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.

 

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!

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.

 

Photo Essay: Life Without Mom

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The ancients thought that rain was the tears of the Gods. During my most recent visit to the David Sheldrick Trust orphanage for elephants in Nairobi, the heavens opened up and poured on these babies during their afternoon feeding. But no amount of rain or thunder could keep them from their “bottles” of milk, a formula developed by the Sheldrick Trust over decades or trial and error. millk

This milk and the care of the Keepers at the Trust have given a new lease on life to scores of baby elephants whose mothers were taken by poaching or natural causes.  Without the care of his or her mother, any elephant younger than two will likely not survive.  The wonderful thing about the Sheldrick program that rescuing baby orphans is only the beginning. After a rescued baby is stabilized physically and emotionally, reintegration to the wild becomes the priority.

Later in the trip, we stayed at the Ithumba outpost in Voi, where “juniors” (aged 3 to 6) are reintroduced to the wild. At sunrise, we arrived at the stockades, where the youngest juniors sleep, to observe their morning feeding, followed by the opening of the stockades.

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Meanwhile, from the surrounding forests, emerge several herds of wild elephants plus the older juniors who sleep outside the stockades.

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By now, there are more than 70 elephants, from the youngest juniors to orphans who are spending half their time with wild herds, to the wild elephants who love the waterhole at the stockades as well as this integrated community of elephants.

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As the morning progresses, we need the keepers to tell us which elephants are ex-orphans and which are wild, the interaction is so complete.

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Perhaps the most touching event was seeing several females, one-time orphans who have reintegrated into the wild, and now pregnant. It completes the cycle of recovery, to be integrated back into the wild, and bringing into the world a new life.  We met Wendy (below), who is due to deliver any day now.

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It remains an unknown — will a female elephant, who was not raised in the traditional manner, know how to be a mother?  We know in breeding herds that have lost their matriarch and other experienced females, younger elephants sometimes exhibit dysfunctional behavior.  And, young females from those herds who become pregnant often do not know how to handle a baby. As a tribute to the “mothering” the Trust employs in training orphans for normal, “real” life in the wild, an incredible event recently took place.  In December, another ex-orphan, Emily, who has already given birth to two wild-born calves, returned to one of Sheldrick’s Voi outposts to deliver her third baby – a highly unusual occurrence as most females go into seclusion to deliver their babies. This film shows the amazing event.

Over Thanksgiving holidays, I lost my mother. No matter how old you are, losing your mother is a monumental sadness, leaving a hole in your heart forever. My loss is strangely softened when I consider this summer’s visit with the orphans and appreciate the truly incredible work done by the Sheldrick Trust.  I originally intended to post this story closer to Mother’s Day.  But now, every day for me is a Mother’s Day of sorts as I give thanks for the special mother I was fortunate to have for my 63  years.

Please consider fostering a baby elephant as a tribute to your mother and all the mothers in the world who make each of our lives possible.  Click here for more information on the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.  And, for a complete history of the Trust, do read Dame Daphne Sheldrick’s wonderful book, Love, Life and Elephants: An African Love Story.” 

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.

 

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!

Mourning in Kenya

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I am packing for my annual visitation to elephant country.  Thirty years have passed since my first visit to Africa. . .to Kenya, a place so filled with wildlife and beauty that I immediately was infected with safari fever, a terminal condition from which I never want to recover.  But the sweet sensations of anticipation are somewhat muted this time.  Media sources have just confirmed that the two elephants with the largest tusks in Kenya have been savagely poisoned and mutilated this past month.

Satao lived in Tsavo in eastern Kenya and carried the unique gene that produces exceptionally large tusks.  His (pictured above on the left) were 6.5 feet long. Dr. Paula Kahumba, Executive Director of WildlifeDirect and the Kenya Land Conservation Trust, wrote a moving tribute to Satao, describing how he lived recently, aware that poachers were after him for his ivory.  In the area surrounding Mt. Kenya, another large bull with enormous tusks, Mountain Bull, was killed in the same manner, by poisonous arrows.   Mountain Bull, who I wrote about in “The Tale of Two Tusks,” was famous for alluding poachers, seemingly having nine lives.  Wildlife officials chose to saw off part of his tusks (in photo above right) to make him less appealing to poachers.  Both Satao and Mountain Bull were regarded as national treasures and were closely monitored by wildlife professionals.  Mountain Bull even wore a radio collar.

The stories of their demise are heartbreaking, not just because of their celebrity but because even the two most guarded elephants in Kenya fell victim to poaching.  In their honor, and to bear witness to how difficult it is to “protect” wild animals, I am quoting the full release from The Tsavo Trust, which provides amazing detail on how closely the Trust and Kenya Wildlife Service personnel followed Satao’s movements.

