Tsavo West, Kenya—Two years ago, in what was billed as a defiant message to elephant poachers, Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki arrived by helicopter at a dusty airstrip in Tsavo West National Park to set fire to five tons of seized contraband ivory.

A military band in crisp khakis blared out anthems and marches, mostly on key, traditional dancers stomped energetically, and a series of government officials introduced each other at length in the lead-up to the president’s speech. It wasn’t easy to hear them over the dry wind that whipped through the flapping tents sheltering hundreds of guests on rows of plastic chairs, but a local politician got rapt attention and applause when he complained about lack of protection from crop-raiding elephants. His plea delivered a mixed message at an event aimed, Kibaki intoned, at sending “a clear signal to poachers...

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