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?

boswell

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.

 

Living Dinosaurs

_I1A4155 copy

Could elephants really become extinct in our lifetimes?  Media coverage is now referring to elephants as “living dinosaurs.”  An oxymoron? Not really. More of a prediction.

A grim future for elephants is suggested when we take a long term look at what has happened over the passed 600 years, using information from the recently released Great Elephant Census:

1500:  Around 26 million elephants are estimated to roam the African continent when Europeans began exploring there.

1900:  In 400 years, the population has been reduced to about 10 million due to aggressive trophy hunting and the ivory trade.  The US consumes 200 tons of ivory a year.

1950s:  250 elephants are killed each day to satisfy demand for ivory.

1979:  Elephants are listed as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act in the US; internationally, CITES is to regulate ivory trade. Ian Douglas Hamilton conducts first pan-African survey, estimating the elephant population at 1.3 million.

1989:  Elephant population halved over last decade with 600,000 remaining.  CITES lists the African elephant on Appendix I, creating a ban on the international trade of ivory.

1990s:  Elephant populations in East Africa begin to recover.

1999:  CITES approves a “one time” sale of ivory from Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe ivory stockpiles to Japan. A second sale to China and Japan is permitted in 2008.

2007:  CITES implement 9 year moratorium on ivory sales from stockpiles as the increasing demand for ivory is not satisfied by these sales and leads to dramatic increase in poaching.

2016:  Death rate is one elephant every 15 minutes. Great Elephant Census shows elephant populations at 352,000, down 30% from 2007.

The calculus of this population decline is unassailable.  We will not have healthy, sustainable elephant populations in the wild in our lifetimes if the demand for ivory is not shut down. And, yes, like the dinosaurs who once walked this earth, our present-day largest land mammal could also become extinct.

Thank you to the Great Elephant Census , a partnership between Paul Allen and Vulcan, who provided the funding, Elephants Without Borders, African Parks, Wildlife Conservation Society, TheNature Conservancy, Frankfurt Zoological Society and the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group.

bleak-future

Must the Past be Prologue?

_MG_1487 painting copy

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.

 

 

 

Life Insurance

_I1A8523 copy

The African elephant’s natural life span in the wild is up to 70 years.  The median age is 56, meaning that half die before 56 and half live to be older than 56.  These statistics, however, assume no human intervention.  The poaching crisis has altered the metrics of wild elephants in many ways, none of them good.  Studies of female elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli Park between 1960 and 2005 estimate their median age to be 36, a good 20 years shy of the natural median age.  While Amboseli suffered a devastating drought in the late “aughts,” poaching has been virulent for the life of the study and is largely responsible for the shortened life span of these elephants.

Worse yet, the impact on longevity goes far beyond the body count from poaching.  The elephants with the longest tusks are the oldest, most experienced and most blessed genetically.  Poaching has robbed Africa of most of its big tuskers, and with them, their contribution to the gene pool and knowledge banks of the herds, particularly in the case of the matriarchs who lead the breeding herds.  This raises the risk for those who survive and the yet-to-be-conceived.  Much like a dysfunctional human family, a herd without the wisdom and leadership of the older females will not learn behaviors they need to survive and contribute positively to their pachyderm community.  For example, young female elephants learn nurturing skills from their mothers and aunties.  Should they give birth absent their 20 years of motherhood apprenticeship, they will not know how to react to their newborn or give it the intensive care the baby requires.  And, any baby elephant younger than two cannot survive without its mother.  Without the elders’ memory, herds will not know where to migrate to during droughts.  The stress level of elephants in groups lacking good leadership is much greater; behavior is erratic and sometimes belligerent.  The dysfunction of elephant groups that have lost their elders could accelerate the  decline of elephant populations just as surely as the poachers bullet has been doing.

The young elephant in the photo above is a lucky guy, with a doting mother, lots of aunts and cousins.  Without poaching, he has a good chance of living well beyond 56.  But how can we help insure he has this opportunity?

The best life insurance policy for all elephants would be to eliminate the demand for ivory.  Much attention is deservedly paid to the role of the Chinese is driving demand.  Yet, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the US is the #2 market for ivory.  President Obama announced plans for upping US involvement in fighting poaching and reducing demand, including a ban on most commercial sales of ivory in the United States (USFWS fact sheet on the ivory ban).

