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.

 

The Ivory Game

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Thursday, November 4, Netflix will premier on its service the award-winning documentary, The Ivory Game (link to full press kit).

The Ivory Game  (link to website) poses the dark world of ivory trafficking.  In the past 100 years, the elephant population has plummeted 97%.   The Ivory Game dramatically portrays the fact that we are facing a potential crisis of extinction — an extinction that is totally human-induced.  Award-winning director Richard Ladkani and Academy Award® nominated director Kief Davidson filmed undercover for 16 months infiltrating and documenting the deep-rooted corruption at the heart of the global ivory trafficking crisis.  The production also features the people who are doing the most to keep this extinction from happening.

The Netflix Original Documentary is a production of Red Bull’s Terra Mater Film Studios and Microsoft co‐founder Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Productions in association with Malaika Pictures and Appian Way, with Leonardo DiCaprio as Executive Producer.

Living Dinosaurs

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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.

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Elephants Forever Reached 102 Countries in 2015

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Word Press just sent me the annual report on the Elephants Forever site and thanks to all of you, we had 5,100 visitors in 2015 from a total of 102 countries!  On the map above, only the countries in white did not produce a visitor.  Our message is getting out!  Please continue to “like” Elephants Forever in  2016 and send links to the blog to others in and outside your social networks.  Such amazing reach with relatively little effort. I thank you, the elephants thank you, everyone involved in stopping the trade in ivory thanks you.

If the weather has you housebound this weekend and you have access to the Outdoor Channel, click here to see airing times this Friday and Saturday (January 8 and 9) for “White Gold” — Ivan Carter’s report on ivory poaching in southern Africa.  See how poaching has spread to Mozambique and into South Africa.  The challenge before us remains large and requires a global response!

New Year’s Greetings

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Nothing like a new year to reflect, reboot,  recommit and resolve!

From the elephants’ point of view, 2015 was a better year than recent years.  While poaching remains at a critical level, with more elephants dying than being born each year, progress was made on a number of fronts.  The price of ivory actually declined, while an increase in confiscations took more “product” out of the marketplace.  The coincidence of the two may appear counter intuitive (e.g., less product theoretically would raise prices) but perhaps demand for ivory finished products is finally declining and the supply chain just hasn’t caught up with that reality.  High profile campaigns by celebrities, NGOs and media outlets seem to have broken through the sound barrier, resulting in major political and policy efforts to shut down the trade in ivory.

Looking back, here are some month-by-month highlights of ivory politics:

January:  Release of “The Last Days of Ivory” short film and campaign by award-winning producer Kathryn Bigelow and WildAid

February:  China announces a one-year ban on the import of ivory carvings for one year

March:  Britain’s Prince William calls for an end to all trade in ivory during a visit to China

April:  Singer Billy Joel and the Wildlife Conservation Society release a new video to raise awareness of elephant poaching

May:  Chinese government announces that it plans to shut down all domestic trade in ivory

June:  DNA from elephant tusks reveals poaching routes

July: UN adopts resolution on wildlife trafficking

August:  U.S. announces unprecedented coalition to fight wildlife trafficking

September:  U.S. and China agree to halt ivory trade

October:  California passes ban on ivory sales

November:  African countries demand total ban on international ivory trade

December:  Hong Kong legislature passes motion calling for smuggling crackdown

Just one year ago, these collective accomplishments would have been unimaginable. However impressive though, they are but a beginning not an end.  2016 is the year to build upon 2015’s achievements and turn “plans” and “intentions” into real, meaningful action.  We talked the talk in 2015, now we have to walk the walk in 2016.  Put another way, we were given tools in 2015, we must use them in 2016.  Happy New Year to all!

Cures for Cancers

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Did you know that elephants rarely get cancer?  For some time, scientists have been studying the incidence of cancer in various animals and have been baffled by the absence of cancer in African and Asian elephants.  Recently, two independent research efforts have uncovered the reason for this.  In simple terms, most species have a gene, TP53 (known as the “guardian of the genome”), which attacks damaged genes and keeps them from replicating.  Cancer is an example of damaged genes growing, causing tumors and infecting large areas of their host, human or otherwise.  Elephants, as it turns out, have 20 copies of this gene whereas humans have one copy.  Researchers believe that this unusual abundance of TP53 is responsible for the resistance elephants have to cancer.  Now, they are examining ways in which elephant DNA may be introduced into humans to help our species be more resistant to cancer.  For a more detailed description of this research, click here.  (The full scientific report is 028522.full.)

