Between 1979 and 1989, a time when there was an illegal ivory trade, African elephants were poached at such a rapid rate that the continent-wide population was cut from 1.3 million to approximately 600,000. When the fight against illegal poaching was ignited in 1999, many human lives were lost, but the elephant’s lives were saved, albeit for a short period. But the illegal trade has never ceased as more elephants poached annually are supplied to illegal ivory markets, especially in China and other Asian countries.
In 1989, the Kenyan government and conservationists breathed a sigh of relief when parties to the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted to ban all international trade in ivory products. Had it not been for this decision, the country’s elephant population would be close to extinct today. Short of enough funds and skilled staff, Kenyan rangers found their hands tied as they could neither patrol their reserves nor match the poachers’ ammunition. From an estimated 140,000 elephants in 1972, the population in Kenya’s parks fell to a mere 19,000 in 1989. Poaching ban was imposed in Kenya in 1989 after the government set ablaze 12 tonnes of ivory, a move which was widely criticized but in the end, the elephant populations rose. The enormous challenges to protect the African Bush Elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the African Forest Elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) still abound for conservationists, especially now that debate is raging on whether or not an international trade ban in ivory products should be lifted. Kenya, a country which saw massive decline on its elephant population during the period of illegal trade has over the years worked round the clock to save this largest land animals now living. Thanks to the hard work by researchers, conservationists and to some extent, the people, the elephants population is slowly rising. Today, the elephants in the Amboseli, one of Kenya’s elephant-infested areas, represent one of the world's last undisturbed natural elephant populations. However, human-wildlife conflict continue to pose major challenges to conservationists, who still quiver at the memories of the 1980s, when hardly a day passed by without park ranges discovering elephants carcasses, felled with guns and other sophisticated weapons for their meat and lucrative ivory tusks. The ongoing human-wildlife conflict has been exacerbated by the growing population of farmers, and herders who eke out a living through their livestock and by growing maize, onions and tomatoes – crops that are also enjoyed by elephants. To protect their produce and also have a chance of living, local people have resorted to shooting or poisoning elephants. Even though poaching declined over the years, the numbers are still high. Two hundred elephants were poached in Kenya in 2009. Poaching and the worst drought in Kenya in the last 12 years killed more than 100 elephants countrywide in 2009, while the Kenyan Wildlife Service reports that elephant poaching rose by more than 60 per cent in 2008. The recent rise in poaching incidents in the country has been linked to the rising demand for ivory which is attributed to the influx of Chinese nationals working in Kenya. However, to win the illegal ivory trade business, Kenya has to work harder and spread the war beyond national borders in order to gain support from her neighbours, especially Tanzania and Zambia who have been quite vociferous in their pursuit to see the ivory trade ban lifted, a situation which would highly threaten and thwart conservation efforts and the survival of the African elephant. Tanzania wants to sell 89,848kg and Zambia 21,692kg of ivory stockpile and raw hides, supposedly to raise funds for conservation.