Like much of the federal budget, the appropriations to implement these actions are being held hostage to special interests and congressional dysfunction.  If you are inclined to get involved politically, here is an excerpt from a Wildlife Conservation Society mailing I received that may help you compose a communication to your elected representatives:

I’m writing to you as a constituent and supporter of the Wildlife Conservation Society to ask you to help save elephants from extinction. Please oppose any appropriations riders that would interfere with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) efforts to strengthen controls on the commercial trade in elephant ivory. Riders, like Section 115 of H.R. 5171, would prematurely stop a regulatory process that will consider public comments prior to finalizing any rule changes. It would also result in a return to prior regulations that were fraught with uncertainty for buyers, sellers, and enforcement agents.

An estimated 35,000 African elephants are killed by poachers each year for their ivory. At this rate, African elephants will be wiped out across large areas of their range within our lifetime. Individual elephant tusks can sell for tens of thousands of dollars, and reports indicate that the substantial portions of these illegal profits are ending up in the hands of transnational organized crime syndicates that also conduct trafficking of humans, drugs and weapons and extremist groups like Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and al Shabaab that use the proceeds to finance human rights abuses and terrorist activities.

And attach the short video from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, WILD: Saving Africa’s Elephants.  This says it all. Let’s do everything we can to help elephant communities not only survive, but also thrive.

 

The Fate of the Forest Elephant

1Y7C7279 copy

I wrote about the forest elephant in September upon my return from the Republic of Congo. The thrill of seeing these secretive creatures notwithstanding, our visit was overshadowed in spirit by descriptions of twin evils plaguing the elephant populations:  commerce and war.

Odzala-Kokoua National Park is as remote as a national park can be.  The primary and sole “highway” in the region is a pitted, dirt (or mud, depending upon the season), single lane road that connects Congo to neighboring Gabon. Most of the park is accessible only by foot, and even that is near impossible in many areas.  Impenetrable and remote — this should be fairly secure habitat for all creatures.  But commerce is intruding, and the Chinese are the primary drivers.  As they are doing in many African countries, the Chinese offer to build roads as a goodwill gesture if they are permitted to harvest minerals and in this case timber. The “highway” is being paved by Chinese workers. The lumber is being harvested by Chinese workers. While improved roads are generally a “good thing,” increased accessibility to isolated elephants helps poachers as well.  The lumber operations will also reduce habitat.

The impact is already being felt. A recent CNN Report reveals how Chinese construction camps are proving to be conduits to the ivory trade.  Chinese workers are suspected of poaching elephants and using the cover of their legitimate lumbering operations to transport the ivory out.  The meager law enforcement establishment is no match for the size and scope of the Chinese presence.  Tourism to the region is in its infancy; the poor and sparse local population has yet to appreciate what economic benefits their wildlife resources may produce as new safari camps are opened. Neighboring Gabon has lost 80% of its elephant population; Congo beckons to the poachers.

Just north of Republic of Congo is the war-torn, impoverished Central African Republic.  CAR is home to Dzanga Bai, the most famous and prolific Bai in the Congo Basin.  A large open, wetland, as in the photo above, the Bai is the social center for an abundance of wildlife.  This is where the most important research on the forest elephant is taking place. Andrea Turkalo, a scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, has been studying elephants at Dzanga for two decades and is widely regarded as the world’s leading expert in their behavior. In a recent interview, she described how the war in CAR forced her to leave her research post last spring. The insurgents have used poaching to fund their weapons.  While private interests have stepped in to guard Dzanga Bai, the rest of the area is completely unprotected.  It is not yet safe for her to return.

The Congo Basin region hosts all remaining forest elephants, perhaps 70,000.  It is a complicated part of the world and unlikely to become any less complicated in our lifetime.  The only hope for the forest elephant is a collapse of the market for ivory.

 

The Intelligent Gift of Knowledge

_MG_0033-Edit copy

Elephants are among the most intelligent creatures in the “animal world.”  Some of their most remarkable acts of intelligence include empathy; highly complex social structures; the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror; long memories of migratory routes and the behaviors of other species; and the ability to be taught.  Their level of intelligence enables them to be knowledgeable — to know how to handle various situations, make decisions, and communicate among the herd.  Elephants even know which branches to seek out if their tummy is upset.

