Over the last few decades, African elephant populations have been in dramatic decline due to rampant poaching fueled by black market demand for ivory tusks. Elephants in Kenya have been among of the hardest hit, down more than 90 percent in a generation. Last year, an estimated 30,000 elephants were killed across Africa, a 35 percent increase from 2012 -- marking one of the deadliest years on record.
Behind this is the ivory trade -- an international network made up of vendors, dealers and cartels, including known terrorists like Al-Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda-linked group responsible for the Nairobi mall attack last September. While global campaigns have been mounted to disrupt and dismantle these organizations, poaching trends continue to rise, raising fears that elephants could be driven to extinction in a little over ten years.
Among the most visible members of this billion dollar industry are poachers themselves, often local people risking the most for the lowest gains. Little is known about these illegal hunters beyond the grim evidence of their exploits.
To better understand the character of a poacher and to shed some light on that shadowy profession, I recently spoke with John Kaimoi, a 33-year-old Kenyan man who has admitted to killing 70 elephants. Just weeks after completing a two-year prison sentence for this crime, he discussed how famine and drought, exacerbated by climate change, drove him into the illicit business -- behavior he describes as having “gone beyond human nature.”
He spoke by phone from his village of Kabarnet.
What did you do for a living before you became a poacher?
I would plant maize and millet with my family; they would assist me. We could plant. We could till a small piece of land. We would just survive from that. That's how I [could] earn my living. So when problems arose, what I could I do?
What kind of problems were those?
The place I was living is an arid area, where we depend on livestock. When famine comes, we usually lose a lot of animals. When we lose these animals, we lack what to eat. I would take my animals to the market to sell, but after the famine, we had nothing left to sell.
I realized I had a responsibility for this young family. It made me go out and find money. This is what forced me, family. I found myself doing this kind of business, with the elephant tusks, the killing of these elephants.
Do you remember the first time you killed an elephant?
The first time was in 2002. That was the first time I started the hunt of animals.
This hunting of elephants, I would usually go at night. I don't know what was in me. I don't know what got put in my head. I would usually go at night. I was a brave man. I just decided to go at night and look for those animals. At this moment, I pray that I do not go back there again because I have gone through this trial. I don't want to repeat again, I pray.
When I do that, I don't even understand myself. But because of the problems I was facing at that moment, it compelled me to kill that animal. I can't even fear in anything when death comes my way. The animal is so dangerous. But because of the situation that I was living in, I could risk it. I could risk it.
Looking back, how did you feel taking the life of an elephant?
When these animals come, I had to put on courage in my soul. But when I throw my spear into the animal, something comes up inside, an emotion. When I threw the spear and it enters the animal, that's when it screams. And when it screams, it's like heaven has come down.
At that time, I find myself feeling inhuman. It even surprised me sometime. When I arrived to find the animal lying down dead, there is a pain inside my heart. But that was my target. That's what I was looking for. So I just continued my business.
But even when I interacted with people, I felt guilty. I had done something horrible. There was something bad inside me, but I resumed because I had no other means. That's the only thing I could do.
How many elephants did you kill?
The number of elephants I killed in that time, since 2002 until I was arrested, was seventy.
Do you remember learning in the media that it was harmful? Did you understand how criminal it was?
Yes, it sounded like something criminal, but because of the kind of life I was living by then, I had to risk it. I had to risk it. That's the time when I lived like that until I was arrested.
Were you working with other people?
Yes, sometimes I would work with other people. But sometimes I would work alone.
Who did you sell the tusks to?
I could take the tusks to businessmen, the cartels, along the coastal region of Kenya, in a town called Mombasa. That's about 700 kilometers from where I killed them.
How did you become introduced to people to buy the tusks?
I asked my friend in Nairobi if he could tell me how I could go and meet this cartel in Mombasa.
Can you tell me about the people that you met?
We would just communicate. What brought us together was the business. We would join up together.
How much money did you earn by selling the tusks?
With 1 kilogram of these tusks, I could get 5,000 shillings [$58 USD].
