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.

The Beginning of the End

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Sunrise or sunset?  Beginning or end?  As one year comes to a close and another opens, it is natural to assess where we are and where we are going.

For the elephants, the end of 2016 comes with an announcement by China that it will close its ivory market in 2017. Here is the partial post from WildAid’s website:

The end of the world’s largest ivory market was announced today by the Chinese government as it released a detailed timetable for ending its legal ivory trade. Domestic ivory sales will be banned by the end of 2017 with the first batch of factories and traders to close their business by 31 March 2017.

Last year, President Xi Jinping made a public commitment to phasing-out the ivory trade, which may be falling out of favor with Chinese consumers. A recent survey by the conservation group Save the Elephants reported that ivory prices in eight mainland Chinese cities had fallen by half in a two-year period ending December 2015. Anecdotal evidence gathered by WildAid campaigners in China indicates prices may have decreased further this year: Market inquiries in May 2016 found raw ivory prices of around $450 to $900, representing a decrease of 57% to 78% compared with a2014 high of $2,100 per kilogram in mainland China. A ban was first proposed to the National People’s Congress by former NBA star, Yao Ming, who also led documentaries on ivory trade for state broadcaster CCTV in partnership with WildAid.

WildAid CEO Peter Knights said, “China’s exit from the ivory trade is the greatest single step that could be taken to reduce poaching for elephants. We thank President Xi for his leadership and congratulate the State Forestry Administration for this timely plan. We will continue to support their efforts through education and persuading consumers not to buy ivory.”

With China’s announcement, international attention is now shifting to Japan, which voted against all CITES proposals to protect elephants and has insisted its trade is not tainted by illegal ivory. However, a recent report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) found that the nation’s elephant tusk registration system widely allows for poached tusks smuggled from Africa to be sold legally in the domestic market.

While this won’t stop poaching overnight, it is the most significant step in dampening the global market for ivory to date.  We can only hope that the other Asian governments with significant ivory markets will follow suit.

2016 has been a landmark year for recognition of the devastating impact the demand for ivory has had on elephant populations.  Prior to the announcement by China that it would be closing its markets for ivory, the US adopted regulations to do the same in the US.  The first-ever, methodical, continent-wide count of elephants was completed, and  the results of The Great Elephant Census were announced at the end of August.  Confirming our worst suspicions, elephant populations had plummeted to approximately 350,000 in Africa, down 30% from 2007.  At the beginning of 1900, there were roughly 10 million elephants in Africa.

2017 could, therefore, be the watershed year for the African elephants.  On one hand, China’s move could inspire other countries to follow suit and we could truly see the evaporation of demand for ivory.  Conversely, the black market could be sufficiently established that the situation worsens, in that continued, illegal demand for ivory forces the prices even higher.  The former would reduce poaching; the latter, would accelerate the elimination of elephants from the African ecosystem.

Never has it been more important to advocate the end of ivory markets.  Any chance of having elephants in the wild for the next generation count on it.

As you make your New Year’s resolutions, please add supporting the end to any legal trade in elephant ivory to your list!

Happy New Years from Elephants Forever!

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.

Must the Past be Prologue?

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A timeless image — elephants crossing the grasslands, feeding, interacting, doing what they have done for millennia. They (and their distant, now extinct cousins) walked the earth long before the advent of homo sapiens. Some scientists believe that the vast areas they cleared in search of nutrition made it possible for our ancestors to come down from the trees and out of the caves and live in communities — a major advance that made us predators rather than prey.  Safety in numbers, stronger gene pools, development of sophisticated communication and planning skills.  Do we owe our alpha species status to the elephant?  Perhaps.  In any event, we seem to have returned the favor by coveting their ivory. And now we face the possibility that the earth we walk will one day be without elephants.

When facing a crisis, it is often insightful to look back at history to better understand what brought us to this point.  “A Brief History of the Elephant Ivory Trade”  released last week by Earth Touch News Network takes a look at the recent history of the ivory trade.  Featuring Dr. Paula Kahumbu, CEO of WildlifeDirect in Kenya, the report covers the dynamics since the 1970s. Well worth viewing.  But what about the longer perspective.  Just when did we get our insatiable appetite for ivory? And how has that appetite impacted the elephant, societies and world trade since then?

