Journeying the Belt and Road Ep.12: Heroes in elephant protection
Updated 20:47, 29-Sep-2018
By Yang Chengxi

It takes about 20 years for elephants to reach adulthood. But now, they are dying by the hour. Over 100,000 elephants have been slaughtered for their ivory in the past three years. With the population virtually wiped out in west Africa, poachers are turning to countries like Kenya. At this rate of killing, half the elephants in Africa could be gone within a decade.

But the Maasai Mara National Reserve feels a world away from the crisis outside. "In 2011, 2012, about 140 elephants were poached. Not in the park but in the area surrounding the park. Last year I think it was eight," said Brian Heath, CEO of the Mara Conservancy.

Mr. Heath's NGO is licensed by the government to manage the area. "When we first came here, there was a lot of insecurity. There was a lot of poaching. There were no roads really," said Heath.

Ivory has a multi-billion grey industry. /CFP Photo

Ivory has a multi-billion grey industry. /CFP Photo

Then they hired rangers, which made a big difference. The reserve's tourism warden, Alfred Bett, explained how rangers work. "They can sit in the office in the morning, they discuss where they can go for patrol. Where they think there is a possibility of illegal activities," said Bett.

That's a dangerous job. Because all poachers have weapons, and when exposed, they're not hesitant to use them. This is a tough battle to fight. Because according to a 2016 report, 82 percent of rangers in Africa have faced life-threatening situations on duty. And about 60 percent of them had been attacked by poachers in the past.

Despite the hardship, the rangers have successfully kept the area poaching free. 50,000 animal wire traps used for poaching have been dismantled. Dogs are equipped at major checkpoints. "Their work is basically to sniff if there is any ammunition, if there is any rifle, if there is any trophy, either the tusk or the rhino horn," said Bett.

Alfred Bett(L), and two rangers. /CGTN Photo

Alfred Bett(L), and two rangers. /CGTN Photo

The NGO turned the place into a popular tourist attraction. However, with more and more safari cars roaming the area, the growing challenge is to keep the animals undisturbed. Nevertheless, this is much easier than battling gun-wielding poachers. Bett's contribution has earned him an acknowledgment from China. 

Tech company Alibaba and NGO Paradise Foundation have jointly set up a fund where they award 50 rangers a year for 3,000 US dollars. Bett is the recipient this year. "China is now playing a very important role. We used to think China is the best marketplace for animal trophies. But now, they stopped it," said Bett.

By banning sales of ivory in 2017, China has seen a big turnaround in its role in the global ivory trade. The decision will hopefully diminish the market and discourage poaching. The Maasai Mara is but a small safe haven on the African continent. Protecting the vast elephant population here needs a global political and economic solution. To Bett, it is a good thing that China is stepping up to be part of that.

(Cover photo: Elephants in the Maasai Mara National Reserve. /CGTN Photo)