[Editor’s Note: On the Black Market, ivory is valued at $1,800 per kilo.]
How did you spend the money?
I had young kids, I could divide this money to meet the needs of my family -- to buy food and pay for my child to go to boarding school. This amount could change things.
Did your wife and children know how you were earning that money?
No, no. They could not even know. I could not tell them because it was a serious issue. They just believed that I was gone to a job, and after some time I come home. They received me like a father.
During these 10 years, before you were arrested, did you ever think you should stop?
Yes, I felt so bad. I felt so bad. I just tell myself, when the time comes that I'm sleeping, that I could change this kind of lifestyle.
What made you feel bad exactly?
What made me feel bad was this kind of inhuman act. When you hear of somebody killing an elephant, that's something that has gone beyond human nature. To be away from my family was something that made me feel so bad. I felt so isolated, so inhuman.
Could you tell me about the night that you were finally caught? How did it happen?
I can remember I was walking in the reserve called Kamnarok. That's when the wildlife officers found me and I was caught. Then I was taken to prison.
Tell me about what it was like being in jail?
That life in jail is so bad.
Did you meet other poachers in jail?
There was nobody who did what I did.
What did other people in jail think about your crime?
The other people were worried, because they told me that I had done the greatest crime.
I was isolated. I was not even allowed to go outside because they felt like I had done something no man could do. That’s when I realized I should change these kind of actions and live another kind of life. That’s why I went to the wildlife authorities for a job when I was released.
You would like now to work for the wildlife service?
If given an opportunity, I would work. Because what concerns me is the issue of my family, my young children who are still in primary school. So I don’t have another way. If given even something, anything. I’ve just come out.
It might sound strange to some people that a man who has spent ten years poaching elephants now wants to protect them. What would you say to those people?
I don’t want to be in that kind of business anymore because it is inhuman. It is a risky activity and a dangerous lifestyle. Given the opportunity, I should have just surrendered.
Do you understand that elephants may go extinct because of people hunting them, as you have done? How do you feel about that?
It’s all bad. For elephants to go extinct, it’s so bad because the country will lose tourism, and it would not be good for the elephants.
What would you like the people to know from your experience having killed elephants and gone to jail for the crime?
What I would tell other people in the world about these elephants, is that elephants are crucial animals. We should take care of them, because we can meet the needs of our country and save the elephants. What I see is that elephants are a resource that should be taken care of by everybody, and to have the extinction of this animal, the government cannot assist the people. Through these animals, the government can obtain revenue through tourism. That is what I can say about this important animal.
Because it’s such a serious problem, many people have difficulty feeling sympathy for people who poach these animals.
What I could tell these people so that they can understand that poachers are people who want to meet their needs. They are people trying to live, and living is to meet their needs. So if people should understand that they have to talk to these people so that they can understand them properly and assist them, and to enable them to avoid this kind of activity.
How do you think we can prevent other people from killing elephants?
We can teach them the importance of this animal, and show that these animals can help meet their needs in other ways. Through the revenue of tourism, the normal man can earn their living. When these people know the importance of this animal, they engage in other activities, in wildlife tourism which can take care of these animals.
How many children do you have now?
Six children. But my wife is young, so we will have more children. I’m dreading. She’s threatened to have even ten children. Children, according to our culture, are a blessing. To have children is security sometimes.
If poaching continues at current rates, it has been predicted that elephants in Africa could go extinct in twelve years. How would you feel about your children growing up without elephants?
I would feel so bad. Because it’s like there no life there. If the elephants die the economy will suffer. Through the state, these people get assisted to go to school.
When these elephants die, they will not go to school. Our children will not see the beauty of these animals. They will just be hearing that there were elephants, and it will not be so good.
As of January 2014, Mr. Kaimoi has yet to find steady work, saying that his family now depends upon his wife who grows vegetables to sell at market.
After this interview was conducted, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta signed the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act into law, stiffening punishment for convicted poachers to life imprisonment.
[Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.]