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.

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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Join the Herd on World Wildlife Day

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Tomorrow, March 3, is World Wildlife Day. Established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2013, the purpose of World Wildlife Day is to build awareness of and develop solutions to threats to wildlife at the local and global levels. This year, the theme is: “The future of wildlife is in our hands.” African and Asian elephants will be a main focus of the Day under the theme “The future of elephants is in our hands.”

Awareness of the plight of the elephant is much higher today than a year ago.  But the poaching crisis continues.  Check this site tomorrow to see who the winners are in the International Elephant Film Festival.  Also, WildAid has declared 2016 “The Year of the Elephant” to continue the increase in awareness with the hope that 2016 will be the first year in a while that more elephants are born than killed, a key goal in stopping the path to extinction.  Join the Herd is a communications effort sponsored by WildAid  toward that goal. Do your part by joining the herd (it’s free and fun) and by supporting those organizations that are making a true difference.

And remember, all this will work only if we make every day about holding the future of elephants in our hands.

 

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!

Happy Holidays

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I’m celebrating the holidays with carpal tunnel surgery tomorrow so this will be the last posting for this year!  Meanwhile, check out the four programs listed below for great programs you may want to support during this holiday season.

iWorry” by The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Space for Giants” Campaign by The Independent

“96 Elephants” by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)

Elephant Crisis Fund” by Save The Elephants

For news on elephants, check “In the News” section of http://www.elephantsforever.net and “A Voice for Elephants” by National Geographic.

Wishing happy holidays to all and hoping 2014 brings more support for the elephants.

The Intelligent Gift of Knowledge

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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.

The Soul of Giving

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It’s “Giving Tuesday.”  Following Black Friday and Cyber Monday, we return to the spirit of the season, giving thanks, celebrating that which nourishes our souls and opening our hearts and wallets for those we love as well as those who need our help.

As you make your gift lists, remember the elephants and the wonderful organizations who are truly making a difference on their behalf.  Check “Experts” for a list of those organizations.

If elephants had credit cards and access to the Internet, they too would probably partake in holiday gift giving.  Elephants possess an innate feeling for each other, well-documented, cradle-to-grave behavior  —  from the care of a newborn to the mourning of a  lost one.

Earlier this year, The New Atlantis, a journal of technology and society, published an article,  “Do Elephants Have Souls?”.  While lengthy and scholarly, the article contains a wealth of information on elephant behavior, from fact to “elephantasies.”    Or, if you find that article too dense to finish, read this link about the tribute elephants paid to conservationist Lawrence Anthony when he died Spring 2012.  This story will make you believe!  It is worth considering what is it about the elephant that has so drawn humans to it, from the dawn of civilization.

We are concluding another dreadful year for elephant populations and, some might say, elephant souls.  Please take some time to appreciate what special creatures elephants are and pledge some of your giving to their future.