CONNECTICUT LAWYER AND ANIMAL PROTECTION ACTIVIST
GOES UNDER COVER TO HELP SAVE KENYAN ELEPHANTS
“The rest of the world is strip mining Africa of its wildlife. Millions of animals are killed
or trafficked every year for the ivory and pet trade, for skins, for bush meat.”
Ken Bernhard and friends.
Elephant Poaching: We’ve all seen the horrific photos and heard the heart rending stories. For most of us, it is difficult to fathom the depth of cruelty in which humans engage against helpless animals, particularly against those that are intelligent, gentle, and human-like in their emotions and interactions. When presented with the terrible evidence, we tend to feel overwhelmed with helplessness, sadness and anger. This is certainly the case with the slaughter of the elephants.
Tragically, animal trafficking and the poaching trade is a multi-billion dollar business, a cartel, not unlike drug dealing and gun running. But unlike those criminal activities, it inflicts immediate torture, pain and death on innocent creatures whose sole, very important role for us is just being. They are part of the world’s biology that sustains our planet.
This is the fascinating story of Connecticut attorney and businessman, Ken Bernhard, a long time activist with animal protection organizations, a man who decided he could make a difference. Outraged at the illegal elephant slaughters in Kenya, he chose to volunteer for duty on the front lines of the offense.
In the last forty years, Bernhard has built an enviable career as an attorney and community leader. His resume hints at his sense of adventure.
Educated at Yale and NYU Law School, his work has covered the spectrum of business and law, state and local politics. His legal expertise is expansive and diverse. : He is admitted to practice law in the courts of both Connecticut and New York and before the court of U.S. Military appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court;; He has taught American Constitutional law at the United States Military Academy at West Point, and at law universities in Bulgaria, Poland, Latvia, Russia and Mongolia. He serves on the boards of numerous not-for-profits and for eight years was in the Connecticut General Assembly. Now, at 66, he could easily choose to settle into his successful law practice as a principal in the Bridgeport firm of Cohn and Wolf, PC, content to entertain friends with stories of his world travels.
But for Bernhard, all that came before was just Act 1.
His real passion is being an advocate for animals, and on the subject of cruelty and abuse, he is an unwavering critic. “Whether we’re talking about puppy mills in the US or the assault on wildlife in Kenya, we, humans, have a moral obligation not to engage in unnecessary cruelty and killing”, he says. “Shamefully, the international animal trade is the third most profitable illegal business in the world, after drugs and guns. Animal trafficking may now have surpassed guns, to become #2”.
“African wildlife is a world heritage, a biological treasure.” he says. “The rest of the world is strip mining Africa of its wildlife. Millions of animals are illegally killed or trafficked every year for the ivory and pet trade, for skins, for bush meat.”
At the watering hole
So what did Bernhard do about it? He spent eleven days in Kenya as part of a sting operation coordinated by the Kenyan Wildlife Service to catch the secondary sellers of poached ivory.
OF ALL AFRICAN COUNTRIES, KENYA HAS DEDICATED ITSELF TO ANIMAL PROTECTION
For the last two decades, Kenya has stood out in its enforcement of strong anti-poaching laws. It has declared all ivory sales to be illegal.
Secondly, in 2007, restrictions were lifted in the international ban, which had prohibited ivory sales to China and Japan. (1) This opened the floodgates for poachers seeking to sell ivory to the Asian market. The problem is particularly acute in Kenya, which is situated next to the Somali border where bandits can regularly , and easily cross to slaughter elephants for their ivory.
And lastly, ivory poaching and tourism seem to have an inverse relationship. The African economies are highly dependent on the tourist trade. When tourism declines, for any reason, the incidence of poaching rises as locals find they need an alternative income source.
“A number of years ago”, says Bernhard, “a Connecticut tourist was killed by bandits in Kenya and that unfortunate incident had a huge adverse impact on the tourist business. Both the local people and the animals suffered. The wildlife attracts the tourists whose dollars and euros fuel the local economy and the animal protection efforts. Without abundant and diverse wildlife, the tourist industry suffers and the downward, economic spiral continues. African countries need the dollars and euros in order to trade with the rest of the world.”
