The bonfire of 11 tonnes of ivory in the Nairobi National Park in 1989 remains the most powerful symbol of Kenya’s role in curbing the slaughter of African wildlife.
It was the prelude to an international ban on the ivory trade and a gradual recovery in herds across the continent. Since 2008 many of these gains have been eroded by a resurgent trade in rhino horn and elephant tusks.
Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, facing an equivalent threat, East African conservationists believe that Kenya may come to the rescue again.
A grass-roots movement has flourished in the region’s biggest economy that has put pressure on Kenya’s judiciary and its previously reluctant politicians who are now backing tougher legislation and a crackdown on poachers and smugglers.
A new wildlife and conservation Bill before the Kenyan Parliament calls for a minimum 15-year sentence and $12 000 fines for those caught taking part in the illegal trade.
A custodial sentence handed down to a Chinese citizen in August is being fêted as a turning point in what had seemed to be a losing battle.
Biemei Chen was jailed for three years after she was caught by a sharp-eyed customs officer at Nairobi airport while attempting to smuggle some 15kg of ivory hidden in the packaging of a well-known brand of macadamia nuts.
Similar offenders have received fines, which usually amount to a fraction of the commercial value of the ivory or rhino horns being smuggled.
The woman’s punishment has raised hopes among conservationists that the authorities are at last ready to get tough and that the conviction may frighten smugglers, especially in Asia, where growing prosperity has increased the demand for ivory and rhino horn.
The court’s tougher line on Chen came despite the Kenyan government’s presence in Beijing on a trade mission while court proceedings were under way in Nairobi.
In September, an attempted appeal of the sentence was also rejected.
The price paid to Kenyan poachers for ivory has jumped fivefold in the past two years. In some Asian markets the horns hacked off rhinos can fetch up to $100 000 a kilo.
In the first six months of this year more illegal ivory was seized than in the whole of 2012.
The jailing of Chen, who might have expected a fine under anti-poaching and smuggling laws that had hitherto been only laxly enforced, has been put down to public anger in Kenya at the loss of valuable wildlife.
“It could be a tipping point of huge consequence,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a zoologist and founder of Save the Elephants.
“There’s a rare opportunity to get things done right now in the way there was in 1989.”
Although conservation in Kenya has traditionally been seen as the preserve of its small white minority, a vocal grass-roots campaign that began with an extraordinary trek by a young Kenyan research scientist has slowly changed old perceptions.
Jim Nyamu, formerly on the staff of the Kenya Wildlife Service, walked more than 1 000km from the Indian Ocean coast inland to the elephant rangelands of Maasai Mara and north to Archer’s Post. The 37-year-old was greeted by crowds of young Kenyans wherever he went and he has gone on to repeat his trek in the United States, raising awareness there.
At the same time a nationwide campaign called “Hands off our elephants” has caught the attention of urban Kenyans. Popular local radio presenter Raabia Hawa, who has become an honorary warden with the Kenya Wildlife Service, is typical of the younger generation engaging with conservation.
“Previously conservation was seen as a closed circle but now a lot of young Kenyans are taking the initiative and getting involved,” she said.
Paula Kahumbu, the head of Widlife Direct and a passionate advocate of local conservation efforts, sees a shift in ordinary Kenyans’ views: “There’s been a complete change of tack. They are our animals and we have to take action.”
Volunteers have attended court sessions to monitor proceedings and apply pressure on judicial officials who have been reluctant to use the full extent of existing laws. Magistrates in the world-famous Maasai Mara area and near the national parks of Tsavo have been taken on tours and briefed on the extent of the poaching crisis.
Keriako Tobiko, the director of public prosecutions, went on record last week decrying the escalating cases of wildlife crime and calling for the judiciary to overhaul laws and impose stiffer penalties on offenders.
“It’s another indication of the seriousness with which the judiciary have had to take this because of the public,” said Kahumbu.
The Wildlife Direct chief also managed to persuade Kenya’s first lady, Margaret Kenyatta, to be one of the public faces of the campaign.
This in turn has translated into forceful support from many MPs, who now see popular support and powerful political muscle behind the anti-poaching efforts.
The government has also promised to deploy another 600 wildlife rangers to combat the poaching gangs, which are often sophisticated and well armed.
The campaigners have delivered an action plan to the government, which they claim could make Kenya the model for the rest of the continent.
It calls for increased spending, a crackdown on corruption in public offices, as well as public education and an outreach to countries such as China that have been spurring demand.
“We believe that President Kenyatta can reinstate Kenya as the world’s role model for leadership in endangered species protection,” the action plan concludes.