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.

Super Tusker: Is All Well for Boswell?

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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.

 

Eye on Elephants

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Did you know?  Elephants have relatively small eyes for an animal of their size. Their eyes’ position on the sides of their massive heads produces better peripheral than binocular vision.  Elephants rely much more on their senses of smell and hearing than on their eyesight.  In fact, there have been reports of blind matriarchs leading their herds just fine.

You may think I have taken my eye off elephants since my last blog post was in June.  Between a gloriously long trip to Kenya this summer, followed promptly by a move from CT to AZ and all that entails, I have been negligent in posting.  The good news is that many others have kept their eye on the elephants, creating more awareness of their plight than ever before.

A landmark study, published in the August 19 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, led by George Wittemyer of Colorado State University,  concluded that three-quarters of local, African elephant populations are declining. The bottom line: in the past three years, at least 100,000 elephants have been killed by poachers. Combined with death due to natural causes, more elephants are dying than being born.  While the killing rate had been estimated by various NGOs, this is the first, scientifically-based study that quantifies births and deaths on a continent-wide basis.  For policymakers who had any doubts about the conservation community’s calls for action, this documentation should put those doubts to rest.

At the same time, several major, awareness-raising campaigns have been launched or are in the works.

WildAid has been particularly busy.  Working with Yao Ming, the legendary NBA Chinese national, WildAid has funded a documentary, “The End of the Wild,”  which chronicles Yao Ming’s 2012 trip to Kenya and South Africa.  A related PSA, “Say No to Ivory,” launched in 2013, while the documentary premiered this past August.  Both are carried by CCTV, China’s primary state-owned network.  A companion book, “A Journey in Africa,” is also being published in China. In March 2014, Yao delivered a petition during the opening session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) asking China’s government to ban sales of ivory.

Yao has serious credentials as a conservationist; previously, he was the primary spokesperson for WildAid’s campaign against the killing of sharks for sharks’ fin soup.  A 2013 survey of major Chinese cities revealed an 85% drop in demand for shark soup; of those who quit ordering the delicacy, 65% cited public information campaigns as the reason.

Here in the US, which remains the second largest market for ivory (behind China), Academy award-winning producer, Kathleen Bigelow, premiered “Last Days” at this year’s New York Film Festival.  This three-minute PSA, also developed in conjunction with WildAid, delivers a message that carries the same impact as her films “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Hurt Locker” : When a person buys an item made of ivory in a market in China, it is quite possible that they are actually funding the next major terrorist attack somewhere in the world; based on strong evidence linking the illegal ivory trade to some of the most notorious terrorist groups in Africa. And it is certain that they are complicit in the illegal slaughter of elephants– which face imminent extinction in the wild if the demand for ivory in China and elsewhere is not curbed.

If that isn’t enough star power, Angelina Jolie recently signed on to direct “Africa,” a drama based on Richard Leakey’s fight against ivory poachers in Kenya. Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) wrote the script.  David Ellison’s Skydance Productions, known for blockbusters such as the “Mission: Impossible” series and the upcoming “Terminator: Genisys” trilogy, is behind the picture.  Meanwhile, back in Africa, Richard Leakey is still waging his war against poaching.  This has block-buster potential!

These efforts have the most potential to stop poaching — by killing demand, rather than elephants.  Keep your eye on the elephants and stayed tuned!

Mourning in Kenya

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I am packing for my annual visitation to elephant country.  Thirty years have passed since my first visit to Africa. . .to Kenya, a place so filled with wildlife and beauty that I immediately was infected with safari fever, a terminal condition from which I never want to recover.  But the sweet sensations of anticipation are somewhat muted this time.  Media sources have just confirmed that the two elephants with the largest tusks in Kenya have been savagely poisoned and mutilated this past month.

