The death of world’s leading American conservationist and ivory trade investigator, Esmond Bradley Martin in Kenya has triggered a question that might not be easily answered: Who did it?
As investigators in Nairobi try to piece together details on the murder, what is on the record is that the late Esmond was never liked by poachers and ivory merchants alike.
Nairobi Police Chief Japheth Koome told the Kenyan media that Martin’s body was found in his house, hours after police were alerted that there was unusual activity at the home – only to find the door locked.
Esmond lived in the Karen suburbs of Nairobi, made famous by Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa book.
“We have launched investigations into the murder of the American conservationist who was found dead in his house in Karen,” Koome said.
The police in Nairobi say that the 75-year-old Martin who had authored several ground-breaking ivory trade investigative reports was stabbed several times on the neck.
Dr Paula Kahumbu, the CEO of Wildlife Direct said Martin will be remembered for playing key roles in combatting ivory and rhino horn trafficking in the region and was at the forefront of exposing large scale ivory markets in USA, Congo, Nigeria, China, Hong Kong among others.
“It is with deep shock and horror that we learn this (Monday) morning of the death of long-time conservationist, Esmond Bradley Martin, whom police say died in suspicious circumstances at his home in Karen, Nairobi. Esmond led investigations into ivory and rhino horn trafficking,” she said.
According to Kahumbu, Martin always collaborated with Save the Elephants “and worked with many of us generously sharing his findings and views.”
The Nairobi-based UN Environment Programme described Martin as a “gentle and wise conservationist.”
Esmond had worked for decades researching the markets for wildlife products across Africa and Asia, most recently in Myanmar. He had once served as the UN Special Envoy on rhino conservation.
“Esmond was known for absolute rigour and painstaking precision in his methodology and reporting,” said Lisa Rolls, who leads UN Environment’s Wild for Life campaign. “He was always willing to lend his decades of expertise to explore approaches to tackling the illegal wildlife trade with complete objectivity. Esmond’s commitment to securing a future for wild rhinos and elephants was steadfast. To lose such a gentle and wise conservationist in this way is a shocking tragedy.”
His research, most of which was published by conservation group Save the Elephants, included a 2017 report that found that the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was home to the world’s fastest-growing retail market for ivory, as well as a 2016 study that detailed how demand for ivory in Viet Nam was threatening elephants in Africa.
“Esmond has been at the forefront of rhino horn and ivory trade research issues, gleaning much valuable information on both legal and illegal trade,” said UN Environment’s Maxwell Gomera. “Very few knew much about these issues better than Esmond. Even fewer have pursued these issues with such dedication and commitment. The fight to save wildlife has lost one of its most committed soldiers.”
Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder of Save The Elephants, paid tribute to his longtime friend and colleague: “Esmond was one of conservation’s great unsung heroes. His meticulous work into ivory and rhino horn markets was conducted often in some of the world’s most remote and dangerous places and against intensely busy schedules that would have exhausted a man half his age… He played a key role in revealing the price of ivory in China had fallen prior to the Chinese Government committing to close its legal domestic market, and was working on important research on Myanmar when he died. He was my friend for 45 years and his loss is a terrible blow both personally and professionally.”
Martin had spent decades risking his life to secretly photograph and document illegal sales of ivory and rhino horn, travelling to China, Vietnam, and Laos to pose as a buyer and establish the details of black market prices.
He first went to Kenya from the US in the 1970s when there was a surge in the number of elephants being killed for their ivory.
The BBC reported that Martin was always sharply dressed with a colourful handkerchief falling from his top pocket and was a well-known and highly respected character in the conservation community.
“He and his colleague Lucy Vigne established that the Lao had the world’s fastest growing ivory trade. They risked their own safety staying at a Chinese casino inhabited by gangsters and traffickers in order to visit the illegal markets and find out the latest prices by posing as dealers,” said the BBC.
Martin became a conservationist by fluke: “I was looking at the illegal trade in the Indian Ocean based on dhows, and my wife and I wrote a book called Cargoes of the East. Around that time, we discovered that most of the rhino horn from East Africa was going to Yemen. What had happened was in the 1970s, there had been a huge slaughter of elephants in East Africa, followed in the 1980s by rhinos. In Kenya, there were around 20,000 rhinos in 1970, but by the 1990s, most of the rhinos had been eliminated. The puzzle was: why were all these rhinos being killed, and where was the horn going?” they told Nomad magazine.
“Most thought rhino were being killed because the horn was being used as an aphrodisiac in China. It was completely false. China never used it for sexual purposes. But where was it going? To North Yemen [before the country unified in 1990], where it was being used to make handles for jambiyas [Yemeni daggers] until very recently. There was only one place where rhino horn was being used as an aphrodisiac – in a part of Bombay [Mumbai] and the state of Gujurat in India. Almost every part of the rhino is used for medicinal purposes in Asia. The horn is used for lowering fevers; the skin for skin diseases; blood is consumed as a tonic; urine for coughs and nails are a poor man’s rhino horn. Asian horns are much more valuable for medicinal purposes, and always have been. It’s smaller and more concentrated.
He continued: “If you asked about elephant ivory, most would say it was going to China, and being used for carvings. But do you know where most of it was going? Forty percent ended up in Japan, where it was used for making name seals, called hankos. About 20 percent went to Europe, and 10-15 percent to the United States. The point is, if you want to save these animals, you’ve got to know where the market is and combat it.”
His death has robbed the world of a determined soul in conservation. But the question is: Who killed him and why?