Cancer comes in many forms.  All of us are familiar with its devastating effect. The slaughter of hundreds of thousands of elephants for their ivory is a form of social cancer that has spread across all of Africa and parts of Asia.  This week’s carnage in Paris is symbolic of another virulent social cancer — terrorism — a disease which has destroyed not only lives but also the quality of life for millions of people.

We seem to be at a crossroads in our global society regarding how to value life.  Terrorists, be they criminal networks responsible for wildlife trafficking or radical malcontents responsible for the death and displacement of millions, have one thing in common — they value their own selfish interests over the value of life, human, elephant or otherwise.  The great majority of us want to find solutions, but feel helpless, frustrated and often discouraged.

Put in this context, the solution to elephant poaching is fairly straight forward:  end the demand for ivory trinkets and the terrorists (those who kill animals illegally are indeed terrorists) will go elsewhere to fund their greed and warped agendas.  Killing all the poachers won’t end it; arresting all the existing traffickers won’t end it.  Others will replace them as long as there is a market for it.  So ending this war could be almost bloodless.

The terrorism of ISIL, Al Qaeda and others is less straight forward and will almost necessarily be bloody.  But killing won’t erase the roots of the rise of this terrorism.  We need fundamental changes in economies, tolerance and political policy before we can even begin to combat this terrorism. This will take some time and very wise, brave and open minded leaders — in many countries — before Paris 11/13, US 9/11, and all the other unconscionable acts of terrorism become less and less likely.  Perhaps elephant DNA will find its way into our bloodstream first.  In any event, let us all pray for less violence against all species on this planet we share.

 

 

Giants’ Steps

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Did you know that the largest land mammal — the multi-ton elephant — can walk by you in such silence that you may not even know they are present unless you see them?  If they do break silence, it is with the sound of their eating process or the occasional trumpet or squeal to communicate.  You won’t hear their footstep in open grassland.  The padding on their large feet cushions their step to the degree that they are able to cross great distances in relative silence.

And so it goes sometimes with the biggest news concerning elephants — if you rely on the mainstream media for all your information, you may have missed hearing the very good news in the fight against the illegal ivory trade.

This past week, when Presidents Obama and Xi Jinjang met in Washington, DC, they agreed to halt the commercial ivory trade in the U.S. and China.  The official fact sheet on their meeting states:  “The United States and China, recognizing the importance and urgency of combating wildlife trafficking, commit to take positive measures to address this global challenge.  The United States and China commit to enact nearly complete bans on ivory import and export, including significant and timely restrictions on the import of ivory as hunting trophies, and to take significant and timely steps to halt the domestic commercial trade of ivory.  The two sides decided to further cooperate in joint training, technical exchanges, information sharing, and public education on combating wildlife trafficking, and enhance international law enforcement cooperation in this field.  The United States and China decided to cooperate with other nations in a comprehensive effort to combat wildlife trafficking. “

This is huge — a giant step by giant nations for a giant animal and megafauna species.  China and the United States are the two largest economies and markets for ivory in the world.  Their commitment to end the market for ivory is essential for ultimately realizing this goal. We can now move beyond finger pointing and on to collaboration.  Ending demand for ivory won’t happen overnight; and it won’t happen without tackling monumental obstacles such as the entrenched, criminal groups that sponsor poaching and the movement of ivory from Africa to the carving factories of Asia.  Nevertheless, the combined commitment of these two giant nations moves us much closer to overcoming these obstacles.

We must keep the pressure on and keep funding the programs that are making a meaningful difference on the ground in Africa and Asia where elephants still live in the wild.  To that end, here is a fun way to help:  take a safari!  The Bodhi Tree Foundation has worked with some leading safari operators to produce eight different safari itineraries.  Ten percent of the proceeds from each safari will be contributed an affiliated elephant conservation project each respective country.  The program, S.A.F.E (Safeguard the Future for Africa’s Elephants), sponsors projects in Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Uganda, Tanzania, Cambodia and Thailand — all wildlife treasure chests where you can experience a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with elephants and scores of other wildlife.  If a safari isn’t in your near future, you can also contributed directly to these projects, which the Bodhi Tree Foundation has carefully vetted.  The projects focus on countering the forces elephants face today: poaching, habitat loss, human-elephant conflict and lack of vital rehabilitation and veterinary care.  Any amount you contribute will make a difference as 100% of your donation goes directly to the project of your choice.

Remember, baby steps are just as important as giant steps when taking on a challenge as big as this one!