In John Frederick Walker’s Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants you can read all about it.  If the past is indeed prologue, then the future for the elephant is not very bright.  Ivory has seduced for thousands of years.  Elephants once ranged across all of Africa and from Syria to China. By 500 BCE, the lust for ivory in Egypt eliminated the African elephant populations along the Nile, and Syria’s Asian elephant herds had been eliminated. The list of cities and dynasties that sought ivory read like a who’s who of the ancient world: Carthage, Athens, Pompeii, Assyria, Babylon, Darius, Caligula, Alexander the Great, the Ptolemys, Julius Caeser. Diocletian fixed ivory prices. Pliny the Elder warned of elephant extinction in 77 CE.  Meanwhile in China, the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) was trading with markets as far away as Rome.  Included in their caravans along the ancient Silk Route were intricately carved ivory objects. Arabs raided the Swahili coast of East Africa throughout the 7th – 14th centuries and included in their bounty slaves and ivory. Then came the era of European colonization. The race for real estate, slaves and ivory ended interior Africa’s relative isolation from the rest of the world.  The arrival of firearms made large-scale harvesting of ivory possible. No need to go on, read the book, and be astonished as to how ingrained the human craving for ivory is in our global society.

Sadly, we are fighting the awful weight of history in the quest to prize life over ivory’s appeal.  Walker in fact does not believe it is possible.  Because of this, he favors limited, legal sales of Africa’s stockpiles to a regulated market.  Watch “A Brief History of the Elephant Ivory Trade” for clear reasons why most experts disagree.  Walker’s book published in 2009; in the six short years since then, elephant populations have plummeted, and the failure of regulated sales is now established.

Once there were more elephants than homo sapiens.  Now, we are 7 billion and growing while the elephant population is perhaps 350,000 and shrinking.  What separates us from our pre-20th Century relatives is the knowledge that the resource is not unlimited. It’s time to reverse course and let the allure of ivory be relegated to the past.  Tick Tock. Tick Tock.

 

 

 

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!

Ivory’s Curse

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An abundant endowment of high-value wildlife can be a resource curse that ultimately leaves human societies worse off. The damage being done to African elephants from poaching is very real, but so is the damage being done to African societies.”

So begins a new report entitled  “Ivory’s Curse:  The Militarization and Professionalization of Poaching in Africa” prepared by C4ADS, a not-for-profit firm that evaluates global conflict and security issues and sponsored by Born Free USA.  Chronicling the poaching dynamic in eight African countries, the report demonstrates:

• In Sudan, government-allied militias complicit in the Darfur genocide fund their operations by poaching elephants hundreds of miles outside North Sudan’s borders.

• In the Democratic Republic of Congo, state security forces patronize the very rebels they are supposed to fight, providing weapons and support in exchange for ivory.

Zimbabwean political elites, including those under international sanction, are seizing wildlife spaces that either are, or likely will soon be, used as covers for poaching operations.

• In East Africa, al-Shabaab and Somali criminal networks are profiting off Kenyan elephants killed by poachers using weapons leaked from local security forces.

Mozambican organized crime has militarized and consolidated to the extent it is willing to battle the South African army and well-trained ranger forces for rhino horn.

• In Gabon and the Republic of Congo, ill-regulated forest exploitation is bringing East Asian migrant laborers, and East Asian organized crime, into contact with Central Africa’s last elephants.

• In Tanzania, political elites have aided the industrial-scale depletion of East Africa’s largest elephant population.

In its concluding section, the report states:  “Targeting trafficking profits and intercepting containers to disrupt criminal demand and drive up organized crime costs is a necessary stopgap until end-user demand for ivory can be reduced.” Yes, this should be done but it will take time, unprecedented international cooperation and financing.  The fact remains as long as there is a market for ivory, there will be poaching.  And as long as that is the case, the fabric of many African societies and the well-being of many Africans will be jeopardized. The elephant has long been an unofficial logo of Africa.  One may argue that as goes the fate of the elephant, so goes the fate of Africa.

Never has it been so important to use every communication and legal tactic to convince people not to buy ivory.  Please increase your outreach efforts.  World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) both have advocacy programs underway; click on their red initials and join their efforts now.  Do it for the elephants; do it for the millions of Africans who are suffering or will suffer from the violence and economic disruption this crisis presents.

Elemental Ivory

this tusk is mine copyIt is elemental that ivory belongs on elephants, not our shelves.

The real world of course always makes things more complicated.  Recent, high profile destruction of ivory stockpiles (China, U.S. Philippines) have prompted pledges of more public acts of ivory demolition (France, Hong Kong, U.K.). Some of the ivory is burnt in ceremonial bonfires; some is crushed and will be turned into monuments that protest poaching.  If the majority of consumers do not realize that elephants must die in order for an ivory trinket to be produced, then dramatic media events such as these should help educate the consuming public. In a global media environment filled with the extreme of just about everything, issuing a press release can’t compete with media-genic sacrifices. We need an abundance of dynamic, high profile, attention-grabbing efforts to convince people not to buy ivory.

