‘A robbery made to look like a hit’? His work persuaded China to ban ivory trading – now he has been found stabbed to death at home in Kenya
His recent report, published by Save the Elephants, found that Laos is the fastest-growing illegal ivory market in the world – supported mostly with Chinese funds
Conjecture surrounds the murder of a renowned conservation investigator whose work persuaded governments around the world – including China’s – to crack down on illegal ivory trading.
Esmond Bradley Martin, famed for uncovering illegal global trafficking of ivory and rhino horn, was stabbed to death over the weekend at his home in Kenya, the latest in a series of killings of high-profile environmental activists around the world.
Police told local media the case was believed to be a robbery, although they did not make any arrests or identify any suspects. Authorities said a lock on the back gate of his house had been forced.
Bradley Martin, 75, was known for his work infiltrating clandestine ivory and rhino horn markets, analysing demand and prices for a product that has threatened elephants and rhinoceros with extinction.
His research was instrumental in China’s decision to ban its legal rhino horn trade in 1993. It also pressured China to end legal ivory sales, a ban that came into force on January 1.
“His work revealed the scale of the problem and made it impossible for the Chinese government to ignore,” said Paula Kahumbu, chief executive of Wildlife Direct. “He was one of the most important people at the forefront of exposing the ivory trade, addressing the traffickers and dealers themselves.”
Watch: NBA superstar Yao Ming applauds China’s ivory ban
“He was probably the single most knowledgeable person about both the ivory and rhino horn trade. He developed the methodology that many people use now,” said Kenya-based American Dan Stiles, a wildlife trade expert and friend who has worked with Bradley Martin on reports quantifying the illegal wildlife trade. “He cared about facts. He didn’t care about opinions.”
Bradley Martin’s work involved entering wildlife trafficking dens in such places as Yemen, Sudan and Asia, painstakingly counting the numbers of ivory and rhino horn items on sale, studying the prices, analysing the buyers and the reason for demand. He sought out ivory and rhino horn traders, posing as a buyer, learning their secrets.
“The only people who have the information I want are traders. I make a special effort to meet them and to socialise with them,” he once told a journalist. “I have been attacked for spending time with people when they are crooks, but where else do I get the information?”
He photographed shops with tourists gazing at piles of carved ivory beads, bangles and pendants.
“Esmond has been a towering figure since the 1980s in the first ivory poaching crisis that raged during the ’70s and ’80s and halved the population of Africa’s elephants. His work helped bring about the ivory trade ban,” said Frank Pope, CEO of Save the Elephants, which has published a series of reports by Bradley Martin and long-time fellow researcher Lucy Vigne.
His death followed a spike in killings of wildlife activists, rangers and conservationists. In August, renowned South African elephant conservationist Wayne Lotter was killed in Dar es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital. Lotter’s work using intelligence to track poaching gangs helped bring about the arrest of several top poachers. Police have called Lotter’s murder a robbery.
While Bradley Martin’s killing – on the face of it – resembles a home invasion and robbery, friends and colleagues said it was too early to judge the motive for the crime.
“I don’t think we’ll ever know unless the perpetrators are caught,” said Stiles. “You never know. That might be framed up to look like a robbery and it was a hit.”
Stiles said the recent arrests of top criminals in the global wildlife trafficking industry have shown kingpins they are no longer untouchable, making them potentially more dangerous.
Last year, Bradley Martin and Vigne travelled the jungles of northern Laos, where they spotted a gold Mercedes-Benz gliding up to a casino at a sprawling resort called Kings Romans on the banks of the Mekong River – an indication of the spectacular wealth at play in an area known for illegal wildlife trafficking.
Their report, published by Save the Elephants, found that Laos is the fastest-growing illegal ivory market in the world: as China has clamped down on illegal ivory, the trade has shifted there and to neighbouring countries including Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar.
“In Laos there are these strange no-man’s lands where Chinese businessmen have bought up sections of the jungle and have turned them into little enclaves that are run on Beijing time, they run on Chinese currency and they are dens of iniquity for the kind of visitors from China who want to indulge in things they’re not allowed to do back home. So a lot of drugs, a lot of prostitution, a lot of gambling and a lot of wildlife trade,” Pope said.
Bradley Martin and Vigne, the only Westerners in sight, stuck out like sore thumbs, he said.
“That’s the only time I’ve ever heard Esmond say that he felt very threatened. They had people watching them, they had people following them,” said Pope.
His last investigation trip was a visit to Myanmar to study the ivory trade. Stiles met him just days ago, when they discussed the research each was doing there. The work was dangerous and intense, according to Stiles, who also visited the area recently.
“He’d found that the ivory was going right to the border of China. These Wild West towns spring up, where all kinds of illegal activity occur,” Stiles said.
The US ambassador to Kenya, Robert F. Godec, said Bradley Martin’s murder was “a tragedy for Kenya and the world.”
“Esmond was a true giant of conservation and a champion for African elephants and rhinos. His extraordinary research had a profound impact and advanced efforts to combat illegal wildlife trafficking across the planet,” he said in a statement.