Satao lived in Tsavo in eastern Kenya and carried the unique gene that produces exceptionally large tusks.  His (pictured above on the left) were 6.5 feet long. Dr. Paula Kahumba, Executive Director of WildlifeDirect and the Kenya Land Conservation Trust, wrote a moving tribute to Satao, describing how he lived recently, aware that poachers were after him for his ivory.  In the area surrounding Mt. Kenya, another large bull with enormous tusks, Mountain Bull, was killed in the same manner, by poisonous arrows.   Mountain Bull, who I wrote about in “The Tale of Two Tusks,” was famous for alluding poachers, seemingly having nine lives.  Wildlife officials chose to saw off part of his tusks (in photo above right) to make him less appealing to poachers.  Both Satao and Mountain Bull were regarded as national treasures and were closely monitored by wildlife professionals.  Mountain Bull even wore a radio collar.

The stories of their demise are heartbreaking, not just because of their celebrity but because even the two most guarded elephants in Kenya fell victim to poaching.  In their honor, and to bear witness to how difficult it is to “protect” wild animals, I am quoting the full release from The Tsavo Trust, which provides amazing detail on how closely the Trust and Kenya Wildlife Service personnel followed Satao’s movements.

KWAHERI SATAO – SAYING GOODBYE TO A TSAVO ICON

With great sadness, we report the death of Satao, one of Tsavo’s most iconic and well-loved tuskers. This magnificent elephant was widely known in Tsavo East National Park, where he was observed with awe by many thousands of Tsavo’s visitors over the years. No longer will Tsavo and Kenya benefit from his mighty presence. Satao was shot dead by poisoned arrow on 30th May 2014. The arrow had entered his left flank and he stood no chance of survival. We spotted his carcass on 2nd June but to avoid any potential false alarms, we first took pains to verify the carcass really was his. Today it is with enormous regret that we confirm there is no doubt that Satao is dead, killed by an ivory poacher’s poisoned arrow to feed the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory in far off countries. A great life lost so that someone far away can have a trinket on their mantelpiece.

INCIDENT REPORT

For the last 18 months, KWS and TSAVO TRUST jointly monitored Satao’s movements using aerial reconnaissance, and KWS deployed ground personnel in his known home range. But with today’s mounting poaching pressures and anti-poaching resources stretched to the limit, it proved impossible to prevent the poachers getting through the net.

Immediately reports of a fresh carcass in this area of Tsavo were received by KWS, a TSAVO TRUST reconnaissance flight took off with a KWS officer on board. It did not take long to locate the carcass near the boundary of the National Park. A joint KWS / TSAVO TRUST ground team followed up immediately. Despite the mutilated head, they deduced that the carcass was most probably that of Satao for the following reasons:

• Satao was well known by the KWS / TSAVO TRUST units operating continuously in this area. When he was alive, his enormous tusks were easily identifiable, even from the air. Although the poachers had hacked off his face and taken his ivory, there were other physical attributes and circumstantial evidence that pointed to this carcass being that of Satao.

• Satao was very much a creature of habit. He roamed a very specific area, known to KWS and TSAVO TRUST, most often in the company of small groups of bull elephant.

• With the recent rain, over 1,000 elephants have moved into the area to take advantage of the green and plentiful vegetation. Satao had not moved from this area for the last two months.

• Satao was last seen alive by TSAVO TRUST on 19th May 2014, just 300 meters from where his carcass now lies. He was with four other bulls that he was frequently seen with. During May 2014, TSAVO TRUST had observed him no fewer than 9 times from the air and several times from the ground. Protection efforts were stepped up when he ventured right up to the boundary of the Park (an area that is a historical and present poaching hotspot, especially for poachers using poisoned arrows).

• Satao had “clean ears” – there were no cuts, tears or obvious scars, making him easily identifiable when he was alive and now that he is dead.

• The mud caked on his mutilated forehead and back was similar to that seen on him when he was alive.

• Since locating the carcass, several joint KWS / TSAVO TRUST reconnaissance flights have tried and failed to locate Satao in his known home range.

The facts all point to the same appalling conclusion and we are left with no choice but to acknowledge that the great Satao is no more.

