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Robbery or retribution? Police investigate death of prominent conservationist in Kenya

  • Esmond Bradley Martin, a 76-year-old American, was found stabbed to death in the home he shared with his wife in a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya, on Sunday.
  • Martin had been working in Africa and around the world since the 1970s to stop the slaughter of rhinos and elephants for their horns and tusks.
  • Colleagues credit Martin with increasing the conservation community’s understanding of the trade of wildlife parts through his often-undercover investigations.

Esmond Bradley Martin, a well-known elephant and rhino conservationist, has been found dead, apparently of a stab wound to his neck, according to multiple media reports. His wife, Chryssee, found him on Sunday in the couple’s home in a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya.

The 76-year-old American geographer had been working in Africa and around the world since the 1970s to stop the slaughter of rhinos and elephants for their horns and tusks. Rising incomes in Asian markets, particularly in China and Vietnam, have driven much of the demand for carved ivory and ground rhino horn used in traditional medicines. Hunting to sate that demand has led to precipitous drops in both elephant and rhino numbers.

It is not clear whether Martin’s death was in retaliation for his outspoken opposition to the trade of wildlife parts. According to the watchdog NGO Global Witness’s recent calculations, nearly 200 “land and environmental defenders” were killed in retribution for their muckraking in 2017.

The New York Times is reporting that police in Kenya believe Martin died in a robbery. Nairobi is notorious for its crime problems, and Martin’s wife found that someone had broken into the safe in the house and cleared it out, the Times reports.

Friends and colleagues remembered Martin’s dedication to stopping the slaughter of animals for their body parts, even as he was sure to have known that he was putting himself in danger.

Rhino horn products seized by authorities in Hong Kong in 2017. Photo by U.S. Government Accountability Office in Washington, D.C., United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

“Esmond changed the way we did investigations of the wildlife trade,” said elephant researcher and Mongabay contributor Daniel Stiles in an interview with the Times. “He brought that whole quantitative element that helped get the public’s attention.”

His most recent report, “Decline in the Legal Ivory Trade in China in Anticipation of a Ban,” was published in 2017 by the Nairobi-based NGO Save the Elephants. It tracks the impact that shutting down legal markets for wildlife can have in protecting at-risk species.

“With the end of the legal ivory trade in China, the survival chances for elephants have distinctly improved,” Martin told the Kenyan newspaper The Star in 2017. “We must give credit to China for doing the right thing by closing the ivory trade.”

The publication catalogs a drawdown of ivory products on the shelves — as well as the prices they fetched — in 130 licensed shops in China as the domestic ivory trade came to a close in 2017.

Several news outlets, including the BBC, credit Martin with helping to drive the ban in China of rhino horn sales in 1994 and of the domestic ivory trade in 2018 through his work to document the black-market wildlife trade. He traveled to China, Vietnam and Laos, where he frequently posed as a buyer to ferret out pricing information and get hold of photographic evidence.

The international trade of ivory was outlawed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, in 2016. CITES banned rhino horn sales across borders in 1977.

A black rhino in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Martin recently returned from an ivory survey in Myanmar, said Tom Milliken, the head of the elephant and rhino program at the NGO TRAFFIC.

“Esmond was the individual who invented modern market monitoring for ivory and rhino horn and he blazed an unparalleled trail around the world, endlessly documenting the scale and scope of the ugly trades that continue to push the world’s iconic pachyderms to the brink,” Milliken said in a statement. “The world has lost a true legend, an inimitable inspiration that never gave up, who never stopped doing what he loved most.”

Banner image of an African bush elephant in Tanzania by John C. Cannon.

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