Having said that, as I watch the various parties schedule their ivory stockpile destruction events, I wonder about the lasting efficacy of this destruction.  The first thing that bothers me is the authenticity of the actions. You can still buy ivory legally in all these countries.  Most stockpiles are comprised of illegal ivory that has been confiscated.  Destroying it is an easier decision than reconciling what to do with a product you cannot monetize because ivory harvested after 1989 is illegal, even though it really isn’t possible to verify all ivory legally sold in your market was obtained pre-1989.  No one can figure that one out so the decision is made to destroy it and get some good press but put off dealing with the more difficult issue of should ivory be legal at all.

If you look at the ivory economy, there are three general categories of ivory in trade: government stockpiles, privately owned/held ivory objects, and ivory “in play,” or somewhere in the supply chain between being harvested and being sold to the end consumer.  I’ve expressed my thoughts about government stockpiles. I do not worry about ivory owned by individuals and collections.  It’s the ivory in the pipeline, or still “for sale,” that is unresolved.  If all poaching ceased today, how should we deal with the ivory in the pipeline?  Should it all be confiscated and destroyed?  Or is there some greater good that it can achieve?  The European Union is calling upon its member states to pass moriatoria on ivory sales until elephant poaching is no longer a problem.  If all European countries adopt such a law, what then should they do with the illegal ivory they will confiscate? In the long term, is there a viable, legal market for ivory objects that can fund conservation programs?

The idealist in me would love to see all confiscated ivory go to a secure global ivory bank, where it is kept as a silent monument to all the dead elephants.  People could donate ivory objects it to the bank, receiving an audited tax credit as a charitable donation. Limited sales of items to national museums only from the bank could fund a global communications program to convince consumers not to buy any more ivory.  Then, when the killing stops and the crime rings have moved onto another marketplace, perhaps we can find a “greater good use” of all that ivory.  But those are the ruminations of my idealistic side.

In the real world, I think we should keep educating consumers that ivory is for elephants — people don’t have a clue how to handle it responsibly.

“White Gold”

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A new documentary, which chronicles the plight of the endangered African elephant and black market for the animals’ ivory, is set to premiere in New York.  The 38-minute film, “White Gold,” which is narrated by Hillary Rodham Clinton, will have its world premiere in a private screening at the Museum of Modern Art on November 12, and will be followed by a public screening on the 18th.  Pace Gallery founder Arne Glimcher served as producer on the Simon Trevor-directed documentary.  (Click here for details.)

“White Gold is a frontline exposé of the modern day ivory trade – its effect on African countries and wider regional stability, its potential to fund terrorism and its global reach. Produced by professionals from the conservation, filmmaking and security fields, the film illustrates the awe-inspiring complexity, beauty and emotional intelligence of the elephant, Africa’s most majestic and iconic wild animal. It documents how, as the demand for ivory escalates, the stakes rise for elephants, people and peace. And, amid growing speculation from analysts around the world that ivory is likely to have partially funded the September 2013 terrorist massacre in Nairobi, Kenya, the film poses the question: is this luxury commodity really so desirable, considering the ugly reality of corruption, organized crime, terrorism and looming species extinction?”

‘White Gold’ will also be screening at DOC NYC on the evening of Monday November 18th, 2013 at the IFC Center in lower Greenwich Village (323 Sixth Ave at West 3rd St.), followed by a Q&A session featuring the film’s producers.

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 Tale of Two Tusks

2012  will likely go down in history as the worst year ever for elephant poaching.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.

CBS Evening News on November 26, in it’s report “Kenya Takes Drastic Steps to Save Elephants,” tells of some unorthodox steps being taken to save a bull elephant with particularly large tusks.  Mountain Bull is a legend in his territory near Mt. Kenya.  He has been shot by poachers numerous times but managed to survive. Many of the large tusked elephants have been killed by poachers and conservationists are worried that Mountain Bull’s time is running out, given the great price his tusks would command on the black market.  Working with the Kenyan government, the Northern Rangelands Trust and park rangers tracked Mountain Bull until they could immobilize him with a drug-filled dart. Then, with a chainsaw, they removed most of his tusks.  While this may put him at a competitive disadvantage with other bull elephants when fighting over females and territories, authorities hope that poachers will lose interest in Mountain Bull — permitting him to live a long life, even if the quality is diminished somewhat.
At some point in time, the government will destroy his tusks.

This is no long term solution for the elephant population at large, although the tactic has also been employed on rhino (removing their horn) in certain parts of Africa.  It is a sad statement about current affairs if we must disfigure an animal to protect it.  The only long term solution is to eliminate demand for ivory.  This is something we can all help accomplish.  Let the tuskers keep their tusks — and live.