Leopards perch high in baobab branches, scanning the horizon for an unwitting impala. Crocodiles lie watchfully in murky water, awaiting the unlucky wildebeest who tries to cross the river.
And lions bide their time in the shade of the underbrush, until a young zebra foolishly strays too far from the herd.
The Maasai Mara has no shortage of bloodthirsty predators. But its rolling plains also hide what is perhaps the grasslands’ most dangerous creature of all: humans.
They come armed with guns, spears or poison, with one goal in mind — cashing in on the rising prices of black market ivory and rhino horn.
Poaching is on the rise in Kenya, leading many to fear a return to the wildlife slaughters of the 1970s and 1980s.
Poaching reached a high in those decades, decimating wildlife populations and prompting an international response: the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) banned the trade of ivory.
The populations of many endangered species have gradually recovered since the ban took effect in 1990, but storm-clouds are gathering on the horizon once more.
In July, Samburu National Reserve lost Khadija, the last mature female in one of its elephant families. Killed by four bullets, Khadija left behind eight orphans and a carcass missing only its tusks.
Khadija’s sad story is becoming increasingly common. Poachers have traditionally preferred male elephants because of their bigger tusks, skewing the gender balance in the reserve to about 70 per cent female.
But they are now going after females too, leaving one in five families without a matriarch.
The killings in Samburu also indicate that poachers are becoming more daring: until recently, the reserve had been one of the safest areas in the country for elephants, says Dr Iain Douglas Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants.
But elephant populations in poorly-protected areas are dwindling, and the elephants of Samburu don’t realise that humans can’t be trusted.
Overall, Save the Elephants reports that elephant poaching in the Samburu reserve has reached a ten-year high — in the last 30 months, more elephants have been poached than in the previous 11 years combined.
According to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), that grim picture extends to the rest of the country. In 2010, 187 elephants were slaughtered by poachers, up from 47 in 2007.
As of April, the figures for 2011 were on track to exceed those of 2010, with 80 Kenyan elephants killed in the first four months of this year.
The picture for rhinos is equally troubling: in 2009, Kenya lost 13 black rhinos and six white rhinos to poaching, 2.1 and 1.8 per cent of their respective populations.
But why the spike in killings now, more than 20 years after CITES banned the trade of ivory?
“My view is that [poaching] is fuelled by increased demand from China, which has driven the price up,” says Dr Douglas-Hamilton. “There’s a fairly broad consensus on that.”
Measured by weight, China has become the world’s largest importer of illegal ivory, according to Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne, authors of a January 2011 report on the Asian ivory trade.
China’s rapid economic growth has created a large and growing middle class, and these nouveau riche have cash to spend on luxury symbols like elephant and rhino ivory.
Ivory carving was once considered a “high art” in China, on par with carving jade, stone, wood and bamboo.
Ivory sculptures and small figurines remain popular in East Asia, and the use of ivory has increased in the manufacturing of personalised name seals used to conduct business in Asia (known as hankos in Japan).
Rhino horn is also used in traditional Chinese medicine. The legal supply of ivory cannot meet the growing demand in China, driving up prices on the international black market.
According to Save the Elephants, ivory prices around Samburu have doubled since 2007. The tusks of a single male elephant can fetch the equivalent of 15 years’ salary for an unskilled worker in the region.
It’s a trend that could have been predicted — and, in fact, it was. In 1991, Dr Douglas Hamilton addressed the National Press Club in Washington D.C., cautioning of the effect that China’s rapidly growing wealth would have on endangered species.
“[I thought,] the predicted emergence of China as an economic superpower would cause a problem if it went the same way that Japanese affluence had gone in the early seventies,” he says.
Japan’s economic development was at the root of the devastating poaching of the 70s and 80s, driven by a growing Japanese middle class hungry for ivory.
Dr Hamilton was right. History is now repeating itself, but on a larger scale: the size of the emerging nouveau riche in China dwarfs the population of Japan’s middle class in the 70s.
“Everything that happened in Japan will be multiplied ten times in China,” says Dr Hamilton.
Some of China’s illegal imports are coming from, or at least through, Kenya. A fortnight ago in Mombasa, 30 elephant tusks were seized from a shipping container bound for Hong Kong.
In March, 2,033 kilogrammes of ivory shipped from Mombasa were seized in Thailand, a common stop on the trade route to China.
