Poison-Arrow Killings Surge in Africa Elephant Poaching

Nicholas Wadhams
for National Geographic News
February 25, 2009
Poachers on the hunt for ivory have stepped up their use of poison arrows and spears to kill elephants in southern Kenya, according to conservationists who say the techniques are harder to trace than gun attacks.

The surge is part of a nationwide increase in attacks on the animals, according to a report issued earlier this month by the Amboseli Trust for Elephants.

Since the start of 2008, 19 elephants have been killed and another 25 wounded by spears, arrows, and bullets in the Amboseli region near Mount Kilimanjaro, the report says.

Of those killed, ten animals had had their tusks removed—the first time in many years that ivory has been taken from Amboseli elephants, the group said.

In the last six weeks, poachers have also killed five elephants in the nearby Tsavo National Park region. Some were felled by gunfire, others by poisoned arrows.

Conservation groups fear that the rise in poaching is a result of a UN decision to allow the first ivory auction in a decade in 2008, an event that yielded more than a million U.S. dollars from Chinese and Japanese bidders.

"Since the one-off ivory sales from southern Africa countries late last year, we have noted an unprecedented rise of elephant poaching incidents in Tsavo," Jonathan Kirui, Tsavo National Park's assistant director, said in a statement released Monday.

"Our security team is on full alert and is going full force to ensure that the poachers are deterred."

"Soft" Killing

Officials with the Amboseli trust think poachers are using a poison made from acocanthera shrubs, which are common in Kenya.

"The toxin is frighteningly effective and there is no antidote," the report says.

Poisoning elephants attracts far less attention than shooting them with a gun, wildlife officials note.

"When you shoot an elephant—that loud bang—people will hear it," said Patrick Omondi, head of species conservation at the Kenya Wildlife Service.

"You shoot this elephant with a poisoned arrow, then they follow the elephant until it dies, and then they pluck out the ivory," Omondi said. "It's a soft way of killing."

In 2008 the Kenya Wildlife Service reported 98 elephants killed for their ivory, double the 2007 figure, Omondi said.

Conservationists from the Amboseli Trust and Kenya Wildlife Service link the rise in attacks to demand from Chinese workers constructing a road near Amboseli National Park and to lucrative trade across the border into Tanzania.

(Read: "Ton of Illegal Ivory, Hippo Teeth Seized in Kenya.")

The wildlife service has launched an investigation into the trade and is collecting evidence in hopes of arresting those involved, Omondi said.

In a recent interview with a local East African newspaper, Chinese embassy spokesperson Liu Bo denied that Chinese in Kenya are smuggling ivory.

Threatened But Healthy

Officials estimate that 1,600 elephants currently live in the Amboseli region. While the attacks are disturbing, the local population remains healthy, conservationists say.

"The threat is there—the indication is that there is a high demand for ivory," Omondi said.

"But it has not hit the elephants in a way that we are going to lose our Amboseli elephants."

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