When Westport lawyer Ken Bernhard got his master's degree in criminal law, he had no idea the skills he learned would help him save wild elephants from illegal poaching in east Africa.
In February, Bernhard was the lead player in an undercover sting operation in a remote Kenyan village that led to the arrest of a roadside gift shop dealer for illegal possession of ivory. The dealer now faces 18 months in prison.
The personable Bernhard, a principal with the law firm Cohen and Wolf, gave a gripping account of his exploits to about 50 members of the Sunrise Rotary Club at its meeting on Friday at Bobby Q's Barbecue and Grill.
Bernhard played a naïve tourist going from shop to shop in Murang'a, a poor, dusty, village. He had a cover story that he embellished as time went on: he was on a mission to replace a treasured carved ivory bookend as a gift for his wife back home. He tacked on an identity as a Hong Kong businessman, hoping to boost his credibility with the secretive dealers. (Concern for endangered species are more relaxed there than in the West, he said.)
He was part of a team from the Kenyan Wildlife Service that included four armed undercover rangers as well as his friend, Bill Clark, chief of Interpol Wildlife Crimes Group, who had invited him to join the exploit.
The mission aimed to help stop the slaughter of wild elephants for their ivory tusks by arresting those who sell them illegally.
An informant had identified one person, named Jack, as a dealer in ivory. He became the target of the operation.
Following a script practiced during a training period, Bernhard, wired for the encounter, won over the confidence of Jack by talking with him at length in an unthreatening manner.
It was agreed that the next day, Bernhard would pay $5,000 for the slab of ivory which Jack would conceal in a carved wooden statue of an elephant to evade customs detection.
The deal was about to be made when Jack sensed the presence of the undercover back-up team nearby. In a panic, he fled through his back door. He was easily apprehended the next day because he was well known in the area, Bernhard said.
The seasoned lawyer skillfully won the confidence of other dealers, including an ivory carver with whom he easily conversed with about a range of sundry topics while wired to the armed back-up team who listened in for key phrases.
"I was trying to extricate confessions that would lead to successful prosecutions," he said.
The wild elephant population in Kenya dropped precipitously from 170,000 in 1963 to 16,000 by 1989, according to Wildlife Service estimates. Although elephants have recently enjoyed a comeback in Kenya because of vigorous wildlife enforcement there, international trade regulations enacted in 2007 allow African export of ivory to China and Japan, Bernhard told the Connecticut Law Tribune.
That change has led to an increase in elephant poaching. Just last week, two tons of ivory en route to Malaysia were seized by officials in Kenya.
Armed bandits slip over the border from Somalia to poach elephants, killing them with machine gun fire and removing the tusks with chainsaws, Bernhard told the rapt audience.
"It is a war out there and they are ruthless," he said.
In Kenya alone, some 44 wildlife rangers have been killed doing their jobs, patrolling the Tsavo National Park – with an area the size of New Jersey – and other locations.
During his 11-day expedition in February, Bernhard flew a small airplane that patrols the border looking for poachers. Pilots are trained by Patty Wagstaff, a champion stunt flier, who teaches aerial tactics as well as emergency mechanics.
"We looked for vultures but didn't spot any," said Bernhard. From the plane, however, he saw the stunning, expansive landscape and herds of wildlife from an altitude just above the trees.
Several attempts to land had to be made until giraffes cleared the makeshift runway.
Bernhard also paid a call on an elephant orphanage where humans have established a zone of safety for motherless babies to come in and feed.
He showed photos of a baby elephant hoisting a big plastic jug filled with elephant milk formula as it sucked at an elephant-sized nipple. Its tummy full, the baby disappeared back into the bush.
Bernhard was asked to speculate how many elephants he had helped save during his 11-day undercover foray, but he was too modest to claim credit.
"I played a very tiny role," he said in an interview following his talk.
His prior legal experience includes four years spent as a JAG (Judge Advocate General) lawyer in the U.S. Army as well as military munitions training.
Instead of a briefcase and the others tools a lawyer typically uses, in the African bush he strapped on an AK-47 machine gun and volunteered to be a bandit during practice.
"I'd jump up, fire blanks, go 'Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!' and dive down," he said.
"I was 66 going on 12," he said. "This is what I did as a kid!"
Bernhard's mission to Kenya was his fifth trip to Africa to save wild animals.
In Senegal, the former French colony in West Africa, he said wildlife rangers were poorly equipped in the 1990s with World War I rifles and wore thong sandals for shoes. Their efficiency greatly improved when French actress Brigitte Bardot, an animal rights activist, pressed the French government to provide military enhancements and 100 automatic rifles.
In Liberia, Bernhard experienced frustration: a lack of government cooperation scuttled plans for an elephant orphanage because of political resistance, he said.
Bernhard and his friend, Clark, are working together to raise funds to establish the first DNA lab in Africa that can tell whether meat samples come from wild or domestic species. The lab will enable prosecutors to go after purveyors of "bush meat." The killing of any species of wildlife is forbidden in Kenya and it's estimated that the illegal international market trades millions of tons of forbidden meat from the country and the rest of the continent.
"Africa is literally being strip-mined of its wildlife," Bernhard said in prepared remarks. "What is happening in Africa, slowly but relentlessly, can only be called the destruction of nature."
A Seven Year Old Joins the Cause
Bernhard's passion for saving elephants connected unexpectedly with a 7-year-old Westporter.
Bryce Baxter learned about the plight of the endangered elephants when he visited the Denver Zoo over the winter. There were no elephants in sight.
Their absence was disturbing to Bryce, who enters the second grade on Wednesday. He had read that they are an endangered species.
"He's been telling me for months and months since then that what he wants to do is save the elephants," said Bryce's mother, Michele.
The Bronx Zoo, which the family of five often visits, is phasing out elephants. Three Asian elephants are on view but will not be replaced at the end of their natural lives, according to news reports.
"I can't imagine taking my children to a zoo without elephants," said Bryce's mother, Michele.
So Bryce is asking the 20 or so friends he's inviting to his eigth birthday party held on Sept. 12 to bring checks payable to the Lindbergh Foundation in lieu of the Star Wars games, Legos and other presents they might otherwise bring.
Michele contacted Bernhard when she heard about his talk and he recommended the Lindbergh Foundation. Donations will be earmarked to buy fuel for the airplanes patrolling Kenya's border with Somalia on the lookout for elephant poachers.
"It's great for Bryce to have a way to help save the elephants," she said. "So many animals need help."