Breaking Bad: Poachers on the Loose in Kenya

I was in Kenya this July, in Samburu County, working on a story about cheetahs, and found myself camping with conservationists at the ranger station in Meibae Community Conservancy.

Meibae, founded in 2006 through the Northern Rangelands Trust, borders the Ewaso Nyiro River in Samburu County. It’s a dry, rocky region, subject to drought, and it’s a key wildlife corridor for the endangered Grevys zebra, as well as cheetahs and elephants.

The local people, the Samburu, are pastoralists who keep goats, sheep, and camels and live in semi-permanent home clusters called manyattas.

Samburu communities collaborate with the Northern Rangelands Trust in monitoring wildlife and creating management plans and future tourism initiatives.

My Samburu guide, Chris Lentaam, was kind enough to act as an interpreter and facilitate interviews in the local market, where we spoke with young warriors (known as moran) and women about the state of wildlife and their concerns about the recent severe drought.

The day was cut short when word came from the ranger station about a dead elephant in the area.

The rangers’ truck was out for repairs, and they needed a ride to the site.

We dropped off two rangers by the side of the road, and they marched into the bush where the elephant was said to be, about six miles from the road.

By nightfall, confirmation came that the elephant had been poached.

The tusks had been cut off with a hacksaw, but not in their entirety from their root within the skull.

One of the men with us was close to tears, and I was in shock at how close to this story I’d just become.

I asked permission to be taken to see the carcass. After some negotiation, it was agreed that a small team would be allowed to go at dawn.

We drove as close as possible, over difficult terrain, then hiked the rest of the way.

Led to the carcass by fresh hyena and leopard spoor, we passed the spot where the poachers had paused, possibly for a hit of miraa (a popular amphetamine).

About a hundred yards away lay the elephant.

She was roughly 45 years old, with a gunshot to the head. She lay on her side in a pool of blood.

Rangers from the Kenya Wildlife Service had visited the night before and removed the base of her tusks.

We stayed there by her side for five long minutes. Nobody said a word until the head ranger quietly mentioned that it was time to go.

During the course of the next week, a small band of rangers scoured the bush in search of the poachers.

By then, though, the men had long since disappeared. They’re still on the loose.

Who are these poachers? Nobody knows, and nobody is talking on the record.

This was the second elephant slaughtered in the region in less than a month.

The fact that they left a portion of the tusks suggests that this elephant’s killers are new to poaching—low men on the chain of command.

What in their lives drove these men to break bad, and who are their bosses?

For more information on the fight save Kenya’s elephants, go to Save the Elephants http://www.savetheelephants.org/.

 

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Photo courtesy of Marcy Mendelson.

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Marcy Mendelson (above) is a conservation photographer working on a project to help save the cheetah through visual storytelling and reportage of the hard work by fundraisers, farmers, NGOs and local communities. She will be traveling to Africa this coming fall and reporting to National Geographic News Watch in addition to her site, Cheetah-Watch. In the meantime, she resides in San Francisco, California and works with nonprofits like Cat Haven and Animal Ark in observation of the outreach they do with animal lovers eager to help and learn. More about Marcy’s photography and interests can be found on her website, Mendelson Images.