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?

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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.

 

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.

 

Where the Elephants Are

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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.