Elephant Update — Asia and Africa

 

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 fadThe 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.

Must the Past be Prologue?

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A timeless image — elephants crossing the grasslands, feeding, interacting, doing what they have done for millennia. They (and their distant, now extinct cousins) walked the earth long before the advent of homo sapiens. Some scientists believe that the vast areas they cleared in search of nutrition made it possible for our ancestors to come down from the trees and out of the caves and live in communities — a major advance that made us predators rather than prey.  Safety in numbers, stronger gene pools, development of sophisticated communication and planning skills.  Do we owe our alpha species status to the elephant?  Perhaps.  In any event, we seem to have returned the favor by coveting their ivory. And now we face the possibility that the earth we walk will one day be without elephants.

When facing a crisis, it is often insightful to look back at history to better understand what brought us to this point.  “A Brief History of the Elephant Ivory Trade”  released last week by Earth Touch News Network takes a look at the recent history of the ivory trade.  Featuring Dr. Paula Kahumbu, CEO of WildlifeDirect in Kenya, the report covers the dynamics since the 1970s. Well worth viewing.  But what about the longer perspective.  Just when did we get our insatiable appetite for ivory? And how has that appetite impacted the elephant, societies and world trade since then?

In John Frederick Walker’s Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants you can read all about it.  If the past is indeed prologue, then the future for the elephant is not very bright.  Ivory has seduced for thousands of years.  Elephants once ranged across all of Africa and from Syria to China. By 500 BCE, the lust for ivory in Egypt eliminated the African elephant populations along the Nile, and Syria’s Asian elephant herds had been eliminated. The list of cities and dynasties that sought ivory read like a who’s who of the ancient world: Carthage, Athens, Pompeii, Assyria, Babylon, Darius, Caligula, Alexander the Great, the Ptolemys, Julius Caeser. Diocletian fixed ivory prices. Pliny the Elder warned of elephant extinction in 77 CE.  Meanwhile in China, the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) was trading with markets as far away as Rome.  Included in their caravans along the ancient Silk Route were intricately carved ivory objects. Arabs raided the Swahili coast of East Africa throughout the 7th – 14th centuries and included in their bounty slaves and ivory. Then came the era of European colonization. The race for real estate, slaves and ivory ended interior Africa’s relative isolation from the rest of the world.  The arrival of firearms made large-scale harvesting of ivory possible. No need to go on, read the book, and be astonished as to how ingrained the human craving for ivory is in our global society.

Sadly, we are fighting the awful weight of history in the quest to prize life over ivory’s appeal.  Walker in fact does not believe it is possible.  Because of this, he favors limited, legal sales of Africa’s stockpiles to a regulated market.  Watch “A Brief History of the Elephant Ivory Trade” for clear reasons why most experts disagree.  Walker’s book published in 2009; in the six short years since then, elephant populations have plummeted, and the failure of regulated sales is now established.

Once there were more elephants than homo sapiens.  Now, we are 7 billion and growing while the elephant population is perhaps 350,000 and shrinking.  What separates us from our pre-20th Century relatives is the knowledge that the resource is not unlimited. It’s time to reverse course and let the allure of ivory be relegated to the past.  Tick Tock. Tick Tock.

 

 

 

Remover of Obstacles

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I have just returned from three weeks in India, exploring and photographing the country’s two holiest cities — Varanasi and Vrindavan. While shrines to the pantheon of Hindu deities are abundant throughout the subcontinent, they are seemingly attached to every building in these two cities.  None is more evident than the elephant god, Ganesha.  Equipped with the head of an elephant and body of a pot-bellied, older man, Ganesha is the Lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles. He is also worshipped as the god of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth. With such an arsenal of favors to bestow, Ganesha is perhaps the most popular of the Indian gods.  He is invoked at the beginning and end of most celebrations and called upon throughout the day to help his believers realize success and help good triumph over evil.