KWAHERI SATAO – SAYING GOODBYE TO A TSAVO ICON

With great sadness, we report the death of Satao, one of Tsavo’s most iconic and well-loved tuskers. This magnificent elephant was widely known in Tsavo East National Park, where he was observed with awe by many thousands of Tsavo’s visitors over the years. No longer will Tsavo and Kenya benefit from his mighty presence. Satao was shot dead by poisoned arrow on 30th May 2014. The arrow had entered his left flank and he stood no chance of survival. We spotted his carcass on 2nd June but to avoid any potential false alarms, we first took pains to verify the carcass really was his. Today it is with enormous regret that we confirm there is no doubt that Satao is dead, killed by an ivory poacher’s poisoned arrow to feed the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory in far off countries. A great life lost so that someone far away can have a trinket on their mantelpiece.

INCIDENT REPORT

For the last 18 months, KWS and TSAVO TRUST jointly monitored Satao’s movements using aerial reconnaissance, and KWS deployed ground personnel in his known home range. But with today’s mounting poaching pressures and anti-poaching resources stretched to the limit, it proved impossible to prevent the poachers getting through the net.

Immediately reports of a fresh carcass in this area of Tsavo were received by KWS, a TSAVO TRUST reconnaissance flight took off with a KWS officer on board. It did not take long to locate the carcass near the boundary of the National Park. A joint KWS / TSAVO TRUST ground team followed up immediately. Despite the mutilated head, they deduced that the carcass was most probably that of Satao for the following reasons:

• Satao was well known by the KWS / TSAVO TRUST units operating continuously in this area. When he was alive, his enormous tusks were easily identifiable, even from the air. Although the poachers had hacked off his face and taken his ivory, there were other physical attributes and circumstantial evidence that pointed to this carcass being that of Satao.

• Satao was very much a creature of habit. He roamed a very specific area, known to KWS and TSAVO TRUST, most often in the company of small groups of bull elephant.

• With the recent rain, over 1,000 elephants have moved into the area to take advantage of the green and plentiful vegetation. Satao had not moved from this area for the last two months.

• Satao was last seen alive by TSAVO TRUST on 19th May 2014, just 300 meters from where his carcass now lies. He was with four other bulls that he was frequently seen with. During May 2014, TSAVO TRUST had observed him no fewer than 9 times from the air and several times from the ground. Protection efforts were stepped up when he ventured right up to the boundary of the Park (an area that is a historical and present poaching hotspot, especially for poachers using poisoned arrows).

• Satao had “clean ears” – there were no cuts, tears or obvious scars, making him easily identifiable when he was alive and now that he is dead.

• The mud caked on his mutilated forehead and back was similar to that seen on him when he was alive.

• Since locating the carcass, several joint KWS / TSAVO TRUST reconnaissance flights have tried and failed to locate Satao in his known home range.

The facts all point to the same appalling conclusion and we are left with no choice but to acknowledge that the great Satao is no more.

THE ENORMITY OF THE TASK AT HAND

The area Satao frequented is a massive and hostile expanse for any single anti-poaching unit to cover, at least one thousand square kilometers in size. Roads and tracks are few and far between and in parts the vegetation is very thick, making access difficult. Elephants concentrate here in large numbers after the rains which come in from the coast. The communities living just beyond the National Park boundary persistently carry out illegal activities inside the Park in this area. Understaffed and with inadequate resources given the scale of the challenge, KWS ground units have a massive uphill struggle to protect wildlife in this area. There is a tremendous will amongst the KWS field units and the TSAVO TRUST personnel working alongside them to protect Tsavo’s elephant herds but more help is needed.

COOPERATION IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY

At times like this, it is hard to see any positive side to the situation. But let’s not forget that Satao’s genes survive out there, somewhere in the Tsavo elephant population and they too need protecting. Satao would have been at least 45 years old. During his lifetime he would have weathered many droughts and seen many other poached elephants, and he would have sired offspring that, given a safe environment to grow up in, may become tomorrow’s generation of great Tsavo tuskers.

We also wish to emphasize the level of cooperation and coordination between KWS and TSAVO TRUST that this incident proved. Without the regular joint KWS / TSAVO TRUST aerial reconnaissance of this section of the Park, Satao’s carcass may not have been found, and as a result KWS’s swift and successful follow-up may not have ensued. Following TSAVO TRUST’s report from the air, KWS ground units were immediately deployed. The KWS reaction was rapid and decisive, and is still ongoing. Due to the sensitivities of such operations and the risk of compromise, we cannot comment further on the progress being made. We hope to relay additional updates in due course.

Meanwhile, we applaud KWS’s success in arresting the main poison dealer and supplier in Kilifi, whose deadly product has been the cause of many painful and wasteful elephant deaths in Tsavo.

Working together – and often against the odds – we can continue to make a positive difference to Tsavo and to Tsavo’s elephants.

Tsavo is our home, our passion and our life’s work but, as the untimely death of Satao so tragically proves, we cannot win every time. Rest in peace, Old Friend, you will be missed. Rest assured the fight to protect Tsavo’s elephants goes on.

 

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.