THE ENORMITY OF THE TASK AT HAND

The area Satao frequented is a massive and hostile expanse for any single anti-poaching unit to cover, at least one thousand square kilometers in size. Roads and tracks are few and far between and in parts the vegetation is very thick, making access difficult. Elephants concentrate here in large numbers after the rains which come in from the coast. The communities living just beyond the National Park boundary persistently carry out illegal activities inside the Park in this area. Understaffed and with inadequate resources given the scale of the challenge, KWS ground units have a massive uphill struggle to protect wildlife in this area. There is a tremendous will amongst the KWS field units and the TSAVO TRUST personnel working alongside them to protect Tsavo’s elephant herds but more help is needed.

COOPERATION IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY

At times like this, it is hard to see any positive side to the situation. But let’s not forget that Satao’s genes survive out there, somewhere in the Tsavo elephant population and they too need protecting. Satao would have been at least 45 years old. During his lifetime he would have weathered many droughts and seen many other poached elephants, and he would have sired offspring that, given a safe environment to grow up in, may become tomorrow’s generation of great Tsavo tuskers.

We also wish to emphasize the level of cooperation and coordination between KWS and TSAVO TRUST that this incident proved. Without the regular joint KWS / TSAVO TRUST aerial reconnaissance of this section of the Park, Satao’s carcass may not have been found, and as a result KWS’s swift and successful follow-up may not have ensued. Following TSAVO TRUST’s report from the air, KWS ground units were immediately deployed. The KWS reaction was rapid and decisive, and is still ongoing. Due to the sensitivities of such operations and the risk of compromise, we cannot comment further on the progress being made. We hope to relay additional updates in due course.

Meanwhile, we applaud KWS’s success in arresting the main poison dealer and supplier in Kilifi, whose deadly product has been the cause of many painful and wasteful elephant deaths in Tsavo.

Working together – and often against the odds – we can continue to make a positive difference to Tsavo and to Tsavo’s elephants.

Tsavo is our home, our passion and our life’s work but, as the untimely death of Satao so tragically proves, we cannot win every time. Rest in peace, Old Friend, you will be missed. Rest assured the fight to protect Tsavo’s elephants goes on.

 

A Crushing Experience

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Watching — and listening to — a full-grown, adult elephant walk by is an incredible experience.  At five to six tons, an elephant makes almost no noise when strolling across open territory — a remarkable feat when you consider the crushing weight each step places upon whatever is underfoot. The elephant´s foot is formed in such a way that it is essentially walking on tiptoe, with a tough and fatty part of connective tissue for the sole. This spongy “shock absorber” helps an elephant to move silently.

It may also surprise you to know that the United States remains an enormous market for illegal elephant ivory.  The U.S. is second only to China in terms of the market for illegal wildlife products, such as rhino horn, tiger bone and ivory.  Later this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) plans to destroy its stockpile of ivory — six tons of ivory objects seized upon entry into the U.S. since the late 1980s when ivory trade was banned. Blaming increased demand for a devastating rise in poaching, largely by organized crime syndicates, the Administration wants to send a message of zero tolerance and reduce the appeal of illicit animal products.  (Click here for full story.)

Working with conservation organizations, the USFWS plans to crush the ivory, then use it to build memorials around the country against poaching. (Hopefully, they will mix the ivory with other materials like concrete so that the memorials aren’t prone to theft).  I am anxious to know more about the plans for such memorials as many Americans remain complacent about ivory and the plight of the elephants.  Too often, we are under the impression that this is a problem in Africa and Asia, but not here in the U.S.  Let this be a wake-up call that our markets are part of the problem, and inspire us to help crush the demand for ivory and the poaching that feeds that demand.

 

 

Crooked Tusks

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Tusks are teeth. Elephants and their ancestors developed these elongated incisors for a variety of reasons, from digging dirt for salt and water and pealing bark for food to establishing themselves as the dominant male in the presence of females.  Both male and female African elephants have tusks.  Among Asian elephants, only males develop tusks.  Tusks come in all shapes and sizes; and elephants tend to be either right-tusked or left-tusked, just as we humans are left- or right-handed.  Tusks become visible in young elephants when they are 2 to 3 years old and continue to grow for the remainder of an elephant’s life.  Elephants do not shed their tusks at various stages in life.  If a tusk is broken, it does not grow back.  Like our teeth, tusks can be crooked.  This elephant lives in Kenya’s Masai Mara.  Her one tusk is particularly crooked, but it doesn’t seem to get in the way of a healthy life.  Her young calf, below, is just “sprouting” tusks; too soon to tell if baby has inherited mama’s crooked teeth!

