Murder of ivory trade activist Esmond Bradley Martin leaves conservation world reeling

| 6th February 2018
Esmond Bradley Martin

Wildlife-trade researcher Esmond Bradley Martin

Save the Elephants
Campaigners reacted with shock and anger at the news of the violent death of one of the world’s leading researchers into the illegal ivory and rhino horn trade, Esmond Bradley Martin. CATHERINE EARLY reports

Esmond's commitment to securing a future for wild rhinos and elephants was steadfast. To lose such a gentle and wise conservationist in this way is a shocking tragedy.

A "gentle and wise conservationist". A “global authority on ivory and rhino horn trafficking”. And “one of conservation’s great unsung heroes”. These are  just a few of the tributes paid by environmental campaigners to Esmond Bradley Martin, who was found stabbed to dead at his home in Nairobi on Sunday. 

The 75-year old American had worked for decades researching the markets for wildlife products across Africa and Asia. His research - most of which was published by conservation group Save the Elephants - included a 2017 report that found that the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was home to the world's fastest-growing retail market for ivory, as well as a 2016 study that detailed how demand for ivory in Vietnam was threatening elephants in Africa. 

His work on the dynamics of illegal wildlife markets provided countries such as China with the hard data they needed to shut those markets down. It also informed many of the decisions following from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a global agreement that regulates trade in wildlife products. 

A terrible blow

Martin had once served as the UN Special Envoy on rhino conservation. Lisa Rolls, who leads the UN Environment's Wild for Life campaign, said: "Esmond was known for absolute rigour and painstaking precision in his methodology and reporting. He was always willing to lend his decades of expertise to explore approaches to tackling the illegal wildlife trade with complete objectivity.

“Esmond's commitment to securing a future for wild rhinos and elephants was steadfast. To lose such a gentle and wise conservationist in this way is a shocking tragedy."

Maxwell Gomera, deputy director of UN Environment, said: “Very few knew much about these issues better than Esmond. Even fewer have pursued these issues with such dedication and commitment. The fight to save wildlife has lost one of its most committed soldiers."

Iain Douglas-Hamilton, the founder of Save The Elephants, said that Martin’s work had been key in revealing that the price of ivory in China had fallen prior to the Chinese government’s commitment to close its legal domestic market. He was working on research in Myanmar when he died, he added.

“Esmond was one of conservation’s great unsung heroes. His meticulous work into ivory and rhino horn markets was conducted often in some of the world’s most remote and dangerous places…He was my friend for 45 years and his loss is a terrible blow both personally and professionally,” he said.

Deeply saddened

“He was a giant of a man in his field – quite literally, his tall, gangling figure and shock of white hair made him an unlikely undercover investigator,” said Greg Neale, editor-in-chief of The Ecologist and former environment correspondent at The Sunday Telegraph.

“But that was part of his role as he sought to understand the extent of the rhino horn and ivory trade, often putting himself at real risk in some of the world’s most lawless places to establish the economic and cultural background to the forces driving the rhino and elephant towards extinction.”

Tributes poured in as news of his death spread on social media. Save the Elephants (STE) Kenya tweeted: “We are deeply saddened by the death of wildlife-trade researcher Esmond Bradley Martin who died yesterday in Nairobi. A long-term ally for STE, passionate champion of wildlife and meticulous researcher, his loss will be deeply felt by all who knew him.”

Save the Rhino tweeted: “Shocking and sad news: Esmond Bradley Martin, investigator into the illegal trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn, found murdered in his home in Nairobi. Our thoughts are with his wife Chryssee.”

Martin was “a respected colleague and friend to conservationists worldwide”, WWF Kenya tweeted. “He remains an inspiration for us all @WWF. RIP.” The Elephant Crisis Fund said it was “deeply saddened”, calling Martin “a long-term ally, passionate champion of wildlife and meticulous researcher”.

The threat of murder

The news came just days after new data from campaign group Global Witness revealed that 197 people were killed globally in 2017 fighting environmental destruction from plantations, poachers and development.

The death toll has risen fourfold since it was first compiled in 2002. “The situation remains critical. Until communities are genuinely included in decisions around the use of their land and natural resources, those who speak out will continue to face harassment, imprisonment and the threat of murder,” said Ben Leather, senior campaigner for Global Witness.

This Author

Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and the former deputy editor of the environmentalist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.