Throughout it all, however, Kenya has remained steady and strong in its efforts to protect its elephant populations and continues to enforce its ivory ban to the fullest extent.
“Among the African nations, Kenya stands out with respect to its understanding of how important it is to protect animal populations from the kind of exploitation that occurs elsewhere. There are no legal hunts in Kenya – there are no safari hunts, there are no canned hunts.”
Through his work with International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Bernhard met Bill Clark, a legendary wildlife conservationist and current Chief of the Interpol Animal Crimes Group, who connected him with the Kenyan Wildlife Service. “In January of this year, Bill Clark invited me to Kenya to work with the Wildlife Service in doing some undercover work and to join him on anti-poaching air patrols. He didn’t have to ask twice”, Ken said.
Kenyan ivory dealers won’t sell to the local population or to anyone whom they suspect could turn them in to the authorities. If arrested and convicted, they face up to two years of prison time.. Most of these dealers have the storefronts in towns that are patronized by both locals and tourists.
The KWS informants had found numerous suspected ivory dealers, and needed someone to pose as an American tourist looking to purchase ivory.
“Bill and I wore wires when we went into these storefronts. There was a lot of suspicion when we approached the dealers. They asked a lot of questions. We were offered mahogany or soap stone pieces instead of ivory – but we told them we were not interested and wanted something more “African”. Most said they didn’t trade in ivory but every once in awhile, we gained their confidence, and they produced ivory pieces.. The plan was that KWS personnel would sweep in when they heard the dealer offer us the ivory and we confirmed that we were looking at the pieces.”
THE OPERATION DIDN’T ALWAYS GO SMOOTHLY
Bernhard explains that things didn’t always go smoothly. On one occasion he had made the contact with a local dealer named Jack and they were all set up and ready to go, when the military suddenly flooded the town. Apparently, there had been a death in the royal family, and the military motorcades were everywhere. “The KWS didn’t want to go into town with guns – we had to stand down for 3 hours while the President attended the funeral. By time they got back to Jack to make the arrest, the locals were gone. Jack had spent the night carving out an ivory elephant. But he looked out of his shop window, saw the strangers and became suspicious. He ran out the back door, and abandoned his shop. He was picked up later.”
WHAT ABOUT THE DANGER?
The inevitable question: What about danger. In this James Bondian scenario, was Bernhard ever afraid for his life? His response is modest and understated:
“I never had a sense that the dealers were armed or dangerous, he says. This was the secondary market, the small dealers who bought from the poachers to supply their art and souvenir business for the tourists. One woman with whom we had multiple conversations was a grandmother! Our job was to gain their confidence – convince them that we were serious buyers of ivory. I was always protected by the KWS team who were well armed should any disturbance occur.
The real risk, he continues, is in the field – the rangers are the ones in real danger. They get killed in the field. And the air patrol pilots – they fly at low altitudes over savannahs and forests to locate the poachers in action –they are shot at regularly. They are the true heroes who work for little pay and put themselves in great danger in order to protect animal populations.”
Flying low over the Kenyan savannah on the lookout for poachers.
THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY NEEDS TO STEP UP TO THE PLATE TO STOP THE POACHING TRADE
There are several ways, says Bernhard, to reduce the problem.
· EDUCATE THE CONSUMERS AND ENFORCE THE ANTI-POACHING LAWS
First, the public in developed nations needs to appreciate how their buying habits adversely affect what is happening in Africa.. The consumers in developed countries, not African ones, are creating and driving the poaching business. For the most part, it is not local populations that are buying the finished goods or purchasing the skins and artifacts of wildlife trafficking and poaching. The buyers are in Asia, Europe and the United States. They buy the ivory trinkets, the exotic pets, the animal skins, the animal trophies and the medicinals concocted from the bones of big cats.. If there were no market, the poaching business would dry up. Governments need to educate the consumers and they, in turn, need to understand that the wildlife population is finite, and, at the present rate of slaughter, it will disappear within a generation or two.
