In Tsavo, as throughout the country, the question of how to manage the elephants is still paramount. While several other countries permit trophy hunting, it has been illegal in Kenya since the 1970s and the policy here is to hunt the poachers and allow the elephants to reach their own natural balance within the defined park territory. Zoologists are divided about whether there is an optimal elephant population for a park like Tsavo, especially as natural weather patterns and now climate change are so significant. The destruction by elephants of Tsavo East’s fragile woodlands and ongoing human-elephant conflict in the farmlands around the perimeter (the park boundary is fenced around Voi) are perennial concerns.

Such questions have been submerged for many years by the overbearing problem of ivory poaching, which at one time looked like it would wipe out the elephants completely. In 1967, the combined Tsavo parks’ elephant population was more than 30,000. It went down to 5300 in 1988, and today stands at around 12,000. Elephants are long-lived and intelligent animals with complex kinship patterns, and the social structure of the herds in many districts was badly distorted in the 1980s, with many older animals killed and too many inexperienced younger elephants unable to fend for themselves or to act as role models for infants. The poachers had changed too; they were no longer marginalized Kamba farmers killing an occasional elephant with an old gun or poisoned arrows, but a new breed of well-connected gangster, equipped with automatic weapons, wiping out whole family groups in a single attack.

The international ivory trade moratoriums, in place from 1989, stopped the ivory trade in its tracks, and had an immediate effect on the numbers of new elephant corpses being logged in Tsavo East. Equally dramatic was the unprecedented aggression with which the Kenyan parks authorities started carrying out their duties under the bluntly pragmatic new Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, Richard Leakey, with poachers liable to be shot on sight.

The pressure from some countries to reopen the ivory trade has been strongly resisted by Kenya but this in turn has helped push the price of ivory past the $2000/kg mark. The turmoil in neighbouring Somalia is potentially a huge threat, with evidence that Al-Shabaab is using ivory and rhino horn to fund terrorist attacks.

Tsavo East’s black rhinos are much further down the path to annihilation. Their number in Kenya is estimated at around 600 (compared to 330 in 1989, at the height of the poaching), a figure that is perhaps twenty percent of the total population of the species. More than 95 percent of Kenya’s rhinos, most of them in Tsavo, were killed in the 1970s. This escalation was largely due to a major expansion of the market for rhino horn in China (where powdered horn is used in traditional medicine), and in Yemen where oil money put the rhino-horn dagger-handle, traditionally the prerogative of the rich, within reach of thousands of Yemeni men. Many tonnes of horns were smuggled out of Mombasa by dhow before the authorities made any effort to halt the trade.

Yet the savage groundwork in rhino extermination had been done long before. After World War II, the Makueni area southeast of Machakos was designated as a Kamba resettlement area, and the colonial Kenya Game Department sent in one J.A. Hunter to clear it of unwelcoming rhinos. He lived up to his name, shooting 1088 black rhinos.

Today there are around fifty black rhinos in Tsavo East, and there are breeding populations in a number of ranches and sanctuaries around the country, while the concept of saving the rhino has become a national cause. Nevertheless, as long as there’s a market for the horn, with current values estimated at up to $50,000/kg, rhinos will remain under threat.

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