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SIM cards for elephants


Within a decade, elephants could be extinct in Africa. Whispering Crane Institute under a Creative Commons Licence

As the fight to stop poachers in Kenya becomes increasingly militarized, the Kenyan government and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) are also attempting to dissuade poachers through non-violent means.

A new bill is awaiting presidential approval and could become law within a few days. Using financial incentives, it is designed to encourage communities and private landowners to protect, and not kill, elephants.

The bill will also stipulate that harsher penalties should be served to those charged with poaching. Currently, small fines are the only deterrent for poachers, and when the business of elephant and rhino tusk smuggling is so lucrative, there is little to lose.

Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) have been monitoring elephants’ movements using mobile phone technology since 2005 as part of a wider campaign to ensure that wild animal trophies – elephants tusks, rhino horns, animal skin and teeth – are not smuggled into the illicit global market where demand is growing, especially from China.

SIM cards with secret codes are fitted to all elephants’ tusks. Should poachers remove the tusk from an elephant, the wildlife protection officers are still able to track the tusk and even the poachers.

The devices are also able to sense when and where the animal is attacked or is in danger so that rangers can move into the area to help save elephants lives.

‘Most of these efforts are in addition to what we traditionally do as wildlife management, such as monitoring, research, translocations, anti-poaching and other security measures’ says William Kiprono, director of KWS.

A handful of the largest parks in Kenya including Tsavo East and West National Parks and Aberdare National Park still contain viable ecosystems and wildlife populations. These include a small population of 631 black rhinos, 390 southern white rhinos and four northern white rhinos.

To help protect animal wildlife, the country has 29 elephant range areas, four marine parks and reserves, four national sanctuaries and 125 field stations outside the protected areas system. Wildlife protection staff are stretched to capacity.

Kenya loses over 365 elephants for their tusks annually, according to official statistics. The actual figure is thought to be up to three times higher. The country’s current elephant population is estimated at 30,000 compared to 167,000 in 1979.

The mortality rate is four per cent compared to a growth rate of two per cent meaning that within 10 years elephants could be extinct in Kenya and the rest of Africa. An urgent response to poaching is therefore required to prevent a further decline of elephant numbers and the negative impact it has on the Kenyan economy.

Kiprono explains that there are other challenges facing the KWS in maintaining animal populations: inadequate national data on the status of wildlife, loss of clear national land use policy, high human-elephant conflict, and effects of climate change.

Human-elephant conflict has been exacerbated as unplanned settlements and farms continue to encroach on and fragment wildlife habitats. Injuries to humans and property have increased, resulting in costly compensation lawsuits, payouts and revenge killings of the animals, says Kiprono. The proposed bill therefore could have a far-wider reaching impact than reducing the rate of poaching.

Elephants also benefit communities as a tourist attraction: many people stay in Kenya’s hotels and lodges just because of the presence of healthy wildlife populations. So it is in local residents’ interest to value the animals and create safe havens to protect them from poachers.

The plight of elephant populations has inspired groups and individuals around the world. For example, following his Kenyan research scientist and elephant specialist Jim Nyamu embarked on a journey covering 900 kilometres by foot to raise awareness that elephants face extinction.

Nyamu’s walk began in the US on 4 September in Boston, Massachusetts and ended in Washington DC on 4 October on the day of the International March for Elephants. He has since begun a 2,500 kilometre walk back in Africa. With the message ‘Ivory Belongs to Elephants’ emblazoned on his t-shirt he calls upon individual citizens, communities, policymakers and the private sector to help in the fight against poaching.

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