Esmond Bradley Martin, one of the world’s most highly regarded wildlife trade researchers, was found dead Sunday by his wife at his home in Nairobi, Kenya, with a stab wound to his neck, according to a number of media reports. The motive for the attack is unclear, though the Guardian reported that it may have been part of a botched burglary. Police have launched an investigation.
The 76-year-old American citizen is lauded within conservation circles for his investigations into ivory and rhino horn trafficking. Over decades his efforts to understand the illicit trades included identifying black market hot spots and figuring out prices for illegal ivory and rhino horn, notoriously difficult information to obtain.
“It’s a tragedy and a setback,” said Philip Muruthi, vice president of species protection for the Nairobi-based African Wildlife Foundation. “He brought the data. He brought the information to really inform people on the demand side of the trade and what the markets are all about.”
Dan Stiles, who worked closely with Martin, echoed Muruthi's sentiments. "Esmond changed the way conservationists reported on wildlife trade," Stiles said. "He, often with his wife Chryssee, would find the obscure open-air wildlife markets and back-alley shops and count the numbers of what he saw, note the prices, find out who was supplying and who was buying, for what purpose and so on."
Elephants and rhinos are both in the midst of a poaching crisis, with some 30,000 African elephants slaughtered a year for their tusks and more than a thousand rhinos killed last year for their horns. Ivory is carved into everything from figurines to chop sticks, while rhino horn is made into art and erroneously used as a cure-all.
Martin’s research was often dangerous, requiring him to go undercover and pose as a buyer of illicit ivory and rhino horn.
His investigations into the ivory trade played a part in China’s decision to shut down its legal ivory market last year, Paula Kahumbu, National Geographic explorer and Kenyan elephant expert told Irish media.
Among Martin’s contributions to the field: highlighting increased demand for rhino horn in Yemen in 2008, showing the drop in Japanese demand for ivory in 2010, detailing a burgeoning ivory trade in Hong Kong in 2011, and explaining the reduction in rhino poaching in Nepal in 2013. His most recent research documented how Laos’s and Vietnam’s ivory markets are booming.
According to the BBC, Martin, who had served as the former United Nations special envoy for rhino conservation, recently returned from a research trip to Myanmar and was in the process of writing up his findings.
“His meticulous work into ivory and rhino horn markets was conducted in some of the world’s most remote and dangerous places and against intensely busy schedules that would have exhausted a man half his age,” said Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants, a Nairobi-based organization that has worked closely with Martin over the years.
In a 2017 interview, Martin told Nomad Magazine that he began researching wildlife crime in the 1970s. At the time he was writing a book called Cargoes of the East, and he discovered that most of the rhino horn from East Africa was going to Yemen. “The puzzle was: why were all these rhinos being killed, and where was the horn going?” he told the magazine.
So far no reports have suggested that Martin was murdered because of his work. Nevertheless a number of people striving to end wildlife poaching have been murdered in recent years, including Wayne Lotter, a much loved elephant conservationist shot in Tanzania last year. Additionally, many anti-poaching rangers in national parks have been killed in the line of duty—more than 150 during the past decade in Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park and 21 in Garamba National Park.(Meanwhile at least 991 activists, forest rangers, or indigenous leaders were murdered in land-related crimes between 2002 and 2014.)
As for Martin’s role in shutting down the illegal wildlife trade: “He leaves a gap that must be filled quickly,” Muruthi said.
February 7, 2018: This story has been updated to included Dan Stiles's statements about Martin.