Ivory and Corruption: An Interview with Dr Richard Leakey

‘I want to make it absolutely clear that things are going to change around here. Many of you are corrupt, all of you are lazy, and before long the worst of you will be gone.’ – Leakey addressing his staff for the first time in the run down KWS headquarters skirting Nairobi National Park.

Richard Leakey spent five years at the helm of the KWS – first in 1989, and then in 1998. Fifteen years on, I asked him what he would do if he had one more chance to return to the job that saved many of Kenya’s elephants, but almost cost him his life. When President Moi made Leakey the Director of KWS on the 20th of April 1989, corruption was endemic within the service. And today, Leakey claims, not much seems to have changed.

When I met Dr Leakey he was sat behind his neat desk at the office of the Turkana Basin Institute. In his book Wildlife Wars: My Battle to Save Kenya’s Elephants, which documents his KWS years, he mentions how a clean, uncluttered working environment helped him think – so, it is obviously a habit he has maintained. The fact that this was our meeting place reflects Leakey’s earlier years as a palaeontologist, scouring the rocky shores of Lake Turkana for remnants of our prehistoric past. But it was not his enthusiasm for fossils, or his brief engagement with Kenyan politics, that prompted the meeting – it was his passion for Kenya’s wildlife, and his role as one of the country’s leading conservationists. Kenya is experiencing the levels of poaching that Leakey successfully supressed twenty years ago, making his an invaluable voice at a time of crisis for Kenya’s dwindling elephant and rhino populations.

My initial queries were about the use of ivory as a conflict resource in Kenya, and whether local militias were using it to fund their illicit activities, but he quickly dismissed the link. Instead, he voiced more pressing concerns:

‘I think the biggest concern of all, and I think this is true across Africa, is the fact that wildlife rangers, guards and wardens don’t have access to funding at a level that makes it attractive.’

In Wildlife Wars, he describes at length the dilapidated state of the KWS – or Department of Wildlife and Conservation Management (WCMD) as it was called then – when he was first appointed its Director.

‘The politics, corruption, and inertia in the wildlife department, and in the government at large, were all so entrenched that failure almost seemed inevitable,’ he wrote. In the late 80s it was widely believed that a number of rangers and park wardens were colluding with the poachers. A secret report was prepared for Dr Perez Olindo, who was Leakey’s predecessor at the WCMD, containing a list of senior government employees thought to be behind the poaching. Leakey describes at length the effect pictures of bullet-riddled elephants had on him as a young director of KWS, but he was even more ‘outraged that some of Kenya’s own government officials had a hand in the slaughter’. He went further and claimed that after his first month in charge he felt that it was ‘one of the most – if not the most – corrupt organisations in the government’.

In August 1989, Leakey expressed his views in a very public arena, at a press conference in which he accused the minister of Tourism and Wildlife, George Muhoho, for doing no more than pay lip service to a national crisis that was clearly out of control. In response, Muhoho framed his counter argument in racist terms; he told the press Leakey displayed a ‘cheeky white mentality’ in believing that ‘only whites were concerned about preserving wildlife’. So, Leakey squared up to the problems intrinsic within the service and dealt with them from the outset. He felt this was the priority, before tackling the poachers themselves. And when I asked what his approach would be this time round, he proposed a very similar strategy:

‘Well I think I would very, very quickly weed out the majority of men and officers who are in any way suspected of being involved. I wouldn’t necessarily be able to fire them if they were only suspected, but I would move them to less sensitive areas where they could look after butterflies instead…Or something else…but I think I would really have to clean house again.’

That is what Leakey had to do – transfer the ‘bad eggs’ in the service to other, less important sectors. Such as, looking after butterflies. This was the fate of 1,640 KWS employees within Leakey’s first year as Director. The main driving force behind this corruption, he believes, stems from the livelihood of the rangers: an arduous life of long hours, isolation and low pay. The temptation to cash in on a trade so lucrative is simply too tempting.

‘You can’t run your car if you don’t have spare parts or fuel. If you’ve got school fees that rise, and mortgages to pay, and parents that are dying, or kids that want to go to university, and the government seems totally deaf to your situation, then a lucrative asset like ivory is very hard not to say “If you shoot it, I won’t arrest you if you give me 30%”. This is the case in Kenya, Tanzania and, maybe, even in Uganda. It used to happen that way, and I think it has gone right back to where it was.’

Getting rid of corrupt officials, he feels, is far more important than curbing the demand for ivory abroad – particularly in the Far East.

‘You can’t curb the demand; it is none of our business. We can’t go to China and tell them what to do. We can encourage the Chinese to tell the Chinese what to do, but if we can’t control ourselves, how are we going to control anyone else?’

He believes that the available funds for KWS are being misdirected.

‘I would spend more money on good intelligence gathering – on fairly long term work to determine the exact location of the gangs responsible for the poaching. I would anticipate ivory poaching in places like Tsavo and the Samburu. There are very few places where you don’t know where the waterholes are, where people would go to escape capture. It would involve much better police-work on the ground, and I think we could bring the whole situation back to where it was in the mid-90s.’

Leakey’s dream was to use donor funds to create a self-sustaining conservation agency that focused on the protected reserves that he helped establish. New buildings, roads, bridges, staff housing, training and equipment – all these were to be implemented over time. The core of this idea was to enhance the national parks so that KWS could increase its revenue base and therefore be in a better position to provide long-term conservation services all over Kenya. Although aspects of his dream have come to fruition, if the level of corruption has indeed regressed to where it was in the late 80s, then curbing the threat from poaching will be severely undermined.

Whether Leakey is correct in his assumptions or not, it would be very interesting to see how he would handle a third spell as head of the KWS – at another critical time for both it and the wildlife it strives to protect.

Published in the East African Wildlife Society’s Swara Magazine