Having endured a series of colonial extermination campaigns, 37 years ago, one year before his body returned to Mother Africa, President Jomo Kenyatta announced a ban on big game hunting. Kenyatta, Kenya’s first black leader, and his people knew only too well who the greatest predator on Earth was, including the worst purveyors of violent extinctions. While certain Kenyans had endured near-mass extinctions, some animal and plant species had already disappeared. As part of a drive to conserve wildlife, he made sure the elephant, an endangered species, would also be protected in Kenya.
For centuries Kenyatta and his people, the Kikuyu, suffered under British colonial rule and economic exploitation. Discriminated against at every level, even forced to be outsiders of their own country, the British settlers excluded the Kikuyu and reserved exclusively for themselves the best farm land. During a 6-year rebellion, 90,000 Kikuyu and black Kenyans were imprisoned without trial. Women and children were herded like cattle into concentration camp-like conditions. Thousands died of starvation or succumbed to diseases. Young and old men were tortured and executed.
Mountain Bull has just been discovered dead in Kenya. The tusks of the 46-year-old bull had been ripped out, his body covered with visible spear marks. The legendary six-ton elephant had become the face of the illicit poaching-for-ivory crisis in Africa. Despite being adopted by Save the Elephants and fitted with a GPS tracking device, he was killed in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, located in northern Kenya. The colonial powers were amused by their own imperial holdings and vast extermination campaigns. Who will now be entertained with a poached piece ivory marketed as jewelry or a carved statue?
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Although Kenyatta helped liberate Kenya from British imperialism, it still suffers under the weight of colonial rule. Any benefits of westernization were distributed very unequally, often causing intertribal wars. Colonial plantations usually concentrated on cash crops for profit, much of the land ruined due to commercial farming and pesticides. Having been stripped of vital resources that were exported to Britain, scarcity has become an unwelcome visitor. Imperialists also ensured that agrarian and industrial economies would remain dependent on imports from the West.
Although Kenya has a strong current of indigenous African capitalism and a substantial middle class, it still suffers from landlessness, high rates of unemployment (45 percent), and income inequities higher than most African standards. One-fifth of Kenya’s population, six million people, are squatters. Political, economic and cultural independence has been agonizingly slow. It seems that uhuru (Swahili for “freedom”) always comes with a price, even when imperial powers leave. The specter of conquer and divide and rule has transformed itself into the specter of capital and invest and control.
But if political and economic poverty is endemic in some parts of Kenya, so is population growth and drought. Poaching is only one reason that the world’s largest land animal has nearly disappeared. Continued destruction of Kenya’s elephant habitat, mainly its forests and grasslands, has also collapsed entire elephant populations. So too has climate change and industrial pollutants. Just as deadly as forest clearance for agriculture and logging, though, is a rapacious supply and demand market economy. Poachers supply the demands for statues and jewelries made from poached ivory. Elephants suffer annihilation.
Whether old or neo-colonialism, dehumanization, inequality, and exploitation, it all leads to near- and mass extinctions. It all still haunts Kenya’s geography. These predators and purveyors of violence stalk the rest of Africa too – even the entire world, including its living organisms and ecosystems. These are the original sins, often dressed up in imperial benevolence, corporate and financial board rooms and racial-political ideologies adorned in religious garb. Occasionally an individual like Kenyatta is a reminder of what it means to be human, of what it means to be a liberator of people, and of elephants.
In Joseph Conrad’s controversial but illuminating Heart of Darkness, he writes: “The mind of man is capable of anything-because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. What was there after all? Joy, fear, sorrow, devotion, valour, rage-who can tell?—but truth—truth stripped of its cloak of time.” Kenyatta and his people stripped the British predators of their self-righteous cloak. They uncovered a heart of cruelty, a pathology of other-imposed inequalities that still exists today. The truth of time always exposes genocidal crimes against humanity and all diverse species, including elephants.
As for a liberated Kenya and its unsatisfied wealthy, its economically disadvantaged, and its dwindling elephant herds: A few years back they shared a master. Today corrupt officials in their seated opulence have none, while others are forced to buy beyond their means. And yet some are expected to give what they cannot afford, what costs them their lives. Have they exchanged a parasite for something worse? But maybe a few years is too long a time.(1) The greatest predators still stalks Kenya and the rest of the Earth. But then can there really be freedom without equality among all organisms?