Serenity is shattered as three elephants are butchered for their ivory in Amboseli

OOGR scouts with the one recovered tusk, weighing 12.5 kilogrammes, presumably from the mother out of the three slain elephants.  Photo courtesy of ATGSA – Wilson Kisipan Tikwa

It was late afternoon of Sunday the 28th October 2012 on Olgulului – Ololorashi lands in Amboseli.

The sun was heading towards the western horizon and a sleepy, comfortable dusk was gradually enveloping the sun-baked lands, giving them a refreshing and welcome cool.

That was until two dramatic things happened on the hilly slopes between Lemomo and Embaringoi hills along the Kenya – Tanzania border, shattering the serene atmosphere.

The sound of three cracks of a powerful rifle on one side, and in a distant opposite end, bellows of smoke filling the air signifying fire, brought on panic.

The idea of what wild fire will do to the scanty dry vegetation of the Amboseli ecosystem at this time of the year was, enough to send a chill up any ranger or scout's spine, let alone the livestock dependant Maasai community.

It called for a rapid reaction, keeping in mind the wild winds of Amboseli.  

Suddenly the peaceful Amboseli was no more.

People rushed to one end to put out the fire while community scouts and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) security force sped off in the opposite direction.

They knew all too well what that meant – poachers had struck.

Their mission was to get to the site before the bandits hacked the tusks off the elephants, if they had succeeded in their heinous hunt.

Use of fire is a seasoned diversionary tactic that poachers in Amboseli are known to employ.

A brief exchange of gunfire ensued, leading to the recovery of a spent cartridge of .458 bullet ( Courtesy of KWS Amboseli).

But sadly, the combined force of OOGR Community scouts and KWS rangers arrived at the site of the shooting only to be faced with the horrific sight of three freshly butchered carcasses of prized Amboseli Elephants.

The images of the graceful family of three, one moment alive and feeding, the next one dead cold (mother and two daughters – according to Amboseli Trust for Elephants), two lying on their side and one in a kneeling position, all with their faces cruelly hacked off was a very painful reminder of what poachers would do to Amboseli Elephants should OOGR community scouts or KWS rangers sleep on the job.

The cross-fire was followed by hot pursuit by the combined security team, and resulted in the recovery of at least one elephant task left behind by the fleeing poachers.

The area being so close to the Tanzanian border, in a very bushy, hilly and difficult terrain meant that the poachers could slip into the fast falling darkness with ease and into Tanzania where they knew the Kenyan Security forces would not dare pursue them beyond the border line.

This brought out the reality and challenges of cross-border issues that put OOGR community scouts in a very unique position in the 5,700Km2 Amboseli Ecosystem.

Qantina's wounds gave a clue about the nature of the poachers.

This whole set up smacked of professional and seasoned elephant poachers, who knew where to hit the elephants (to ensure instant death), where to hack the elephant face (to swiftly remove whole tusks) and disappear into the dusk.

The use of bush fire as a decoy (to distract attention and spilt the manpower), the location of the hunt (rugged with no passable roads, bushy with scanty foot paths and very close to the Tanzanian boarder), the calibre of the firearm used (very powerful rifle to ensure a single bullet is enough to down the biggest elephant and so attract minimum attention) and the timing (just when the sun was setting to provide just enough light for them to cross the border into Tanzania before night fall and disable pursuit) laced together to provide a safe and easy escape for the poachers.

This exposed the underbelly of wildlife conservation in Amboseli.

With most of the resources and fire power vested in KWS, who are based in Amboseli National Park mainly, while elephants roamed freely in OOGR community land, often far away from KWS rangers, means that they are constantly exposed to this kind of danger.

While OOGR community rangers may be the first to respond to both a fire outbreak and sound of gunshots, they remain poorly trained and equipped.

The result is that they always have to call upon KWS rangers for mobility and fire power to pursue and challenge the poachers.

The poor roads on OOGR community lands exacerbate the situation.

All this provides the necessary time for the poachers to get away with the ivory.

It is said that if we lose the elephant, we should try not to lose the ivory, so as to avoid  fuelling the already out of hand illegal ivory trade, and further encourage poaching.

This is why the International Fund for Animal Welfare is professionally training and equipping the OOGR community scouts, as the first line of defence for Amboseli elephants, and is asking for support from all who care about the welfare of Amboseli elephants, to help us train and equip all OOGR scouts to avoid a repeat of the sickening sight we saw here.  

Since that fateful Sunday, the combined force of OOGR community scouts and KWS rangers both-combed the area for five straight days, pumped in lots of resources, and time, day and night in search of the missing ivory and clues to the poachers. 

Their efforts bore fruit when one of the five suspected poachers was arrested and is currently helping with investigations. 

--EM

For more information about our work to protect elephants around the world, visit our elephants campaign page.

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Experts

Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
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James Isiche, Regional Director, East Africa
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Jason Bell, Program Director, Elephants Regional Director, South Africa
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Peter Pueschel, Director, International Environmental Agreements
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Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
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