What you need to know:
- Even before poaching in Kenya rose to levels so shocking that this week campaigners asked the President to declare it a national disaster, Josephine Ekiru, 27, had decided to confront the problem head-on.
In the fight against poaching, sophisticated weapons reign, military-type tactics rule and glitzy media campaigns dominate. But it is in this complex and dangerous arena that one brave woman decided to venture, armed only with unflinching determination and the power of persuasion.
Even before poaching in Kenya rose to levels so shocking that this week campaigners asked the President to declare it a national disaster, Josephine Ekiru, 27, had decided to confront the problem head-on.
Her mission, inspired by the biblical lesson of the conversion of Saul to Paul, is to turn those who kill wildlife for their valuable trophy into protectors of animals.
For the last four years, Ms Ekiru has been traversing Samburu and Isiolo counties in search of poachers to persuade them to change their ways.
“I decided to approach them and talk face-to-face. But initially they were not welcoming, and some even threatened to kill me,” she says.
And her dangerous pursuit usually takes her deep into forests or to isolated homesteads in search of the poachers. She then fearlessly asks them to abandon the vice.
So resolute is Ms Ekiru that one of her converts, Mr Julius Lokinyi, 30, recalls how poachers once plotted to eliminate her three years ago. On the day she was marked for murder, Mr Lokinyi says he and fellow poachers arranged to meet Ms Ekiru after convincing her they were ready to surrender their weapons. Their only condition was that she would meet them alone.
Thinking that her persistence had paid off, Ms Ekiru rushed to the appointed place. But to her surprise, when she got there, she was ordered to kneel at gun-point and say her last prayer. She had walked into a trap.
“I pleaded for mercy and even promised not to bother them again. After kneeling down for almost half an hour, and with tears running down my cheeks, one of them was touched and he asked the others to let me go,” says the mother of two.
But rather than dampen her spirits, this close encounter with death only emboldened her. She would later spend months convincing Mr Lokinyi and his gang to stop poaching.
In the end, her persistence paid off. In July 2012, Mr Lokinyi was persuaded to not only give up poaching, but to join the campaign to save animals. This was a major breakthrough because through him, Ms Ekiru got access to many other poachers.
“If it were not for her, some of us would be dead,” says Mr Lokinyi.
The transition was not an easy one as the former poachers were afraid of repercussions. But Ms Ekiru was quick to facilitate a meeting between the anti-poaching unit in Isiolo County and the converts.
“This is not an easy job because those who wish to surrender fear they might be jailed after confessing. And since I’m the one who usually approaches them to ask that they stop poaching, I have to make sure I protect them from arrest and help them to get jobs,” says Ms Ekiru.
Mr Lokinyi is still armed with a powerful G3 rifle. But these days he patrols Nakurpata Gotu Conservancy in Isiolo, a place where he once killed elephants for their ivory. As a community ranger, he treks through the reserve to protect elephants, which together with rhinos are the prime targets of poachers.
And he is the right man for be job because he is familiar with the conservancy.
“I get so angry whenever I think about the elephants I killed,” says Mr Lokinyi, who honed his skills by accompanying young men from his Turkana community on cattle raids against neighbouring ethnic groups. He was a fearless warrior who did not hesitate to kill at the slightest hint of resistance.
A Standard Eight dropout, he says he never appreciated the importance of wildlife to the community and the country. His only interest was to hunt and kill the elephants for their precious ivory which would be sold to middlemen. He says he operated in a gang of ten.
“I killed wild animals for 15 years. I may have killed more than 200 elephants,” he says.
Although he knew the dangers of poaching, Mr Lokinyi says he did not fear Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers or other law enforcers because this was his livelihood.
“I had no other place to get food for my family and my wife had no idea about my source of income,” he says.
Another converted poacher, Mr Anthony Maziwa, says he was coaxed into killing elephants for easy money in 2008.
“I never passed the KCPE examinations, and one day as I sat at home a man came from nowhere and told me there is a lot money in the wilderness. Since I had no job, and my goats had all died due to drought, I agreed without hesitation,” he says.
And for more than 10 years, Mr Raphael Esanyen, 32, also killed animals in Isiolo. But in December 2012, he surrendered his gun after Ms Ekiru convinced him he was destroying his heritage.
“Although I earned a lot of money, I’ll never go back to poaching, especially since many of my friends were killed by KWS officers,” he says.
Bush skills and knowledge of the terrain, honed from long periods spent in the forest, and access to illegal firearms is what it took to accomplish their tasks.
Mr Esanyen says to avoid detection, he and his fellow poachers would trek for hours on end deep in the wild. They knew the terrain so well that they might as well have walked around blindfolded. This is the advantage they had over KWS officers.
The poachers, he says, also had an elaborate network to supply ivory and avoid hawk-eyed wildlife officials.
After a catch, they would make calls to buyers and arrange to meet. The trophies would usually be sold in kilos. The price per kilo was Sh15,000 but Mr Esanyen says the same weight would be sold for $7,000 (Sh602,000) internationally. At times, the dealers would make false promises and flee with the tusks and money, leaving the poachers empty handed.
Mr Esanyen says he escaped death twice while hunting rhinos in Laikipia. A gunshot scar on his leg is a constant reminder of his days as a poacher.
KWS assistant director in charge of Isiolo, Mr Martin Ng’ethe says the former poachers were pardoned after sharing crucial information and showing they were serious about changing their ways.
Mr Martin Omondi, KWS assistant director in charge of Isiolo-Samburu complex, terms Ms Ekiru’s work as one of the best ways to save the animals.
“If poachers agree to change, it will be very easy for us to manage wildlife and thus increase the number of tourists in our country,” he says.
Ms Ekiru says she has so far reformed 19 poachers most of whom have undergone training at the KWS Field Training School in Manyani.
MAKE TOURISM SUSTAINABLE
The best strategy, she says, is to let them understand the importance of wildlife in the promise that for tourism to be sustainable, they all have to conserve the animals.
After witnessing the devastating impact of frequent conflict on the region’s people and wildlife, Ms Ekiru was determined to do something for her community. She started through community peacemaking initiatives and then decided to include warriors recruited to poach in her peace initiatives.
From her early 20s, she began working with the warriors, many of whom were involved in stealing cattle, and won their support.
And in 2010, recalls Ms Ekiru, some significant changes were felt.
“I convinced more than 60 warriors from the Turkana community to surrender their guns,” she says.
She has built peace through holding meetings with the fighting communities and persuading them to shun violence.
“This is where the beauty of working for peace is. It is trying to find solutions together,” she says.
For her leadership role in peace building, in May 2011 she was elected the chair of the 3,700-acre Nakurpata-Gotu Conservancy, a remarkable feat in this patriarchal community.
To sustain itself, the conservancy uses the proceeds from tourism to improve livelihoods, and pay the former poachers turned conservationists.
The conservancy initiative brings together the Borana and Turkana communities who have been in constant conflict. The two communities have even set aside land for wildlife conservation.
“The conservancy has not only helped protect animals, it has helped foster peace among the communities,” Ms Ekiru says.