BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted 7 February 2018)
The war on wildlife and wildlife activists isn’t new, especially in East Africa where a string of world-acclaimed conservationists have died under violent circumstances in the past few years. They include everyone from Joy and George Adamson to Joan Root, Dian Fossey and the attempted murder last year of Kuki Gallmann.
But the war was hard hit last weekend when Dr. Esmond Bradley Martin, one of the world’s leading investigators of illegal trafficking of ivory and rhino horn, was found stabbed to death by his wife Chrysee in their Lavington home last Sunday afternoon.
News of the American geographer’s death sent shockwaves throughout the global conservation community which knew Dr. Martin, 75, for decades through his ground-breaking reports on wildlife trophy trafficking.
Condolences have poured in, particularly as he was renowned for his pioneering work, not only in investigating global markets that traffic in wildlife trophies, but also for providing statistical data that’sbeen used to change government policies affecting the trade of tusks and rhino horns.
In China particularly, while he was serving as UN special envoy for rhino conservation, his statistics helped persuade that country to shut down its legal trade in rhino horn (1993) and later in ivory (2017).
There’s no clear-cut motive for why Dr Martin was murdered, despite Nairobi DCI boss Nicholas Kamwende having arrested three members of the Martins’ house help who were off-duty last Sunday.
It’s been suggested that his demise was an unintended consequence of a botched robbery. But nothing in his bedroom was out of place apart from a few missing notes related to a report on which he’d been working on the state of Nairobi National Park.
“Revenge in more likely the motive that got Esmond murdered,” says Nani Croze, a fellow environmental activist who knew Dr Martin from the time he first came to Kenya in the early 1970s.
“Esmond made many enemies,” opined Alan Donovan who also worked with his fellow American on numerous wildlife projects. “He was also a co-founder of the [Joseph and Sheila] Murumbi Trust.”
According to Donovan and others, Dr Martin should have had a much tighter security team since he was exposing illegal activities of some of the world’s most notorious gangsters. These were gangs that often used the same networks to traffic tusks and rhino horns as they used to traffic drugs and children.
In fact, Dr Martin was so passionate about exposing trophy traffickers and illegal markets in ivory and horns that he occasionally went undercover. He’d assume the role of a buyer in order to obtain information on black market sales in wildlife trophies.
Some of his most detailed and damaging reports were on the research he did in Asia, particularly in China, Vietnam, Laos and most recently in Myanmar. He was said to be compiling his Myanmar report when he was killed.
Most of Dr. Martin’s more recent Asia reports were co-authored with Lucy Vigne, a wildlife consultant who worked with ‘Save the Elephants.’ But he’d also discovered trophy trafficking in the USA, Nigeria, Congo and Angola.
In his last BBC interview in 2016, Martin, a New Yorker by birth, identified one of the biggest problems in the conservation equation to be corruption and mismanagement of the region’s wildlife resources. In other words, his enemies could have been local as well as global.
Apart from his prolific reporting on the illegal trade in wildlife trophies, Martin was distinctive for his eccentric appearance. With his snow-white wavy mane and dapper style of dress (always in a suit and never missing a handkerchief tucked in his jacket breast pocket that matched his tie), he could easily be mistaken for a tourist. Not an intrepid researcher who stalked poachers, gangsters and wildlife trophy buyers all over the world.
Dr Ian Douglas Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, described Dr Martin as ‘an unsung hero’ who dared to work in some of the most remote and dangerous parts of the world.
To those who recognize that there’s a global war on wildlife going on, Dr. Martin has been deemed a martyr to the cause of saving the world’s wildlife. His unrelenting desire to investigate and expose the culprits killing off the earth’s innocent creatures for greed and personal gain make him a model that other environmental activists can proudly emulate.