Asia and Africa — where the elephants live. Separate species, the Asian and African elephants are unalike in many ways. One of the most pronounced differences is their coloration. African elephants range from griege to rust to golden, depending upon what color of sand they cover their body with to protect themselves from the sun and insects. Underneath all that sand and mud, however, is basically a gray animal. Asian elephants all start life with gray skin, but as they age, a depigmentation takes place around their ears, trunks and heads that results in a pinkish-cast. Some say they develop “elephant freckles.” But in fact, it is the opposite — a loss of skin color.
What they share is a history of genocide. In all of Asia, there are now only 35,000 to 40,000 wild elephants. Most of the elephants you see when visiting Asia are “working” elephants (some might say enslaved elephants) — in temples, festivals, logging forests, tourist attractions. “Local” demand for ivory long ago decimated Asia’s wild elephant population. The same has been happening in Africa for centuries, culminating in the crisis of late, which finally focused the world’s attention on possible extinction of the roughly 450,000 remaining wild African elephants.
The convergence of media coverage, NGO commitments and celebrity created an awareness level that is actually making a difference, albeit incremental and not without substantial future challenges. It’s a process of two steps forward, one step backward in many cases as evidenced by recent news reports.
China’s pledge to close legal ivory markets and trading by the end of this year is already having an impact on the market. Prices are falling as demand is diminishing. Some traders are now faced with an “over supply” although much of their supply is likely black market ivory. Hong Kong has lagged behind the mainland. This month, legislation has been introduced in the former British colony that would phase out the legal market over a five-year period. Recent hearings contained a face-off between African rangers (who pleaded that the time frame be reduced as they put their lives on the line every day) and traders (who argue that they have too much stockpile to sell by 2021).
Legal markets in Japan remain, and there has been much less public attention paid to its markets than China’s. Regulations exist, but enforcement is reportedly lax, resulting in fairly vibrant legal and illegal markets. Japan has an enormous consumer class, as well longstanding traditions of coveting ivory objects. We should not assume China’s progress extends to Japan and other Asian markets. In fact, surplus ivory in Hong Kong and China may well find its way into Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Laos.
In Myanmar, which has a population of 1,500 – 2,000 wild elephants, poaching has recently increased due to a new skin cure fad. The ashes of elephant skin, mixed with coconut oil, is the new cure for eczema while ground elephant teeth supposedly whitens skin. Although there is no scientific basis for either, as we all know, fads can flourish without any basis in fact.
Overall, Africa’s elephant populations are alarmingly small. In East Africa, elephant populations are increasing in some areas, and in Southern Africa, national parks are over-crowded because the elephants know to seek out protected areas. In addition to stressing the environment in the parks, large elephant populations are increasing human-wildlife conflict. Even if the demand for ivory fell so low that poaching for ivory became history, challenges for the world’s largest land mammal remain. Africa’s human population continues to explode and its untapped economic potential is blossoming.
Again, two steps forward, one step backwards. We should celebrate the accomplishments of recent years; particularly the decline of demand and prices in China and increased vigilance in African countries in catching and prosecuting poachers and traders. Yet, we cannot let the positive momentum become undernourished; for if we take our foot off the pedal now, elephants everywhere will continue to decline. Go to the Experts tab on this site, chose an organization whose conservation activities appeal to you and support them! You really can make a difference.