Driven by rising demand for ivory, elephant poaching in and around northern Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve has reached its highest rate in 14 years, with alarming consequences for the animal’s population balance and potentially, the entire ecosystem.

A nonprofit organization called Save the Elephants has worked for decades to protect elephants from poachers, and until recently, had been successful at helping the Samburu population recover.

On July 12, a matriarch named Khadija—the last mature member of the “Swahili Ladies” family of elephants, many of whom are orphans—was found dead. Khadija’s death at the hands of poachers, who cut out her tusks after shooting her four times, underscores the magnitude of this growing problem.

The leather tracking collar Khadija had been wearing was cut from her neck and buried in the sand near the body.
We asked Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, about the dire situation in Samburu.

Why is Khadija’s story significant?

Khadija was the last matriarch of a very well-known elephant family originally identified by researcher George Wittemyer in the early 2000s. One by one, the matriarchs were eliminated until she was the only survivor, leading a family with about eight orphans.

What has spurred the increase in poaching?

The increase appears to be driven by an upsurge in demand for ivory, principally from China’s newly affluent middle class, who are probably unaware that every time they buy ivory they are contributing to elephant death. Sometimes elephants are also killed for raiding local crops.

Does a decline in the elephant population affect other parts of the ecosystem?

Yes, in many ways. Elephants clear the bush and make roads for other animals, they dig for water in times of drought, and they spread the seeds of certain trees that they eat. Their habitat corridors also benefit other species.

What is the government doing to combat poaching, and what more can be done?

The Kenya Wildlife Service is doing all they can, but with demand for ivory surging, they are being run off their feet. There need to be more funds for anti-poaching activities on the ground by the local communities, the Northern Rangeland Trust, and the Kenya Wildlife Service. Sentences for poachers who are convicted should be more severe to act as a deterrent.

What are some common misconceptions about elephant poaching?

It is a misconception to suppose that the ivory poachers are poor farmers who are forced to poach because of their poverty. The truth is that ivory poaching and trading is increasingly carried out by organized criminal syndicates, and the poachers at the ground level are usually bandits, well-armed with automatic rifles, who are robbing people when they are not killing elephants and other wildlife.

Can poaching ever be totally eliminated?

It cannot be eliminated, but it can be controlled. In the years following the 1989 ivory trade ban the population of elephants increased in Kenya—from around 14,000 in 1985 to more than 23,000 in 2006—even though there was still some poaching occurring. Now, we need to make the world wake up and take action to stop this renewed onslaught against the elephants. Ultimately, demand for ivory needs to be reduced, and the most important country where this needs to happen is China.

What will happen to the orphans in Khadija’s family?

The youngest ones may die, but orphans over age 5 tend to do pretty well. Most stick together with siblings and cousins. Males tend to disperse from orphan groups earlier than non-orphan groups, setting out on their own or joining less stable bachelor groups. At the moment, the orphans from Khadija’s Swahili Ladies family are still together. It is part of our long-term research program in Samburu to understand what orphan elephants like these do to survive and piece together their lives.

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