Written by: Raabia Hawa, President Ulinzi Africa Foundation and Honorary Game Warden Kenya Wildlife Service
On the 19th of January 2015, Kenya lost an elephant. This elephant had no name, nor did he have any features that would make him stand out. He was just another victim of poaching in Africa.
Poachers had shot him with a poison arrow and left him for dead under a tree in the Tsavo Conservation Area. He must have walked for days or maybe weeks in agony, before he finally fell to the ground and heaved his final breath. As the rangers pulled out his grand tusks to keep them out of reach of criminals driving the decimation of Africa’s natural resources, they marked it with the date and location before indicating the weight.
The teams retreated back to base camp and the ivory mades its way to the stockpile, to be placed among thousands of other recoveries. Just like that the elephant became a statistic, never to be seen or heard of again…
Kenya is preparing for a major event. The conservation fraternity are watching our every move, reading our every post, and the phones are constantly buzzing with people from all over craving an invitation to the ivory burn.
On the ground, hard labour is in force. Young men have been temporarily taken on to ferry the weighty tusks from the containers to the pyres, where they are stacked neatly against each other. One by one, the elephants meet. Mothers, babies, grandparents, and the big boys club… They are all here, but alas, they are all dead.
I am witnessing the remnants of a genocide of a species. In my work in the field, things are quite different. I have almost been programmed to cut off my emotions when seeing these carcasses. I may shed a few tears back at base camp, but on the scene of these heinous crimes, it’s quite a different experience.
As we walk to the sites of fallen elephants, the wafts of wind carry the putrid stench of their rotting flesh. I know what to expect every time. The smell is unmistakable. Thick on the air and tough on your stomach, and before too long, their mutilated bodies begin to reach our view. We trod through puddles of maggots and blackened blood and oils from the decomposing giants, and start recording data.
Usually as the other rangers take down GPS locations and search for tracks, I say a quick silent prayer, wishing their souls peace, take a photograph for my data records, and we move on.
I never imagined a day would come in my life when our paths would cross again.
As I take photos of some of the individual tusks at the ivory burning site, I come across one large tusk weighting 44½kg. I see the name of the location, ‘Rukinga Ranch’, and immediately feel a weight on my heart. I have done a lot of voluntary patrols in this very place. ‘19.01.2015’ it reads, and I break down. It’s our elephant…
No longer a statistic, here he stands. As he died alone, today he is joined by many others and very soon will be set free as we let go of these body parts that we have no right to keep.
The guilt sets in fast, how could I abandon him in his time of need? Someone else carried him here and all I could do was apologise. In my guilt ridden anger I trek to the containers, and begin carrying as many tusks as I can to the pyres. Such is my anguish and desperation for these elephants. I carry the burden of our failure on my shoulders as I bid them farewell. My shoulders are sore from the weight of some of the tusks and I feel the sting as I put on my green uniform. I will not abandon my elephants and have the resolve to carry as many tusks as possible.
As we get the clearance to dislodge that tusk, my heart wells up with anxiety. How do you apologise to an elephant you failed to protect? Within seconds, I break down. I hold on to his tusk with all my might knowing I have to let go forever. I have to say goodbye…
William Kemboi of Kenya Wildlife Service consoles me by placing a hand on my shoulder. I know I am not alone. This very moment epitomises the trauma and desperation of all of us on the front lines of this war. I suppose it’s not dying that we fear in this line of duty, it’s dying a little inside every day.
We cannot apologise for the greed of others, but we can fight on. Harder and stronger than ever before, until our time comes… to join the elephants we hold dear.
Soon we will say goodbye to over 10,000 elephants. I’m uncertain about the future for my gentle giants, but I am certain of one thing – we are the guardians and defenders of Africa. We are rangers, and we will never give up.