John Sumokwo will be celebrating Elephant Appreciation Day today in his native Kenya, where he is an elephants'-rights activist -- and a free man.
He has been free for four years, after having been imprisoned for, well, poaching elephants. Horrifyingly, he in fact killed more than 70 elephants as part of a gang that sold ivory to organized-criminal profiteers.
It's been a remarkable turnaround for the man who now is an animal ambassador and who has joined a lobbying group trying to hold the Kenya government more accountable in animal safety.
“To me, [poaching] was just business,” he told the British newspaper The Independent in 2014, when he was released from prison. “I didn’t think about it any other way. The buyer gave me money and then sold it off to the big syndicates in Mombasa.”
To help understand why someone might be driven to poaching, it's important to note how impoverished some people, like Sumokwo, might be. Sumokwo comes from the Kabernet area in Northern Kenya, from a community described by the Lady Free Thinker (a Los Angeles online magazine dedicated to exposing and stopping suffering of animals) as "a very poor village with few resources, where education doesn’t emphasize the importance of conservation, and with uncertain opportunities....The average monthly salary for Kenyans is about $65 USD. While Sumokwo was poaching, he was pulling in closer to $5,000 USD per day."
But he lost everything when he went to prison, As Sumokwo told the UK paper the Daily Mirror last month, “Having gone into prison, I came to realize that conservation is more important than poaching. I understood then that poaching kills and wipes out the elephants, which will leave future generations with nothing to see."
The methods Sumokwo and his gang used to kill elephants are deeply disturbing. They did not use guns, but spears. There are details we won't share here but can be read in full in the story cited above by The Independent. Fair warning, Sumokwo's accounts of his previous work are not for the lighthearted.
But, as he told the Mirror more recently, “I do regret that time enormously. Ultimately it did not help me financially and I also became a hunted man. I had to relocate, so my family suffered too."
When Sumokwo was convicted, the sentence for poaching in Kenya was fairly light: two years. If he had been convicted today, he'd be looking at a life sentence.
“Now I am working to rehabilitate reformed poachers," he told the Mirror. "I go back to my community to teach and make people aware of the dangers of poaching and killing animals. “I think my example has helped them realize how important conservation is."