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And speaking of inherited traits, scientists have noted that the average size of elephant tusks has decreased since the 19th century.  Since elephants with the largest tusks have always been prized by hunters and poachers alike, those with the genetic disposition for large tusks have been substantially removed from the breeding population by now.  Some posit that nature may be playing a hand in today’s elephants’ smaller tusks in another way, suggesting that elephants are such intelligent creatures that large tusks may no longer be the aphrodisiac they once were for wise female elephants.

In any event, if you see ivory in any market, anywhere in the world today, you should assume that it is poached or “crooked” ivory, even if it grew in straight.  And to that end, there is now 5 tons less crooked ivory on the market as the Philippine government demolished that amount this past week.  (Click here for the details.)

Elephant Voices

An elephant that speaks Korean?  The New York Times reports  (click here)  there is a young male elephant (at the Everland Zoo in South Korea) that can speak Korean by putting his trunk in his mouth.  Alone for the first seven years of his life, his need to socialize was so great that he began to imitate certain words spoken by his handlers.

While learning or imitating human languages may be possible, the incredible ability elephants have to communicate with each other over great distances is even more remarkable.  Dr. Joyce Poole has been studying elephant communications for more than three decades.  Her organization, Elephant Voices, is an exceptional source of information on all aspects of how these creatures communicate with each other in a variety of situations.

Elephants in a herd recognize the “voice” of their fellow elephants, as well as the meaning of the sound made by that individual.  Some elephant sounds are two octaves below the level which humans can hear.  Such low sounds can travel great distances, up to several miles.  In savannah environments, during evening and morning temperature inversions, elephants can reportedly hear other elephants up to six miles or  10 kilometers away.  What’s more, an elephant can determine the location and distance of another elephant’s call.

Elephants produce an enormous range of sounds.  Poole reports:  “In normal human speech, the vibration rate may vary over a 2:1 ratio, in other words over one octave, while a singer’s voice may have a range of over two octaves. By contrast, the fundamental frequency within a single elephant call may vary over 4 octaves, starting with a rumble at 27 Hz and grading into a roar at 470 Hz! Including the harmonics elephant calls may contain frequencies ranging over more than 10 octaves, from a low of 5 Hz to a high of over 10,000 Hz. Imagine a musical composition with some operatic elephants!”  Click here to hear a few elephant voices and learn more!

Elephant Ears

Did you know that an African elephant’s ears are up to 1/6 the size of their entire body surface?  No wonder that their ears, along with their amazing trunk, are their signature physical feature.  Elephants have the ability to hear sounds at lower frequencies than many other mammals, including humans.  Able to emit low rumblings, they can communicate with each other over great distances.  But that has more to do with their head size and inner ear workings than the external ear’s size.

The ears play a more critical role in an elephant’s survival — regulating body temperature.  African and Asian elephants occupy some of the hottest habitats in the world.  If you look closely at an elephant’s ears, particularly on the back side, you will see  a distinct network of blood vessels.  As the ears are flapped or sprayed with water (compliments of the trunk), blood flowing through the ears is cooled and in turn cools the rest of the body as it flows throughout the elephant’s system. Scientists have determined that under normal conditions, ear-flapping is sufficient for 100% of the animal’s heat-loss requirements.  Asian elephants, who tend to live in forested areas rather than the savannah, have smaller ears as they are less exposed to the sun and, theoretically, less hot.

As an added bonus, each ear is distinct enough to help people who study elephants identify individuals.  Over an elephant’s lifetime, the edges of the ear accumulate tatters and tears, scars and wounds — all from everyday life in the bush.  In addition to these natural “piercings,” the pattern of the blood veins prominent in their ears is as unique to each elephant as fingerprints are to humans.  These distinguishing features facilitate our ability to study and better understand individual behavior.  So here’s to the ears!