· PROVIDE RESOURCES TO THE FIELD RANGERS
Because of competing human priorities, the wildlife agencies throughout Africa are under funded and thereby poorly equipped. For example, it might sound ridiculous, but in one instance in Chad, the poachers got away on bicycles. Efforts to protect African wildlife require the assistance of developed countries if there is going to be any hope of preserving these animal populations for future generations. Until recently, in Senegal, the poachers had AK-47s and were challenged with rangers armed with only World War I rifles. Many rangers go out into the field with shower flip flops for shoes and discarded oil cans for water containers. Operating air patrols is the best and most effective way of protecting wildlife, but it is expensive and funds are always in short supply for training, fuel and repairs. African countries don’t have the financial resources to provide the equipment to effectively withstand the assault of bandits who are devastating their wildlife. It’s impossible to fight this battle without international support.
Finishing up air patrol duty
· INTERCEPT THE LOCAL DEALERS WITH UNDERCOVER SALES AND DNA TESTING
Lastly, there is a need to intercept the local businessmen who deal in illegal bush meat and ivory sales. The ivory dealers are ferreted out by undercover sales like the ones done by Ken Bernhard and Bill Clark . The bush meat venders are mostly storefront managers that buy from the poachers who bring millions of tons (not an exaggeration) bush meat into the market every year. While bush meat dealers operate in the open, they are difficult to track because once an animal is killed, it is difficult for the purchaser to know what kind of meat he is buying. One important tool for intercepting bush meat sales would be to have a DNA testing facility.
“When the local customers patronize a butcher shop, for example, they have no way of knowing for certain that the meat they buy isn’t giraffe or lion or gazelle. The only way the buyer will know for sure is if the butchers are “DNA clean”, that is, if their product has passed a DNA test that would be required by the government in order to do business. To convict a meat supplier or butcher of trading in illegal bush meat, law enforcement needs to be able to prove the source of the meat. Only DNA testing can do this.”
There isn’t such a DNA test available now in African communities. Bill Clark has developed the technology for use in Kenya, where he wants to establish the first such laboratory. A DNA lab would cost approximately $80,000, which if put in place, would represent a milestone in deterring criminal poachers from plying their trade.”
Dr. Bill Clark, for anyone unfamiliar with his reputation, is not just a random contact interested in animal protection. He is an American citizen living in Israel who is dedicated to protecting wildlife around the world. He is the CITES Coordinator for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Department of Law Enforcement, and, through the years, has worked exhaustively with Interpol’s operations targeting illegal ivory markets in Africa. His efforts have resulted in hundreds of arrests of ivory dealers, and seizures of thousands of ivory carvings, illegal weapons and ammunition. He’s had military training in Senegal and Liberia and among many other things, has worked to develop the air patrol anti-poaching units, teaching the pilots how to avoid ambushes and sniper fire. He is currently the Chief of the Interpol Wildlife Crimes Group.
Bernhard and Clark are raising money to build the first DNA forensic lab in Kenya.
ELEPHANT POACHING HAS FAR REACHING IMPLICATIONS AND IMPACT
Finally, says Bernhard, the tragedy of elephant poaching isn’t just about the animals, which suffer a horrific and unnecessary death. In the end, the poaching industry alters the balance of the entire ecosystem which has an impact on the country, the continent and ultimately, the rest of the world. For example, the elephants spread undigested seeds through their dung, which helps to cultivate the flora in the savannah. When the elephant populations decline, the landscape will fundamentally change. This change will affect all the wildlife, from the ability of the predators to camouflage and hunt, to the ability of the herbivores to find food resources. These changes will in turn have serious implications for impact on human populations.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR KEN BERNHARD?
So what’s next for Bernhard? “I will continue to do whatever I can to help people understand that the opportunity to save these wild African creatures is disappearing quickly and the responsibility to do so is a world wide responsibility. I love being in the field, but I am available for education and funding opportunities anywhere and anytime.”
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