Dr Esmond Martin: Martyr in silent war in wildlife

 The late researcher Esmond Martin during a press conference. FILE PHOTO | NMG
The late researcher Esmond Martin during a press conference. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The war on wildlife and their 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 in Laikipia of Kuki Gallmann.

But the conservation community was hard hit when Dr Esmond Bradley Martin, one of the world’s leading investigators of illegal trafficking of ivory and rhino horn, was found by his wife Chrysee stabbed to death in their Karen home last Sunday afternoon.

News of the American geographer’s death sent shockwaves globally where Dr Martin, 75, had for decades made an impact through his 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 has been used to change laws and 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 (in 1993) and later in ivory (in 2017). There’s no clear-cut motive for why Dr Martin was murdered, despite Nairobi’s DCI boss Nicholas Kamwende having arrested three members of the Martins’ house who were off-duty on the fateful day.

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 is more likely the motive that got Esmond murdered,” said 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 compatriot on numerous wildlife projects.

According to Mr 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 sex slaves.

Dr Martin was so passionate about exposing trophy traffickers and illegal markets that he occasionally went undercover. He’d assume the role of a buyer to obtain information on black market sales.

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 a detailed report on trafficking in Myanmar when he was killed.

Most of his 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 United States, Nigeria, Congo, Angola and Yemen.

In his last BBC interview in 2016, Dr 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 Dr 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 (STE), described Dr Martin as ‘an unsung hero’ who dared to work in some of the most remote and dangerous parts of the world. STE published nearly a dozen meticulously-researched reports that Martin co-authored with Ms Vigne.

To those who recognise that there’s a global war on wildlife going on, Dr Martin has been deemed a martyr to the cause of saving the helpless 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 for other environmental activists to proudly emulate.