SAMBURU, Kenya — Day bleeds into night in this northern Kenyan town as Peter Kaipai arms himself with a long spear and starts his patrol of the Nasuula conservancy. He’s trying to protect the trees and the elephants from poachers, he tells me.
On this night, dozens of his fellow villagers accompany him, carrying spears and snares and torches as they take cover among the few trees in this arid landscape, trying to catch those who steal the wood for fuel and kill elephants for their tusks.
“We have to stop poachers from engaging in such inhuman behavior,” says Kaipai, 35. He is draped in the beaded jewelry and colorful regalia of the Samburu tribe who live in this region of the same name, about 350 miles north of the capital, Nairobi. “As a community, we have decided to protect the few remaining elephants. We patrol our area daily, make arrests, and charge those found with elephant tusks.”
These patrols underscore a dramatic change of heart for these villagers. Just a few years ago, it was Kaipai and his group who were the poachers. Using the very same spears and snares, they killed more than 100 elephants to satisfy demand for ivory, largely from China.
The reason for their change of heart is very simple: They’ve come to see that the elephants are worth more to them alive than dead.
“I feel happy and satisfied when I manage to stop and arrest poachers,” Kaipai says. “We have realized that elephants are our relatives and give us a strong cultural significance. They also attract the tourism that brings in foreign dollars, thus boosting the local economy.”
He adds, “I want to spend my whole life protecting elephants.”
Kaipai’s new sense of purpose is the result of efforts across the region to involve local communities in the conservation effort. Moses Lenaipa, manager of the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary in Samburu, run by the tribe, says the program will “advance the economy of the region, which has been poor for decades.”
Francis Lekalgitele, a warden at the Nasuula conservancy, says that in several areas where elephants roam, warriors from the Samburu and the Maasai tribes are now searching for and destroying traps laid by poachers. “The community has decided with one voice to end poaching in our region,” he says.
In addition to protecting the adult pachyderms, these tribes take care of young elephants that fall into watering holes and are abandoned by their parents. Lekalgitele says the Samburu, who are nomadic pastoralists, often dig deep holes to find water for both themselves and their cattle. However, elephants visit these wells at night to quench their thirst. Larger elephants with great long trunks have no problem reaching the water, he says, but baby elephants sometimes tumble into the watering holes.
“When their mother can’t pull them out of these watering holes, they are forced to abandon their babies for dead,” Lekalgitele says. “We have made sure that these young elephants are rescued and taken to a safe place where they are fed milk and monitored.”
The communities’ efforts in Samburu and elsewhere in Kenya have contributed to an upswing in the number of elephants. To mark World Elephant Day on Aug. 12, the Kenya Wildlife Service announced last year that the country’s elephant population has more than doubled over three decades, increasing from 16,000 in 1989 to 34,800 by the end of 2019.
That’s a turnaround for a species that had been threatened for decades across the continent due to poaching in spite of the 1989 Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which banned the international commercial sale of ivory.
Even so, ivory continues to be bought and sold on a vibrant black market, and poaching continues in some parts of the country.
In July, for example, police arrested Abubakar Mansur Mohammed Surur, a Kenyan national who had been wanted for years in the United States for ivory-related offenses. He is accused of involvement in the sale of 10 tons of ivory and more than 400 pounds of rhinoceros horn. Weeks before, Kenyan authorities in the northwestern town of Kitale had arrested a poacher in possession of about 31 pounds of elephant tusks with a market value of some $14,000.
Still, local support and involvement in Kenya and elsewhere means there’s a stronger chance of halting the killing of elephants and rhinos, as the Samburu experience shows.
“The government can only win the war against elephant poachers by involving the local communities,” Kaipai says, “because poachers live in those communities.”
Tonny Onyulo is a journalist based in Nairobi. Follow him on Twitter @TonnyOnyulo.