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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Cheers!

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This past Thursday, June 2, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service announced a near-total ban on the commercial trade of African elephant ivory. More than 1.3 million comments were filed during the public comment period for this proposal — the second highest number of comments received in the USFWS’s history.  Wildlife organizations flooded social media with cheers and praise for this long-sought strengthening of our laws governing the trade of ivory. Everyone who helped make this a reality should participate in the celebration.

Now for a reality check:  what does it really mean and what impact will it have on elephant poaching?  This is not a ban on the importation of ivory — that has been the law for decades. Rather, this new rule will govern how ivory can be traded in commercial and non-commercial situations in the United States across state lines.  The FAQ accompanying the news release states the following:

There will be no practical impact on the commercial import of African elephant ivory given the import prohibitions already in place under the African Elephant Conservation Act moratorium. Similarly, restrictions on intrastate commerce will remain unchanged under the final rule, since the ESA does not apply to sales within a state. However, CITES “use-after-import” provisions (in 50 CFR 23.55) continue to apply to sales within a state. In addition, certain states have enacted additional restrictions on the trade of ivory within a state. There is nothing in the ESA, this proposed rule, the AfECA, or our CITES regulations that prohibits the possession, donation or noncommercial interstate movement of listed species, including their parts or products, provided they were lawfully acquired. This will not change under the final rule.

 

So what is different?  Like many laws, the devil is in the detail and the final ruling, which goes into effect on July 6, 2016, will go into great detail about what existing ivory items can be traded, under what circumstances, and types of proof required to demonstrate that this is “old” ivory.  The interests that objected to the proposed ruling — museums, gun owners, musicians, etc. — were successful in having exemptions made for their pet ivory items; e.g., antiques, collectibles, musical instruments made with ivory, guns with ivory trim and big game trophies.  They collectively argued that their type of ivory has not and is not driving the poaching crisis.  Most ivory objects that are affected by the new rule are those which have been imported illegally and purchased under less than genuine conditions; for example, carved ivory trinkets that were smuggled into the U.S. and sold under the guise of being antiques.

The U.S. has been the world’s second largest market for illegal ivory for some time.  Yet, the number of law enforcement agents dedicated to wildlife trafficking is miniscule.   Without an increase in enforcement, will it be just as easy to ignore these new rules as it has been to ignore the old rules?  It took three years, beginning July 2013, to create, vet and finalize these new rules.  During that three years, 100,000 elephants died, mostly from poaching. .  . poaching driven by demand for ivory trinkets in China and other parts of Asia as well as in the U.S.  The old laws have not stopped demand; the new laws will not likely diminish demand.  The old laws have not been enforced effectively and without more law enforcement resources, the new laws will be difficult to enforce.  Reducing demand is what will save the elephant.  With all due respect to law, you cannot legislate morality or regulate desire.  Hard driving media campaigns, peer pressure and public education remain the greatest weapons in reducing demand and therefore poaching.

Don’t misunderstand — I too am celebrating the political victory and intent of the ruling.  A U.S. delegation to China next week will be discussing China’s pledge to adopt laws that are similar to what the U.S. is willing to adopt.  Meanwhile, the poaching disease is spreading, Kenya‘s burning its ivory while Zimbabwe and Namibia are lobbying to be able to trade their surplus ivory.  So this week we can take time to celebrate but next week, it’s back to work as much remains to be done in order to ensure we have wild elephants forever!

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!

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.

 

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.