The stories of how Ganesha came to have the head of an elephant vary, as is to be expected with anything in India and the fact that he has been around for at least 7,000 years.  The most common explanation is as follows.   Ganesha is the first born child of Shiva and Parvati (Shiva being one of the top three India deities). While Lord Shiva is away from home, Parvati asks little Ganesha to protect her by denying anyone entrance to her bath or bedroom.  Shiva comes home unexpectedly, entering either the bath or bedroom.  When Ganesha tries to prohibit him from entering, Shiva in a rage cuts off his head, not recognizing Ganesha as his son. Parvati is devastated. Shiva sends his people out with instructions to bring back the head of the first sleeping being they come upon.  That being is a young elephant. Ganesha is thus given the head and his father decrees that henceforth people will worship Ganesha and invoke his name before undertaking any venture.

This story may seem Disneyesque to Westerners, but it is very real to the hundreds of millions of Hindus who adorn their front doors with paintings or sculptures of Ganesha.  I keep several Ganeshas around my home — just in case.  Having been immersed in Hindu celebrations and wisdom this past month, it seemed reasonable therefore to make several offerings of my own to Ganesha on behalf of all elephants. The obstacles to eliminating trade in illegal ivory and poaching are staggering. The resolve shown recently is encouraging (visit In the News for highlights); however, the road ahead is littered with obstructions, including organized crime, corruption, lack of education, poverty, limited resources and human-wildlife conflict.

That is why attacking the matter of demand remains so critical. Yet, even bold moves to do so encounter obstacles. For example, recently announced regulations to be issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ban Americans from importing and  exporting (almost) any item that contains even an iota of ivory. The rules do not ban private ownership, but outlaw interstate sales of most ivory items. Yet, this week’s New York Times carries an article, “Limits on Ivory Sales, Meant to Protect Elephants, Set Off Wide Concerns.”  It seems that snuff bottles, violins and chess sets with ivory may lose their value without an open interstate or international market. So on one hand you have The Duke of Cambridge (Prince William) calling for the destruction or removal of all ivory in the royal collection at Buckingham Palace to raise awareness. . .and on the other, collectors of ivory, musicians, museums and the National Rifle Association crying foul — don’t mess with my ivory.  (Why the NRA you may ask?  Many old guns have decorative, inlaid ivory on the stock.)

Obstacles everywhere. I feel a need to commune with Ganesha over this (again).  He seems so appropriate a god for endangered elephants.

The Price of Celebrity

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Earlier this  year, I made a post about Asian elephants and issues concerning the quality of life they have in captivity.  Now, The New York Times Magazine has published a great article, entitled “The Hard Life of Celebrity Elephants.”

The author, Rollo Romig, is a freelance writer in India with first hand exposure to the popularity of elephants as temple and festival adornments.  While elephants in captivity can be seen throughout India, the State of Kerala hosts the preponderance of celebrations that employ elephants as part of the traditional rituals practiced.  I had a chance to observe this first hand at the Thirunakkara Festival in Kottayam in March 2012.  This particular festival lasts for ten days, featuring three elephants on the first day and climaxing with 20 festooned elephants on the final nights (photo above).

India has many laws protecting elephants and as the following passage from the articles points out, the number of elephants in captivity is slowly diminishing:

“The demand for elephants is skyrocketing just as the supply is plummeting. In 1982, India banned the capture of wild elephants except to protect the animal or its human neighbors, and it has been illegal to import captive elephants from other states since 2007. Despite their history in domestic situations, there’s no such thing as a domesticated elephant. Nearly every captive elephant in India was captured from the wild, and in Kerala, captive breeding is almost unheard-of, mostly because Keralites overwhelmingly prefer their elephants to be male (since they have tusks), which considerably shrinks their mating pool. When the Forest Department finished microchipping Kerala’s captive elephants in 2008, it said there were more than 700. Now the department estimates that there are fewer than 600, pressed into service at an ever-growing number of festivals.”

Certain elephants have fan clubs and followings but celebrity does not equate to quality living.  Life as an adorned festival performer is unnatural, as is being solitary and unable to roam freely.  One wonders what will happen should the number of existing temple/festival elephants dwindle substantially below the demand for them.  Let’s hope their role in festivals can be phased out so that the remaining wild elephants are not quietly drafted into service.

World Elephant Day

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WED_symbol_official_text_2 smIt’s World Elephant Day!

Go to:  http://worldelephantday.org/ and participate.  Here is a brief of this event, but do go to the website and watch the movie posted there: Return to the Forest.  You will be moved!  And Happy World Elephant Day from Elephants Forever. Together, let’s make this World Elephant Year!

