(This article was originally published by National Geographic on July 6, 2014.)

THE THREE-WEEK-OLD CARCASS in Kenya’s East Tsavo National Park is hardly identifiable as an elephant anymore. Gone are the hallmark tusks and expressive trunk; the elephant’s entire face has been hacked off.

The perpetrators used a machine gun, said Eric Sagwe, who leads a private antipoaching patrol in the park, pointing to bullet-scarred trees and the remains of two more elephants nearby.

“For 30 years, this elephant was taken care of,” he said. “Then someone comes and kills it in just a few minutes. I’m very sad to see this.” (Related: “Beloved African Elephant Killed for Ivory—’Monumental’ Loss.”)

The words on Sagwe’s uniform, Wildlife Works, are an abbreviation for Wildlife Works Carbon, a company based in the Kasigau area of southern Kenya, where hundreds of elephants still roam.

Sagwe is one of the company’s 140 “wildlife rangers.” He hopes the ranger ranks will continue to grow, but that will depend on whether his employer can sell enough carbon credits on the international market to sustain the Kasigau Corridor REDD+ Project, as it’s known.

The concept of carbon emissions trading, involving carbon “credits” as an economic incentive, was laid out in the UN’s Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that came into force in 2005 to help mitigate climate change.

Under the protocol, caps were placed on the greenhouse gas emissions industrialized countries were permitted to emit. Those that exceeded their limit, however, could buy “credits” from other member nations whose emissions fell below their target levels.

The concept was extended to private companies (and even individuals), which could earn credits for reducing their carbon emissions by engaging in sustainable practices such as using solar power instead of coal or gas or protecting trees. Carbon emitters could buy those credits on a voluntary basis to offset their own pollution.

Kenyan women make ecofriendly clothes to sell as part of a project funded by carbon credit program.


Kasigau and Carbon Credits

Kenya is one of 53 nations partnering with the UN-REDD program (short for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), and Wildlife Works’s Kasigau project is the country’s pilot carbon offset initiative.

The Wildlife Works rangers monitor more than 500,000 acres of wooded land in the Kasigau Corridor—a stretch between Tsavo East and Tsavo West national parks containing more than 110,000 inhabitants—to prevent illegal tree-cutting and keep elephant poachers at bay.

David Antonioli, head of the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), the organization that sets rules and procedures and awards carbon credits, said those involved in the Kasigau project “are really pioneers. Not until this project came on board did anyone have any good examples [to] point to and say, Here’s how it works.”

Villagers hired by Wildlife Works count trees in the corridor, and the total amount of carbon stored in them is then calculated. Although the company self-reports this information, VCS carries out field audits (through another company, Environmental Services, Inc.) before issuing credits.

Thus far, the project has been assessed as worth more than 1.2 million carbon credits, known as Verified Emission Reductions (VERs), each year over the past five.

During that time Wildlife Works claims that deforestation has been reduced to nil.

The company sells its carbon credits through the Markit Registry to corporate customers and banks, including Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Hershey’s, Barclays, Allianz, and BNP. According to Wildlife Works VP, Rob Dodson, the total annual revenue from these transactions has ranged between $3.5 million and $7 million.

In addition to the rangers, Wildlife Works’s nearly 400 employees include horticulturalists, carpenters, seamstresses, mechanics, and teachers. A third of the carbon credit revenue goes to staff salaries and other operating costs. Another third goes to community landowners to compensate them for not exploiting Kasigau’s natural resources for profit.

Pascal Kizaka, a local Kenyan chief and member of a carbon committee.


Community Benefits

The final third is split between investors and so-called carbon committees to be used for projects that benefit area communities. The committees determine what projects to undertake, prioritizing them by need and feasibility.

“So many people have problems with water, so water projects—water tanks, water pipelines—always come first,” said Pascal Kizaka, a local chief and committee board member. “Now people do not have to walk for miles to carry drinking water back to their homes.

Education is another major focus. More than 2,500 students have received carbon-funded scholarships for secondary and university schooling, and some communities have used their funds to build schools and equip classrooms with desks and learning materials.

“The children were learning outside,” said Ngare Duncan, who heads one committee. “And some children had to walk to school over eight kilometers that was infested by wildlife.”

Some money is used for training women to make eco-responsible household materials, such as natural soap.

Wildlife rangers look for evidence of ivory and timber poaching.


Can the Project Be Replicated?

“The real value of [Kasigau] is it shows what can be done to fight climate change and eradicate poverty, as well as stop poaching,” said Tim Christophersen of the United Nations Environment Programme, noting that the factors here were “just right” for success.

“[Wildlife Works] has been in that area for years, so they know the local community, and they trust each other.” Because Kasigau is a dry region that lacks the natural abundance of, for instance, the Congolese or Amazon rain forests, where people tap the resource base for profit, most village communities have opted in.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to Wildlife Works’s profitability—and, for that matter, its very survival—is the future of the voluntary carbon market.

With the expiration in 2012 of key provisions of the Kyoto Protocol, and the inability of national governments to come to an agreement on acceptable levels for greenhouse gas emissions, demand for carbon credits has fallen.

And, Christophersen pointed out, despite Kasigau’s worthy accomplishments, the project is a small-scale effort at limiting greenhouse gases—”peanuts,” as he put it.

“We need to figure this out on a global level,” he said. “There’s a limit to how much we can use exchanges to offset emissions. If industrial emissions aren’t capped, it doesn’t matter if you were to protect even all of the Amazon.”