”
Here is a link for the rest of the story in Newsweek.
Here is a link to Wildlife Direct and ways that you can help, including the social media campaign.