Evgeny Lebedev

Please help our Christmas appeal to save the elephant

The Evening Standard Friday 6 December 2013

Ivory is now worth more than gold in some parts of the world and funds to help stop the slaughter of these majestic beasts are desperately needed.

It’s the smell that hits you first. Even before we cross the last ridge and find what remains of the body, the sickly taint of decomposing flesh envelops us so that my throat gags.

The sky is filled with vultures. There must be four dozen of them, possibly more, certainly enough at times to hide the sun beating down on this corner of East Africa.

The elephant had been shot six days earlier. Kenya’s wildlife authorities know it’s the same poachers who have killed other animals in the same area in the preceding weeks.

Their missile of choice is the .458 calibre round, one of the largest rifle bullets. If one hit a man, it would blow a hole in him. Hit an elephant and it would normally kill it. This bullet had struck the brain — the sign of a practised shot.

Now that ivory is worth more than £800 a pound, poachers do not want to miss an ounce. The tusks had been cut out with saws, the front of the cranium removed so the poachers could dig deep.

The inside of the animal’s head is covered with a layer of bottle-green flies. A lion has visited the corpse, slicing it apart to reach the innards. Hyenas had also clearly tried to join the feast. The carcass of one is lying by the dead elephant, shredded by lion claws.

The previous day I had seen for myself the work being done to try to stop more elephants being killed like this. The scale of the task is huge. With a gram of ivory having become more valuable than a gram of gold in parts of Asia, the bad old days of the elephant killers is back with a vengeance.

Some 25,000 elephants were poached in Africa in 2011. This year so much illegal ivory is being seized in Asia that it is feared the toll will reach 50,000. That, even at conservative estimates, means more than 100 dead elephants a day.

Deadly game

At the centre of Ol Pejeta Conservancy in the shadow of Mount Kenya is stationed a deployment of Kenyan police reservists under the leadership of Kenyan-born Batian Craig. They pull no punches about the scale of the threat they face. “It’s a war,” I was told. Both sides shoot to kill.

As night fell I joined a five-man team patrolling the perimeter. The men, all from the local region, were superbly trained, which was not a surprise as I had earlier met their trainer: a former SAS sergeant major who had only recently left the regiment after 27 years.

The danger was real. Recent firefights in the region have seen 60 people shot. Two rhino were killed just 48 hours before in a nearby conservancy. What I had not expected, however, was exactly where the danger was going to come from.

Two hulking shapes loomed out of the darkness. The patrol immediately fell to the ground, urgently signalling me to do the same. Peering through their night-vision goggles, I saw the perturbing sight of two rhinoceroses lumbering towards us.

A frantic conversation broke out between my companions about whether they were white rhino (extremely rare but slightly convivial) or black (still rare and with a far less hospitable streak). When I whispered that maybe we should retreat to a safer spot I was told the fence behind us was electrified with 6,000 volts, so there was really nowhere to go.

It was when they reached 20 yards away that the patrolmen resorted to a non-lethal means of deterrent: throwing rocks at the animals. It

was an amazing — and relieving — sight to see them lumber off into the distance before disappearing into the night.

I, however, was beginning to understand why the patrol’s medic had earlier confided to me that when he began working on night patrols he had endured three months of sleep disturbed by “nightmares” as a result of the constant risks involved.

Back at the ranch

I was kindly invited to stay at the ranch house at Ol Pejeta. Calling it a ranch house rather underplays it, for this is a building with the air of a stately home and a uniquely colourful history.

The land for the reserve was originally acquired in the 1920s by Lord Delamere, the son of one of Kenya’s first white settlers and a founder of the randy and drunken Happy Valley set.

One of his old schoolfriends, Marcus Wickham Boynton, who liked to pass the time shooting cattle “he didn’t like the look of”, lived there for a while but by the Seventies it had passed into the hands of the billionaire arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, once considered the world’s richest man.

Above the main dining table still hangs the wicker canoe that he used to lower to entertain guests by revealing a naked woman covered in culinary delicacies. Upstairs the “his” and “hers” master suites come with orgy-sized beds and bathtubs big enough for six to fit into.

A warren of interconnecting doors and corridors was designed to ensure mistresses could easily slip away if a male visitor risked being unexpectedly interrupted by his wife.

Khashoggi did not hold the house for long. It was taken over by “Tiny” Rowland, the late mining magnate and arch foe of Mohamed Fayed, who at the time was the Mr Fix-it of Africa.

Legend has it that Rowland secured Ol Pejeta on the turn of the cards during a game of poker. It is one of those stories I cannot but hope is true — and I am even more delighted that the conservancy has now ended up in the hands of people who so clearly care more about the animals than themselves.

We must stop the poachers

The reason I was in Kenya was to gain a greater understanding of the  elephant poaching problem in support of the Christmas campaign being run this year by The Independent, the Evening Standard’s sister paper.

All funds raised will go to Space for Giants, an innovative and dedicated charity working tirelessly in East Africa to finds ways to alleviate the problem.

Every £30 raised will cover the cost of employing a wildlife ranger to protect elephants for a week; £50 provides a pack that would save the life of a ranger shot by poachers; £100 secures one acre in the new 60,000 acre elephant sanctuary Space for Giants is creating.

On page 32 of this paper is a coupon detailing how you can donate. Please do consider showing your support, as the carnage taking place in Africa is nothing less than horrific.