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.

 

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!

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.

 

The Elephant and the Tourist

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Last Friday, the U.S. government issued a travel warning for Americans who are planning to travel to Kenya and for those who live in Kenya (click here).  On Sunday, Kenya’s Interior Minister responded, calling the warning “unnecessary and unfriendly. . .” (click here).  Both points of view have merit — our government, albeit overly protective, exercises its obligation to protect American citizens, and the Kenyan government believes one reason for the Westgate Mall terrorist attack is its friendly relationship with the U.S. and that this is no time for its “friend” to withdraw support.  

Travel warnings come with the territory when going almost anywhere in Africa.  It is incumbent upon all travelers to be informed about risks and to take necessary precautions.  Travel for tourism is a discretionary activity; it is up to each individual to decide his or her tolerance for different kinds of risk.  In this case, I would not cancel plans to go to Kenya.  In spite of the “wild animals,” being in a game park with a legitimate guide/tour operator is a very safe activity.  Avoid the cities and areas where tribal or rebel conflict is occurring, but don’t avoid the game parks.  Not only will you be depriving yourself of one of life’s great experiences, but you will also inadvertently be reducing the safety net tourism provides animals from the brand of terror they know — poaching.

Throughout East and Southern Africa, tourism has helped to fund better park management, private and government-sponsored anti-poaching rangers, and general conservation projects.  In addition, local people gain employment and respect the role wildlife plays in their economic betterment and tourists go home with a realistic  understanding of wildlife and human issues in the countries they visit, making them better global citizens. 

In the case of elephants, tourism is enormously important, particularly in East Africa.  Great strides have been made in Kenya in elephant research, patrolling efforts, conservation and education.  All these efforts (in both private and public sectors) depend to a large degree on revenue from tourism.  We can ill-afford to have these programs go un- or underfunded when poaching is at an all time high.  I have had longstanding plans to be in Kenya next June to attend a wildlife symposium and to go on safari.  Have not considered changing those plans even for a nanosecond.  I know the elephants are looking forward to my visit!

Meanwhile, remember tomorrow is the International March for Elephants in 15 cities around the world (click here).  Nairobi is home to the organizers and was scheduled to host one of the 15 marches. That march has fallen victim to the acts of terror, as Nairobi continues to mourn and recover.  The website states:  Please note – due to recent events which took place in Nairobi from 21/09 – 24/09 we have decided to cancel the International March for Elephants in Nairobi. We will hold a vigil for those who so tragically lost their lives in the attacks and also for the elephants who continue to fall victim to the ivory trade. This will be held on the day of the March October 4th at the Nairobi Nursery. More info at: www.dswt.org

 

On Safari

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Off to visit the elephants in South Africa (above), Botswana and Republic of Congo.  Kruger National Park in South Africa boasts the largest Tuskers on the continent; Botswana has the largest herds and Republic of Congo has the forest elephant, which has been under ferocious assault by poachers.  I cannot wait to see them all.  No blog entries while I am gone but lots to share when I return in early September.

Battle for the Elephants

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I have returned from a wonderful trip to Kenya and Tanzania just in time to view National Geographic‘s latest special:  Battle for the Elephants.  This is must see television for everyone who cares about the plight of elephants in particular and all coveted wildlife species in general.

Filmed in Africa (home to most of the world’s remaining wild elephant populations) and China (the world’s largest market for items carved from ivory), the hour-long special airs tomorrow night (2/27/13) on local PBS channels at 9 PM EST in the US.

The film tells the ultimate wildlife story — how the Earth’s most charismatic and majestic land animal today faces market forces driving the value of its tusks to levels once reserved for precious metals. Journalists Bryan Christy and Aidan Hartley take viewers undercover as they investigate the criminal network behind ivory’s supply and demand. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, one of the world’s main ports for smuggled ivory, Hartley poses as an ivory buyer and uses hidden cameras to film poachers negotiating the sale of large quantities of tusks. In China, Christy explores the thriving industry of luxury goods made from ivory and the ancient cultural tradition of ivory carving.

In the coming weeks, I will be sharing more about my recent trip.  Everything I heard and witnessed confirms the premise of Elephants Forever; that is, the only long-term solution to poaching and the illegal ivory trade is to dry up demand for elephant products.  Doing this will require multifaceted education and communications campaigns directed to markets where the demand for ivory is greatest; e.g., China and other parts of Asia.  Interestingly,  I encountered more Asian tourists (primarily from China) in both Kenya and Tanzania than visitors from any other parts of the world.  We can only hope that this direct exposure to African wildlife will help build an informed constituency for elephants and other wildlife “back home.”  And, let’s hope the tour operators for Asian  visitors to Africa are not including shopping for ivory, albeit unofficially, as part of their packages.  Stay tuned. . . and please watch “Battle for the Elephants.”

On Safari

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In just four hours, I will be on a plane to Kenya.  It doesn’t get any better than this.  Plans include the Masaai Mara and Amboseli in Kenya and Lake Manyara, Ngorogoro Crater and the Serengeti in Tanzania.  Along the way, I’ll be meeting with some of the leaders in conservation. Will have much to share when I return in three weeks.  Meanwhile, I’ve scheduled reprises of some older posts many of you may not have seen as their message is evergreen.  My first elephant “sighting” will be Thursday, January 31 at the Sheldrick orphanage in Nairobi.  What a way to kick off a safari.  Happy thoughts to all!