In December, in the midst of Tanzania’s ongoing war against poaching, a man some describe as one of Africa’s finest wildlife defenders was murdered. Emily Stephen Kisamo, protection manager for Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA), was found dead in the trunk of his car, his throat slit.
Initially, Kisamo’s family lawyer, Coleman Ngalo, told reporters that Kisamo’s death was ordered by poaching ringleaders, and several TANAPA employees expressed concerned about their own safety. But police have since reported that Kisamo’s gardener confessed to killing Kisamo in his house in order to steal his money. At last report, three others, including Kisamo’s wife, were being held in connection with the murder.
During his 28-year career with the park service, Emily Kisamo helped rural children plant trees to prevent erosion, mediated conflicts between rangers and Maasai warriors, coordinated numerous cross-border investigations into wildlife crimes, collaborated with scientists to map poaching hot spots using ivory DNA forensics, and headed up intelligence in the agency. At the end of his life, he was overseeing all of TANAPA’s anti-poaching efforts.
His friends ranged from respected wildlife managers and law enforcement officials to researchers and conservationists as far afield as Seattle and Cape Town. (Read a tribute to Kisamo by a friend and colleague).
Markus Borner, who headed up the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s Africa program for more than 20 years, knew Kisamo professionally since 1996. “I considered him one of the most outstanding, honest, dedicated conservation professionals that Tanzania ever had,” he said.
Kisamo was born in 1964 in Marangu, a leafy town surrounded by streams and waterfalls in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro.
After finishing secondary school and his required year in the National Service, Kisamo was hired as a trainee park warden. Between various posts in TANAPA, he earned a diploma from the College of Wildlife Management and a bachelor’s degree in Zoology and Wildlife Ecology from the University of Dar es Salaam.
Kisamo was in his mid-30s when he enrolled in the FitzPatrick Institute’s Masters in Conservation Biology (MSc) program at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.
The students formed a lasting bond during the program—“like a new close-knit family,” says Catherine Hughes. Now far-flung researchers and conservation professionals, they shared their grief, remembering Kisamo as “gentle,” “kind,” and exceptionally respectful and caring, one who “took other people's worst problems as his own.”
Wendy Foden, a senior researcher at the University of Stellenbosch, in South Africa, recalls that the group enjoyed debating which animal each of them most resembled.
Achieving consensus usually required many hours, “but for Kisamo, it was quick and unanimous,” says Foden. “Kisamo was a lion. A great Serengeti male. Calm, regal, watching, powerful.”
Kisamo was keenly interested in the problems faced by Tanzania’s growing rural populations.
In his master’s thesis, which evaluates the impact of community conservation initiatives in villages around the Udzungwa Mountains National Park, he wrote about conservation in a way that considered the welfare of both humans and wildlife.
Before joining the master’s program, Kisamo was in charge of community conservation for Serengeti National Park, where he had the challenging task of establishing rapport with the herding communities in Loliondo, an area plagued by chronic controversy over land rights.
Retired TANAPA General Director Gerald Bigurube praised Kisamo’s successes in building “very good relations” with these communities in a letter of recommendation he wrote for Kisamo years later. Kisamo even negotiated the peaceful return of an AK-47 captured from park officials by a group of Maasai warriors—a task Bigurube said had seemed impossible.
Kisamo’s discussions with communities about erosion control inspired tree-planting projects all around the Serengeti, according to a 2001 issue of the East African Wild Life Society magazine.
Parents in the area began naming their children after him.
“I think it was this deep understanding of the needs of people as well the needs of the speechless creatures in the wild that made him such a great champion of conservation,” says Markus Borner.
Wildlife Crime Fighter
Shortly after earning his master’s degree, Kisamo was swept into the world of international crime-fighting when he was appointed director of the Nairobi-based Lusaka Agreement Task Force (LATF).
During his six years as director, he worked closely with Interpol’s Bill Clark on multiple law enforcement sweeps. Kisamo’s “efforts contributed enormously in making these operations successful,” says Clark, “and we measured success in the hundreds of ivory traffickers arrested, scores of illegal firearms recovered, and tons of contraband ivory seized.”
Clark, who has worked in African wildlife law enforcement for more than 35 years, describes Kisamo as “one of the finest wildlife law enforcement officers to accept the enormous challenge of fighting poachers and traffickers in Africa.”
In 2006, Kisamo coordinated the return of a record haul of contraband ivory—6.5 tons that had been seized in Singapore in 2002—back to the LATF’s headquarters in Nairobi for investigation.
According to Karl Karugaba, a field officer in the task force at the time, “Getting such a quantity of ivory back to Africa was unprecedented.” Kisamo even persuaded Singapore to pay for the freight.
He then collaborated with University of Washington researcher Samuel Wasser to sample DNA from the Singapore ivory and compare it to DNA from elephant dung samples collected from around Africa, pioneering a new means of using ivory seizures to identify poaching hotspots. They worked together on the analysis of several other seizures, coauthoring two papers on ivory DNA forensics.
“Kisamo was pivotal in helping us launch and apply this methodology,” Wasser says. “I will always remember his warm smile and positive demeanor, while fighting the hard fight.”
According Gerald Bigurube, Kisamo transformed the task force from a poorly performing organization “into a very modern, credible institution.”
Retired Zambian Wildlife Authority Officer Clement Mwale served as an intelligence officer in LATF while Kisamo was in charge. He agreed. Kisamo “wanted the job done, and he wanted it done properly,” Mwale said.
It was no different after Kisamo returned to Tanzania National Parks in 2009.
Fidelis Kapalata, who had been working as Kisamo’s assistant protection manager since last May, recalls, “When I became his assistant, right away he started giving me a lot of responsibility, encouraging me to be confident.”
But, Kapalata says, Kisamo did not tolerate late or sloppy work. “I can give myself as an example. So I learned—and I changed myself to work hard like him.”
Demanding though he was, Kisamo was loved and respected. “The organization itself is missing his efforts to combat poaching,” Kapalata says. “But also, people individually are missing him.”
At the University of Cape Town, Benis Egoh often studied with Kisamo. She believes he saw his master’s degree as a small part of a lifetime of conservation work. “While most of us were thinking about doing a PhD and going forward with studies,” she says, “he was focused on going back to work and stopping species extinction.”
I asked Clement Mwale, who kept up with Kisamo after they both left LATF, how he thought Kisamo would have wanted to be remembered.
At first, Mwale demurred, not wishing to guess at his friend’s private thoughts. But after a pause he said, speaking carefully, “I think he wanted to be seen as one of the people who contributed to the conservation of wildlife.”
Emily Kisamo was 51 when he died. He is survived by a wife, two children, and a grandchild.
Maraya Cornell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.