Meet Boswell. Boswell is a relatively famous elephant who lives in Zimbabwe. His primary notoriety is for standing on his hind legs to fetch juicy leaves and branches that others cannot reach. He is also on his way to film stardom, as one of the featured elephants in “The Last Great Tuskers.” As you can tell, he wears a collar so that his whereabouts can be tracked by those studying the few remaining big tuskers. While Boswell’s tusks are not as large as some of the other “super tusker” elephants featured in “The Last Great Tuskers,” they are large — ensuring that he is a target of poachers. Being collared is no guarantee that he can escape a premature death, but the fact that he is being watched by rangers gives him some relative protection.
I had the privilege of meeting “the Bos” while in Zimbabwe this past August. While he did not grace us with his hind-feet-only stance, he did pose generously and often. Our guide, Honest, had spent a great deal of time observing Boswell; perhaps that is why the elephant was so generous with his time. Nevertheless, his comfort with humans has carries a big risk, even though elephants purportedly can sense if nearby humans come in peace or for ivory.
Zimbabwe’s relationship Boswell and his brethren is complicated. Zimbabwe has always had large elephant populations. Now, it accounts for at least 25% of the remaining elephants in Africa, as Zimbabwe did not experience the epidemic of poaching that decimated elephant populations in Central and East Africa over the past decade. That makes it an appealing target for poachers. Unlike its neighbor, Botswana, which has an even higher percentage of elephants, Zimbabwe is a failed state politically. Under the control of Robert Mugabe since the country’s independence from Great Britain in 1980, the potentially wealthy country has been drained of its former riches. Unemployment now is 90% and the currency is worthless. Recent demonstrations in the urban areas calling for Mugabe to resign were firmly squashed. A sense of despair permeates any conversation with Zimbabweans as to the future. Such circumstances nurture black market activities, including poaching for organized crime operations.
Recent poaching in Zimbabwe has been even more nefarious and insidious with the use of cyanide at waterholes by poachers. Not only does this kill the elephants who come to drink, but all other species who drink the same water source or predators and scavengers who ingest the dead elephant carcasses.
Mugabe and his cronies have been seeking approval from UN officials to sell their huge stockpiles of (what they claim to be) legal ivory. During the recent CITES conference in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa lobbied hard to sell their stockpiles on the international market to raise funds to improve conservation and protection measures of wild game. While these proposals were defeated, these countries were successful in keeping elephants within their borders from being classified as “critically endangered.” Because elephant populations in southern Africa are healthy, the status of critically endangered was not viewed as necessary. That means those countries are still able to entertain a legal ivory market within their boundaries. In Zimbabwe’s Hwange Park, approximately 44,000 elephants roam; the carrying capacity of the park is one elephant per square kilometer, or 14,000 elephants.
But back to Boswell, member of a very exclusive — and endangered — club. In March, one of the largest of the super tuskers, Satao II, was slain by a poison arrow in Kenya’s Tsavo Park. According to Africa Geographic, the massive 44,000 km² Tsavo Conservation Area (twice the size of South Africa’s Kruger National Park) is home to the highest population of large-tusked elephants in the world, with 6 ‘super tuskers’ (of approximately 25-30 in the whole of Africa) and 15 emerging tuskers (young bulls who have the genes and potential to become tuskers). There are also 7 cows with tusks reaching the ground that are being monitored.
I hope to visit Boswell again in 2018 when I return to Zimbabwe. I pray that Bos and his super tusker colleagues benefit from the current decline in the demand for ivory in China and escape the scourge of poaching. Sadly though, this poaching has taken its toll on the super tusker gene pool, meaning that future generations will not likely get to have a personal encounter with one of these amazing creatures.