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How Kenya’s big tuskers may be at risk to trophy hunting

Kenya’s successful marriage between conservation and sustainable tourism has become a symbol  of the economic potential of protecting African wildlife. Despite Kenya’s ban on hunting within its borders, a recent spate of elephant killings in Northern Tanzania has created considerable concern within conservation circles. This article delves into the history of trophy hunting in Kenya, explores the risks faced by its iconic elephant population due to trophy hunting, and highlights the urgent need for cross-border cooperation to protect these magnificent creatures.

A brief history of trophy hunting in Kenya

In the early days of colonial Kenya, and across much of the African continent under European rule, elephant hunting was seen as a sport for rich adventurers and nobleman. Attracting hunters from across the world to try their hand at taking down the largest and most exhilarating game animal, the African elephant. Although many hunters were after the largest bulls with the heaviest tusks, many elephants were killed indiscriminately to feed the large hunting parties accompanying the trophy hunters.

The first restrictions on the rampant elephant hunting in Kenya were actually established by the hunters themselves, specifically the East African Professional Hunter’s Association. The organization hoped to control the number of elephants that could be hunted at any one time. Elephant trophy hunting continued in Kenya at a more managed pace, even after Kenya gained independence from British colonial rule in 1963.

It wasn’t until 1973 that the hunting of elephants became completely illegal in Kenya, as a result of the increasingly small populations left in the wild.

Where can you hunt African elephants?

Although Kenya has boasted great success with sustainable tourism, and completely eliminated hunting from its borders, in many African countries you are still able to hunt wild African animals, including the African elephant.

In fact there are 8 countries in Africa that you are still able to trophy hunt the African elephant including Botswana, Cameroon, Namibia, South Africa and most importantly, for this discussion, Tanzania.

How Kenyan elephants are at risk from trophy hunting

Although elephants, as far as we know, do not recognize a distinct nationality, there are a large group of elephants that reside within the Kenyan border. Around 2000 of these elephants often call Amboseli National Park their home.

This population of elephants, comprised of 63 families, has been closely studied by the Amboseli Elephant Research Project (AERP) for 51 years. This is the longest running study of wild elephants in the wild. Of these elephant families, 17 regularly venture into Tanzania, totaling 365 members.

Additionally, Enduimet Wildlife Area (Northern Tanzania) has been a favored locale for a specific group of adult male elephants, serving as part of their designated ‘bull area’. This region is used by these males to eat and “bulk up” before they enter their next reproductive phase.

Although these elephants will often leave the protected borders of Kenya, into a country with legalised trophy hunting, since 1995 they have been protected by a moratorium on trophy hunting of the cross border elephant population, agreed to by both Kenya and Tanzania. Now, almost 30 years later, this bilateral agreement between the two countries seems to have been brutally destroyed, along with the lives of three prominent elephant bulls.

The Governor of Kajiado County Joseph Ole Lenku raised concerns about the recent trophy hunting of these elephants: “In the past few months, three of these revered elephants have tragically fallen victim to trophy hunting within Tanzania, signalling a distressing breach of the established conservation agreement. This alarming development underscores the urgent necessity for heightened vigilance and decisive action to uphold conservation efforts in the region”.

What we know

In January, it was reported that two large uskers were hunted in the Enduimet area, near the Kenyan border, during the latter part of 2023. This news triggered division within the hunting community and widespread outrage beyond it.

On March 1st of this year, Africa Geographic received unverified information suggesting that a third elephant had been killed in the Enduimet region. Soon after, word of the hunting incident began to circulate on social media platforms.

By March 11th, the Big Life Foundation issued a statement confirming the killing of a third elephant. The statement highlighted that the elephant’s carcass had been incinerated, rendering the identification of the specific animal impossible, similar to the previous two incidents. The tusk dimensions of the third poached elephant remain undisclosed.

Why is this trophy hunting significant?

The trophy hunting of elephants in Northern Tanzania carries significant repercussions due to the intrinsic value these creatures hold within elephant society and the broader ecosystem.

As highlighted by Audrey Delsink, an expert in elephant behavior and the wildlife director for Humane Society International/Africa. “The intrinsic value that these bulls bring to elephant society through their genetics, as repositories of social knowledge and as keystones of the environment, is irreplaceable. The killing of these iconic animals isn’t just a biological travesty but a moral tragedy and a stain on humanity’s conscience.”

Older bull elephants, regardless of tusk size, hold vital roles in elephant society, passing on invaluable knowledge to younger generations. In the Greater Amboseli Ecosystem, these elephants also hold immense economic value. While the trophy fee to hunt a large elephant in Tanzania stands at approximately $20,000, the lifetime value of an average elephant in tourism is estimated at $1,607,625. The idea of sacrificing one of these last remaining giant elephants for the benefit of a single hunting operation not only lacks economic prudence but also raises ethical and ecological concerns.

Additionally, all the elephants of Amboseli are part of a long running reserach project that has collated a treasure trove of data that can hold significant insights for conservation across the contininet. Losing any of these elephants to hunting is not only a huge blow to the local community and ecology but also the work of the dedicated conservationists and researchers of Amboseli.

How it affects Tsavo Conservation Area?

Elephants like to roam. This is the a key part of their survival strategy, eating up miles of terrain in search of important resources. Some elephants have been recorded travelling 200 km in a single day. It is also the reason that providing safe habitats for them is challenging, as they will often simply walk out of the protected area.

Many elephants will migrate from the arid plains of Tsavo, through the hills of Chyulu, into Amboseli then onwards into Tanzania where they will graze around the base of Mt Kilimanjaro. If bulls are hunted and killed by trophy hunters within the Tanzanian border, it will have significant impacts on populations of Kenyan elephants, particularly if the bulls killed are “super tuskers”, of which there are only 25 left in the world.

The plight of Kenya’s big tuskers highlights the intricate and often precarious nature of conservation efforts, particularly when wildlife becomes entangled in the shifting political landscapes of nations. As elephants fall prey to the changing political climates of countries, the need for coordinated action becomes increasingly evident. Only by navigating the complexities of conservation, enhancing cross-border collaboration, and fostering public awareness can we effectively address the multifaceted challenges endangering the survival of these iconic creatures.

If you would like to sign a petition urging the Tanzanian government to reinstate the cross-border wildlife protection agreement follow this link.

If you would like to learn more about how you can support Tsavo Trust’s efforts to protect the elephants, including super tuskers, of Tsavo Conservation Area, follow this link.

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