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Death in Happy Valley

A son of the colonial aristocracy goes on trial for killing a poacher in Kenya, where an exploding human population is heightening tensions and stretching resources to the breaking point

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In the handsome neo-Classical law courts building in downtown Nairobi, the trial of Tom Cholmondeley in the killing of Robert Njoya proceeded by fits and starts. Justice Muga Apondi was hearing the case without a jury, during a week of testimony in September, another week at the end of October and another in early December. No one seemed to be in any hurry, least of all the defense, perhaps in part because public outrage about the case seemed to fade with each passing month. Cholmondeley, the future sixth Baron Delamere, sat on a wooden bench at one side of the courtroom throughout, tight-lipped and expressionless. He was tall and lean, with thinning blond hair and blue eyes, cast down, behind rimless glasses. He wore a beige suit, with a paisley tie, a red handkerchief in the breast pocket and a pair of handcuffs.

His friends, both black and white, described Cholmondeley as an ardent conservationist. He helped found the Nakuru Wildlife Conservancy, to help protect Lake Nakuru National Park just north of Soysambu. He also went out of his way to enlist a black neighbor among the founding members. He worked closely with the park on poaching problems, and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) appointed him an honorary game warden. Though Soysambu was a working cattle ranch, Cholmondely also maintained a huge area around Lake Elmenteita as a wildlife sanctuary. Like the rest of Soysambu, it was dusty, infertile soil and littered with volcanic rock. But it harbored about 10,000 head of antelope, zebras, buffalo and other species. The lake itself would also normally have served as a feeding area for dense flocks of lesser flamingos—except that, like other Rift Valley lakes, Elmenteita had lately dried away almost to nothing.

Cholmondeley's defenders said that he maintained good relations with the local community. The family built schools and medical clinics on the ranch and donated land for a secondary school in a nearby village. Unlike some other white farmers, Cholmondeley also hired black Kenyans as managers of Soysambu and other family businesses, and he spoke to them in fluent Swahili.

But questions of temper and judgment repeatedly surfaced, too, sometimes in connection with firearms. A neighbor recalled the time that Cholmondeley fired a handgun at the dartboard at a local drinking club, possibly an act of homage to his great-grandfather, who once rode a horse into Nairobi's Norfolk Hotel and shot out the whiskey bottles behind the bar. An acquaintance recalled an angry outburst over a mechanical difficulty on a trip in Cholmondeley's Cessna: "He's the only pilot I've ever seen shouting at his plane before takeoff. I talked to the other passengers after, and they said, "There's something wrong with that guy."

Cholmondeley's temper seemed to show itself particularly when it came to the wildlife on Soysambu. Under Kenyan law, all wildlife belongs to the state, not the landowner, and hunting of any kind has been illegal since 1977. But until recently, KWS allowed landowners to "crop" and sell, usually for meat or hide, a quota of excess animals each year. The first time I heard about cropping I thought it was a dull land management issue, miles apart from questions of murder. But it turned out to be the reason Tom Cholmondeley got into trouble with the law in the first place.

The legal trade in zebra and other species could at times be more profitable than cattle ranching, and landowners saw it as fair compensation for the cost of having wildlife on their land. That cost could be considerable. For example, one environmentalist was deeply vexed with zebras: "They're greedy--you never see a thin zebra--and they're excitable. They race around tearing up the ground and no fence can stop them." The landowners didn't want to get rid of the animals. They just wanted to harvest a percentage of them when the population got too big for their property, and they could argue passionately about what that percentage should be. A Cholmondeley neighbor, Christopher Campbell-Clause, said he once saw Cholmondeley get into a "standup confrontation" with a local game warden about increasing Soysambu's quota: "Tom got so incensed that he finally threw the contents of his briefcase on the floor, stomped on his pens and stormed out.

But the cropping program also elicited passionate feelings among critics. "It sends the wrong message," said Clause. "Probably a white man, and certainly a rich man, can take advantage of the< wildlife, whereas the poor man across the border is convicted of poaching if he takes a dik-dik to feed his family." Critics also alleged that some landowners were abusing the privilege. So KWS ended the cropping program in 2003. At that point, the only people< who could profit by taking wildlife were the poachers.

And that may have caused Cholmondeley himself to become a poacher, albeit on his own land. "Tom Cholmondeley was so arrogant," said Clause, "that he carried on cropping even after KWS banned it." KWS got wind of this allegation, according to the police, and on the afternoon of April 19, 2005, a team of undercover KWS agents went to the slaughterhouse at Soysambu to see if they could make a purchase. They found a buffalo carcass being butchered, and they arrested the slaughterhouse crew. Somehow, word got to Cholmondeley that robbers, not KWS agents, were holding his workers at gunpoint--only a week after actual robbers had killed a flower farm manager in Naivasha.

"And that's when Tom went wild," said Simon Kiragu, superintendent of police in Naivasha. "He came running like a wounded buffalo. He didn't just come, he came firing," with a pistol in hand. Outside the slaughterhouse, he saw a stranger, a Masai named Samson Ole Sesina, with a handgun, beside an unmarked car. Sesina apparently fired, too, then ran, leaping over a fence into a corral. Cholmondeley fired again. A bullet hit Sesina in the back of the neck and came out his mouth, killing him instantly. "I remember there was blood, blood, blood," said Kiragu.

It quickly turned out that Sesina had been a KWS employee, a driver for the undercover team. After his arrest, Cholmondeley apologized: "I am most bitterly remorseful at the enormity of my mistake." The government opted not to prosecute because of the confused circumstances of the killing. Later, following Kenyan tradition, Cholmondeley made a settlement with Sesina's family, reportedly paying the equivalent of 49 head of cattle--livestock being the traditional Masai measure of wealth.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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