On August 12, 2012, the inaugural World Elephant Day was launched to bring attention to the urgent plight of Asian and African elephants. The elephant is loved, revered and respected by people and cultures around the world, yet we balance on the brink of seeing the last of this magnificent creature.

The escalation of poaching, habitat loss, human-elephant conflict and mistreatment in captivity are just some of the threats to both African and Asian elephants. Working towards better protection for wild elephants, improving enforcement policies to prevent the illegal poaching and trade of ivory, conserving elephant habitats, better treatment for captive elephants,  and when appropriate reintroducing captive elephants into natural, protected sanctuaries are the goals that numerous elephant conservation organizations are focusing on around the world.

World Elephant Day asks you to experience elephants in non-exploitive and sustainable environments where elephants can thrive under care and protection. On World Elephant Day August 12, express your concern, share your knowledge and support solutions for the better care of captive and wild elephants alike.

Things you can do:

    • Study elephants in their “keystone” role in the environment and interrelationships with plants and other animals because all of nature is interconnected.
    • Learn about and support organizations that are working to protect habitat for wild elephants and finding solutions for human-elephant conflict
    • Support organizations that are working to stop the illegal poaching and trade of elephant ivory and other wildlife products
    • Support organizations that  are protecting wild elephant habitat
    • Support organizations that are building natural sanctuaries and alternative habitat for domesticated elephants to live freely
    • Do not support organizations that exploit or abuse elephants and other animals for entertainment and profit.
    • If you wish to experience elephants in their natural environment choose eco-tourism operators who support local elephant conservation projects and who treat elephants with respect and dignity
    • Support healthy, alternative, sustainable livelihoods for people who have traditionally relied on elephants, wild animals and natural resources. Learn about indigenous cultures that have traditionally lived in harmony with elephants.
    • Be an elephant aware consumer. Do not buy ivory or other wildlife products.
    • Be aware of elephant habitat. Do not buy coffee that is not fair-traded or shade-grown, nor products with palm-oil. These commercial crops are grown in plantations that have decimated elephant habitats. Only buy wood products that have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which promotes responsible management of the world’s forests, which is the natural habitat for elephants and other wildlife.
    • Talk about elephants at your school.  Initiate an elephant study group to share knowledge and ideas about the plight of elephants and what can be done to ensure their survival into the future.
    • What do you love about elephants?  Their intelligence, empathy and caring for one another are just a few of their qualities.  Embrace these qualities and live them in your own life.
    • Use your love of elephants and World Elephant Day, August 12 to start a conversation with the next person you meet. Tie a string around your finger right now so, like an elephant, you don’t forget!

 

Meanwhile, In Asia. . .

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Throughout Asia, the elephant has been viewed as the symbol of good fortune, strength and godliness throughout history. In India, where I just spent most of May, elephants have been an integral part of the cultural and spiritual fabric for thousands of years. In no other country has the elephant been so integrated into everyday life, the world of work, the splendor of festivities and the myths of religious cults.  Given such status, one might think that the fate of the Asian elephant is much brighter than that of their African cousin.

Yet, where millions of Asian elephants once roamed from Syria to China, now there are roughly only 30,000 in the wild, concentrated in the subcontinent and neighboring Burma, Thailand and other areas in Southeast Asia.  Due to enormous human populations in this part of the world, the elephant’s natural habitat has diminished to small, disconnected wild areas, limiting migrations and ensuring overlap with human habitat. The Asian elephant is considered endangered and may become extinct in the wild in the next  30 years.

In India, some 15,000 elephants are urban citizens, modes of transportation and substitutes for heavy hauling equipment.  To see elephants, go to almost any temple in southern India, search for tigers on elephant back in the national parks, observe them ambling the streets of cities as they go to work.  You are most likely to see elephants in the midst of throngs of people, rather than in the wild.  The quality of life for these “domesticated” elephants is controversial.  It is unnatural for any elephant to live alone, be confined to one location and stand still for hours on end. On the other hand, their deification and utility assures they are cared for and protected.  Nevertheless, absent healthy breeding herds in the wild – the source of “replacement” elephants –  the temple elephant too will become history.

India without elephants is as unimaginable as Africa without elephants. But the unimaginable is in the works in Asia as well as in Africa.  For more information on the Asian elephant and what is being done, click here.