Technology, Tusks and Terrorists

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The cover story of National Geographic’s September issue is entitled “Tracking Ivory.”  A companion piece,  “Warlords of Ivory,” aired last night on the National Geographic TV channel. Both cover the bold effort reporter Bryan Christy and National Geographic have undertaken to prove the link between ivory poaching and terrorism.  In a gripping report, we see the creation of a “fake” tusk impregnated with a GPS tracking device which Christy himself carries to Africa, the surreptitious  planting of the tusk in the northern, wartorn area of Congo and the subsequent path the tusk takes through Congo, CAR and Sudan until it reaches the nexus of LRA warlord Joseph Kony and the government of Sudan.

That ivory has been used to fund various terrorist groups is not news; however this evidence make indisputable the trade route between the elephant killing grounds of central Africa and the marketplace where two international criminals — Kony and al-Bashir — trade ivory for arms.  The human and wildlife devastation along the way is unspeakable.  Some of the sources interviewed by Christy are former soldiers of the Lords Resistance Army.  They have seen so much human destruction that they wonder why this western reporter is more interested in how many elephants were slaughtered.  The human body count and psychological damage is by orders of magnitude greater than that of the elephant community. The fact that the elephant population is moving towards extinction seems momentarily incidental.  The segment airs again on September 6 and I recommend you tune in.

 

Happy World Elephant Day!

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What have you done for the elephants today?

There is still time to act, if not today, then tomorrow or the next.  But don’t put it off for too long.  Your voice is needed now to continue the momentum that is building around the world.

Sign a petition sponsored by the groups listed below, write your legislators, join a cause, donate to one of the organizations listed to the right under “Bookmarks.”

Go to the following sites and make your voice heard:

WildAid

Wildlife Conservation Society

 African Wildlife Foundation

World Wildlife Foundation

iworry (The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust)

Save the Elephants

Care2

U.S. Wildlife Trafficking Alliance

If we all act, and continue to support the work these organizations are doing, we will always have live elephants to celebrate! Otherwise, in ten years World Elephant Day may be an unhappy occasion to mourn extinction, something none of us want.

If you still need convincing, go to “In the News” for the latest on how serious the situation is and actions governments, NGOs and the private sector are taking.

 

Cecil’s Legacy

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The outrage over the murder of Zimbabwe’s most famous lion, Cecil, by an American dentist is sparking renewed pledges to “do something” about illegal wildlife trafficking.  As it should.  And not a moment too late.  The extensive news coverage is reminding people that lions, like elephants, are a species under threat.  In the 1980s, there were an estimated 100,000 lions across the continent of Africa (down from half a million in 1940).  In the 1990s, only 50,000 lions remained.  Since then, the population has declined another 30%, with possibly only 20,000 lions remaining.

The causes are several-fold:  diminishing habitat due to human population growth; poaching as well as trophy hunting; disease; declining food sources outside of national parks; and a weakened gene pool where populations are the most under stress.  To the tourist, it is deceiving when visiting national parks in Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, Zambia and Tanzania, as lions seem plentiful, which they are in these protected areas. But a specie’s health cannot be evaluated based on narrowly defined geographies.  The lion is listed as “vulnerable” to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The African elephant is also  listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN.  Together, the lion and elephant are universal icons of Africa.  Thousands of people venture to the big game countries annually to see these noble and iconic animals.  Already Zimbabwe officials are reporting a significant drop in tourism in Hwange, the national park where Cecil resided before being lured out of the park and killed.  According to USA Today, “many international tourists that were set to visit the country to see Cecil have canceled their trips.” This drop will hurt wildlife protection programs that are dependent upon tourist dollars.  The report goes on to say, “Conservationists fear Cecil’s death could lead to the deaths of other lions in the pride. ‘The saddest part of all is that the next lion in the hierarchy, Jericho, will most likely kill all Cecil’s cubs so that he can introduce his bloodline into the females,’ said Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force Chairman Johnny Rodrigues. ‘This is the standard procedure for lions.'”   On a happy note, since that report earlier today, scientists studying this pride have observed that Cecil’s brother is protecting the cubs from Jericho.

While the nature of Cecil’s death is truly appalling, let us not forget that everyday, nearly 100 elephants are brutally and indiscriminately murdered for their ivory — an average of one death every fifteen minutes.  We should feel that same level of outrage every day, and continue to recommit to ending this inhumane slaughter of African nations’ national treasures.  Cecil’s death should not be in vain.  Channel your anger into support for organizations committed to fighting wildlife trafficking as well as resolving human-wildlife conflict.  Go to the “Experts” page to see a list of these organizations and links to their sites.  Stay angry on behalf of Cecil and the elephants. And if you have plans to go to Hwange in Zimbabwe, don’t cancel your plans.  Cecil’s family is counting on you.