World Elephant Day 2017

World Elephant Day, August 12, 2017.  This is the fifth World Elephant Day, a global event launched in 2012. This year numerous organizations dedicated to elephants are honoring this day in a range of  ways:  release of new studies, contests, fashion statements and fundraising.

The past five years have been no less than monumental for elephants.  2012 and 2013 were two of the worst years ever for elephant poaching.  Media coverage, NGO activities, celebrity activism, government cooperation and public outcry combined to put pressure on closing down ivory markets in Asia and elsewhere.  As a result, additional resources were put into “the field” to track down and prosecute poachers, China announced it would end the sales of ivory by the end of 2017, world awareness to the plight of elephants was advanced and the demand for ivory actually began to decrease.  Research increased and our understanding of elephant “hotspots” has improved immensely.

The crisis isn’t over and it’s important to keep the pressure on.  That should be our commitment this World Elephant Day.  The pressures on elephant habitat and wildlife-human conflict remain.  Much more must be done in order to ensure that future generations witness wild elephants and appreciate the importance of maintaining balance between all species that rely on earth’s resources.  Keep your commitment and spend some time on the links below that offer information and opportunities to do your part.

Reports:

ECF 2017 Mid Year Report Partner & Donor Version

Traffic/World Wildlife Fund Report on China’s Ivory Market

Traffic:  Reports on Elephant Ivory

Fundraising and Awareness:

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust “Say Hello in Elephant”

World Wildlife Fund:  Saving Asian Elephants

Wildlife Conservation Society

Every Elephant Counts Contest

Fashion:

The Elephant Pants

 

The good news, all feel every day is World Elephant Day

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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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.

 

 

Life Insurance

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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

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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.

 

Elephant Numerology

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On New Year’s Eve, in his address to the nation, President Kikwete of Tanzania  renewed his pledge to fight poaching, citing shocking new survey numbers:  the elephant population in the huge Selous Game Reserve fell to 13,084 in 2013 from 109,419 in 1976. And Tanzania is hardly alone.  Since 2002, the pan-African elephant population has declined by 76%.  According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, the killing continues at a rate of nearly 100 elephants a day . The “supply side” is dangerously dwindling.

There are no numbers to suggest demand is abating. The Elephant Tracking Information System (managed by TRAFFIC) reports: “illicit trade in ivory rose in 2011 to the highest levels in at least 16 years and persisted at unacceptably elevated levels through 2012. Preliminary indicators suggest that even higher levels of illicit trade may have been reached in 2013. Although incomplete, the raw data for large-scale ivory seizures in 2013 (involving at least 500 kg of ivory in a single transaction) already represent the greatest quantity of ivory confiscated over the last 25 years for this type of seizure.”

China accounts for 70% of the world’s ivory market.  On January 6, China made global news by crushing six tons of confiscated ivory — good news, but that represents only 13% of its total stockpile.  The U.S., the next largest market for ivory, crushed its entire stockpile this past November.  Yet it is still legal to sell ivory (“old ivory”) in both countries.

By any measure, these numbers tell a tale of destruction and duplicity — elephants are killed; their ivory is smuggled, enriching criminals; keystone countries express horror and outrage, and destroy the ivory for show while still permitting legal sale of the substance.  It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the possibility of change in China and the fact that momentum for outlawing the sale of ivory is growing.  For example, an article in China’s Southern Weekly publication about elephant poaching went viral, reaching over 10 million “netizens” from Tier 1 Chinese cities (Beijing, Chongqing, Guangdong), the most significant consumers of ivory. Research shows that “most” (between 60-70%) Chinese are unaware that an elephant is killed when sacrificing its tusks for trinkets. This media coverage resonated with the very people who are most likely to purchase ivory as a status symbol. Many Chinese, when presented with the facts, say the government should outlaw ivory sales.

In 2014, 100 million Chinese will travel overseas, comprising 75 percent of overseas travelers visiting Asia and Europe.  I’m willing to bet the bulk of the Chinese market for ivory is in that group. What an opportunity to expose them even more to the realities of the illegal ivory trade!  Now, to make those communications a reality . . .  to be continued

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.

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.)

A Lot of Bull

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Male elephants, called bull elephants, reach puberty around age 13, and leave the comfort of the breeding herd to head out on their own to propagate the species. Until recently, it was thought that they did not bond with other bull elephants once they left the highly communal breeding herd.  However, research conducted in Kenya and Namibia shows that many bulls have a “best friend” or hang out with a group of fellow bull elephants  (“How Male Elephants Bond”). The elephants in the photo above were certainly an example of male bonding.  I came upon them in Tanzania’s Serengeti on my recent trip, and watched the larger two engage in a friendship ritual for nearly an hour.  When two younger bulls joined them, they dialed up the level of  sparing, perhaps signalling the younger bulls to be respectful when in their presence.  Similar to the dynamic of a breeding herd, the more loosely-structured male groups have a hierarchy based on age and strength. It is logical to believe that younger bulls continue to learn from the older, more experienced bulls. While bull elephants go off on their own when entering musth — the highly agitated state a bull elephant enters when he is ready to mate — their isolation from other elephants is not as complete as many once thought. 

On another level of “a lot of bull,” writer Bryan Christy (author of National Geographic‘s highly acclaimed October 2012 cover story, “Blood Ivory“) writes on May 30:

“. . .In a recent poll conducted to supplement the National Geographic film Battle for the Elephants, 84 percent of Chinese middle class respondents said they intend to buy ivory in the future. They also said the number one reason they might stop buying ivory is if their government told them to stop. But the Chinese government is in the ivory business. It controls the country’s largest ivory carving factory as well as retail outlets. At a CITES meeting in Bangkok earlier this year, China’s delegate Wan Ziming of the State Forestry Administration (SFA) told CITES parties that ivory trafficking and elephant poaching were Africa’s problem, not China’s. He has condemned the ivory ban as ineffective, has pushed for more ivory sales to China, and has claimed it is reasonable to supply consumer countries with 200 tonnes of ivory a year.”  (click here for full report)

Any suggestion that China isn’t the single most important player in the ivory trade is just bull — and there seems to be a lot of that going around.  Christy opens his report by acknowledging the conviction of a major government-sanctioned ivory trader by the Chinese government.  However, he goes on to point out the many weaknesses in the CITES decisions that allow China to have a legal ivory market in the first place.  And that is no bull.

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!