And according to some figures, Chinese nationals account for 90 per cent of arrests for ivory possession at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
However, the Chinese government denies reports that China is at the root of the problem in Kenya.
“China is the victim of illicit and unfounded accusations that have shaped a perception that it drives illegal ivory trade in Africa,” says Wu Shifan, the chief of public affairs at the Chinese embassy in Nairobi.
Mr Wu said his government takes the issue very seriously and is “cracking down with stiff penalties” for contraband ivory, such as jail terms of up to ten years — a punishment more severe than laws currently in the books in Kenya.
But whether those laws are being enforced by Chinese authorities is another question, according to Vigne and Martin.
In 2004, China enacted legislation requiring all ivory to be accompanied by an identification card (China has been certified by CITES to import legal, non-poached ivory).
But when Martin and Vigne visited Guangzhou, a major hub for ivory carving in China, they found only one in 10 ivory retailers displaying the identification cards.
Asia already suffers from a bad environmental reputation. Since the 1930s, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says three species of tigers have gone extinct due to habitat destruction and the black-market trade of poached tiger products.
Of the six species that remain, some estimate that there are as few as 3,200 cats living in isolated pockets throughout Asia, down from 100,000 in the early 1900s.
A similar fate awaits the endangered species of Kenya. “This level of poaching is unsustainable,” says Dr Hamilton.
Wildlife extinction in Kenya would not only spell disaster for the region’s biodiversity; it also represents an economic threat to the country.
Without the allure of big game like elephants or rhinos, tourists are likely to take their money elsewhere.
What can be done?
In combating the illicit wildlife trade, conservation efforts have traditionally targeted the supply of ivory: patrolling parks for poachers and seizing shipments at international border crossings.
This approach has seen success in the past, such as the programme to protect rhinos in the Masai Mara National Reserve.
Down to only 13 rhinos in the 1980s, the rhino population in the reserve has rebounded to about 42 due to increased patrols, says James Sindiyo, the chief park warden. Park rangers in the reserve deter poachers by tracking individual rhinos.
Legislative measures are also coming down the pipeline. Kenya’s proposed Wildlife Bill, 2011, would update the law on many elements of wildlife protection in Kenya — human-animal conflict, habitat destruction, conservancies — but would also put in place stiffer penalties for poaching.
The bill imposes minimum fines of $20,000 (about Sh2 million) and a five-year jail term for wildlife hunting, a significant departure from the current 1978 law, which punishes poachers with a fine of up to $100 (Sh10,00) and 12 months in jail.
But trying to cut off the supply is no longer enough. Many environmental organisations, such as US-based Wild Aid, have set their sights on ending demand for illegal wildlife products. As the Wild Aid slogan goes, “When the buying stops, the killing can too.”
Dr Hamilton says the decrease in poaching in the 1990s was spurred by changing attitudes in Europe, North America and finally Japan.
For the most part, the international community abided by the CITES ban because they saw the value of wildlife conservation — an attitude which many say needs to be adopted in China.
“Human nature is plastic, and peoples’ belief systems do change,” Dr Hamilton says. “Very often, buyers [in China] are not even aware that an elephant has to die to provide ivory.”
Zhuo “Simba” Qiang is a Chinese researcher and conservationist working in the Maasai Mara reserve.
Through his NGO, the Mara Conservation Fund (MCF), he focuses on promoting awareness in China about the plight of Africa’s endangered species.
“I think still we have hope, because most of the Chinese people like wild animals. If we can give them the correct education I think we have a very good chance [that they will] join us as defenders of wild animals,” says Mr Zhuo.
“I call on the public in China to rise up, to say no to those bad Chinese people — poachers or traders.”
The MCF provides Mandarin-language lectures on wildlife conservation to Chinese tourists in Kenya, and works with 500 Chinese students to promote the cause in China.
Mr Zhuo thinks the MCF’s best hope is to inspire the younger generation, as older Chinese consumers are set in their ways. He believes the Chinese government will be key to ending the illegal wildlife trade.
Animals might outnumber poachers on the savannah, but in this fight, they’re virtually powerless. The survival of wildlife in Kenya now lies in the hands of humankind, and that irony is not lost on Mr Zhuo.
As he says with a wry smile, looking out over the plains of the Maasai Mara, “The biggest mistake the lions made was letting the humans climb down out of their trees.”