Human intelligence was demonstrated earlier this week at summit held in Gaborone, Botswana, hosted by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and the government of Botswana. Representatives from 30 countries that are critical in deciding the fate of elephants participated:  key African elephant range states including Gabon, Kenya, Niger and Zambia and ivory transit states Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia, and ivory destination states, including China and Thailand.  The Associated Press reports:

“One of the 14 measures the delegates committed to involves classifying wildlife trafficking as a “serious crime.” According to the IUCN, this will unlock international law enforcement co-operation provided under the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, including mutual legal assistance, asset seizure and forfeiture, extradition and other tools to hold criminals accountable for wildlife crime. Other measures agreed upon include engaging communities living with elephants in their conservation, strengthening national laws to secure maximum wildlife crime sentences, mobilizing financial and technical resources to combat wildlife crime and reducing demand for illegal ivory.”  (click here and here for full story)

Helping to create a world in which elephants and humans can co-exist comfortably requires knowledge that we humans do not yet possess. Critical to these efforts is better knowledge on elephant populations and locations.  Elephants Without Borders, a Botswana-based conservation group, has the skill set to do a Pan-African survey of elephant populations, but not the means or equipment.  Enter Microsoft co-founder and eco-philanthropist, Paul Allen.  During the Summit, Allen committed $8 million to fund such a survey, including the three airplanes and two helicopters required by EWB scientists.  The donation will enable the survey to be conducted during the 2014 dry season across all 13 elephant range countries. (click here for full story)

This gift of knowledge increases the chances of success for all programs directed toward helping elephants survive, whether related to habitat, policing, prosecuting or education.  The noise level is increasing, and not a moment too soon.  Elephants are currently being killed faster than they can breed.  And there is nothing intelligent about that.

Where the Elephants Are

1Y7C3703-Edit-2 copy

Since 1979, Africa’s wild elephant population has been slashed by about 75%.  Many experts believe that the current poaching rate will leave Africa without any wild elephants by 2025. Those grim statistics would suggest that it is no longer possible to see enormous herds of elephants such as those photographed by Peter Beard in 1976 near Tsavo National Park in Kenya (click here).

The plague of poaching however is not evenly spread across Africa.  Southern Africa has, for the most part, been spared the ravages of poaching with respect to its elephants (but not, sadly, with respect to its rhino population).  In Botswana and Zimbabwe in particular, it is still possible to encounter groups of elephants with several hundred or more animals.  This past August, we found the Savute Marsh in northern Botswana inundated with elephants (pictured above), as far as the eye could see, best estimates being around 800.  The elephant population in this region is mobile, moving freely about riparian areas where Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and  Zimbabwe converge.  Historically, elephants migrated across an even larger area, allowing the habitat to replenish itself in between elephant visitations.  In the 20th Century, civil wars in the region took a toll on elephant populations and many ceased to migrate, congregating along the Chobe River in Botswana, which remained stable throughout.  Now that peace has been realized, the elephants roam more widely, but many return to Botswana at various times of the year or when water is short.

elephant paradiseNeighboring Zimbabwe also has large elephant populations, particularly in and around Hwange National Park, which borders the Chobe area of Botswana.  But now a new form of poaching, more deadly to the ecosystem than ever, has been discovered in Hwange.  In July, rangers discovered about 90 dead elephants, whose tusks has been removed.  Not only were the elephants dead, but so were the vultures, hyenas and lions who fed on their corpses and other animals who drank from the same waterholes.  Forensic analysis showed that cyanide had been used to poison the elephants by poachers; thus, impacting the entire food chain in the area.  Since then more victims have been discovered, bringing the elephant death toll to at least 300 (click here for report). Tom Milliken, program leader for the Elephant and Rhino Traffic network, claims: “This is the largest massacre of elephant in this part of the world for the last 25 years.”

Just when I thought there might be one elephant paradise left on earth, a nefarious ploy by poachers that threatens all wildlife presents itself.  Could all of Africa’s wildlife now be threatened just because humans want ivory trinkets? This definitely raises the threat level.