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.

Giants’ Steps


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!

World Elephant Day

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WED_symbol_official_text_2 smIt’s World Elephant Day!

Go to:  http://worldelephantday.org/ and participate.  Here is a brief of this event, but do go to the website and watch the movie posted there: Return to the Forest.  You will be moved!  And Happy World Elephant Day from Elephants Forever. Together, let’s make this World Elephant Year!

On August 12, 2012, the inaugural World Elephant Day was launched to bring attention to the urgent plight of Asian and African elephants. The elephant is loved, revered and respected by people and cultures around the world, yet we balance on the brink of seeing the last of this magnificent creature.

The escalation of poaching, habitat loss, human-elephant conflict and mistreatment in captivity are just some of the threats to both African and Asian elephants. Working towards better protection for wild elephants, improving enforcement policies to prevent the illegal poaching and trade of ivory, conserving elephant habitats, better treatment for captive elephants,  and when appropriate reintroducing captive elephants into natural, protected sanctuaries are the goals that numerous elephant conservation organizations are focusing on around the world.

World Elephant Day asks you to experience elephants in non-exploitive and sustainable environments where elephants can thrive under care and protection. On World Elephant Day August 12, express your concern, share your knowledge and support solutions for the better care of captive and wild elephants alike.

Things you can do:

    • Study elephants in their “keystone” role in the environment and interrelationships with plants and other animals because all of nature is interconnected.
    • Learn about and support organizations that are working to protect habitat for wild elephants and finding solutions for human-elephant conflict
    • Support organizations that are working to stop the illegal poaching and trade of elephant ivory and other wildlife products
    • Support organizations that  are protecting wild elephant habitat
    • Support organizations that are building natural sanctuaries and alternative habitat for domesticated elephants to live freely
    • Do not support organizations that exploit or abuse elephants and other animals for entertainment and profit.
    • If you wish to experience elephants in their natural environment choose eco-tourism operators who support local elephant conservation projects and who treat elephants with respect and dignity
    • Support healthy, alternative, sustainable livelihoods for people who have traditionally relied on elephants, wild animals and natural resources. Learn about indigenous cultures that have traditionally lived in harmony with elephants.
    • Be an elephant aware consumer. Do not buy ivory or other wildlife products.
    • Be aware of elephant habitat. Do not buy coffee that is not fair-traded or shade-grown, nor products with palm-oil. These commercial crops are grown in plantations that have decimated elephant habitats. Only buy wood products that have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which promotes responsible management of the world’s forests, which is the natural habitat for elephants and other wildlife.
    • Talk about elephants at your school.  Initiate an elephant study group to share knowledge and ideas about the plight of elephants and what can be done to ensure their survival into the future.
    • What do you love about elephants?  Their intelligence, empathy and caring for one another are just a few of their qualities.  Embrace these qualities and live them in your own life.
    • Use your love of elephants and World Elephant Day, August 12 to start a conversation with the next person you meet. Tie a string around your finger right now so, like an elephant, you don’t forget!


Elephants in the Dust


Numerous headlines abound from the CITES meeting ongoing in Bangkok, including the release of the long-awaited report on the status of the African elephant, entitled “Elephants in the Dust — The African Elephant Crisis.”  (Click here for News and here for the Report).

A grim title for a grim subject, and disturbing because it indicates that the elephants have pretty much have had it, or “bitten the dust.”  More a compilation of existing knowledge and thought, the report confirms (1) demand for ivory has tripled in the past decade, due largely to China’s growing middle class; (2) organized crime directs the killing of elephants and flow of ivory to Asia; (3) record numbers of elephants are being slaughtered; (4) more international cooperation is needed to enforce laws and capture the criminals and (5) consumers need to be educated that elephants do not shed their tusks annually, they must die for the ivory to be harvested.

CITES has put three African and five Asian nations on notice that they have failed to adequately crack down on the ivory trade, and that they must come up with a detailed and credible plan of action for curbing the trade across and within their borders (within the next week). They must then meet those targets or face trade sanctions next year. The nations threatened with sanctions are Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and China. Sanctions would keep those nations from trading even in legal wildlife products by barring other CITES member nations from buying from them.  A great deal of bravado but does anyone believe those eight nations will be able  or willing to create a meaningful plan by next week?

In fact, the Chinese government is lobbying to ease restrictions on ivory trade.  China’s wildlife trade official has insisted that African elephant herds could endure a robust international ivory trade. Late year, he wrote the CITES Secretariat, saying that China should be allowed to buy confiscated tusks from poached elephants in addition to those legally obtained. Asian demand, he wrote, required about 220 tons of raw ivory — equaling the lives of roughly 20,000 elephants — every year.

“Elephants in the Dust” promotes 10 recommendations for action, one of which is:  “Reduce market demand for illegal ivory by conducting targeted and effective awareness-raising about the devastating impacts of the illegal trade in ivory, and aimed at potential or current buyers in East and Southeast Asia.”  There is little any of us can do about poverty in Africa, corruption in governments, organized crime and human-wildlife conflict.  And, as individuals, we cannot conduct education campaigns in Mandarin.  However, we can make a difference by raising awareness among everyone we know and enlisting them to do the same.  Our message can reach beyond our own borders. Let’s do what we can to keep elephants literally, not metaphorically, in the dust!

Reaching Our Goals


Maasai Mara, February 2013:  Located in southwest Kenya, the Maasai Mara boasts vast acacia-dotted grasslands and riverine forests that support world-famous concentrations of animals. Sometimes you are surrounded by animals as far as the eye can see.  Other times, you may feel totally alone in this vast landscape. . .until one animal appears on the horizon.

In the case of the photo above, that one lone animal was this male tusker.  He was our only sighting that hour so we sat contentedly, watching him rapidly approach, seemingly uninterested in the surrounding, high grasses.  He had a goal — the lone acacia tree near our parked vehicle.  Elephants balance their nutritional intake with soft grasses (for easy digestion) and tree bark and branch (for fiber).  A more determined elephant I have never seen as this umbrella acacia was not particularly elephant-friendly. Most giraffes would have passed it by. But with persistence, he was successful, devoting the better part of the afternoon to enjoying his meal (and delighting us with his stretches).

Bangkok, March 2013:  Reaching its goal (promoted on my January 15 blog entry “Call to Action“), the WWF  presented Thailand’s prime minister with a petition signed by 500,000 people calling for the end of that country’s legal ivory trade market (click here). In her opening remarks to the CITES conference, the prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, promised to amend the kingdom’s laws, which critics say include loopholes that have allowed smugglers to ferry African tusks to Thai markets and onward, often to China, the world’s top destination for illegal ivory.  Thailand is believed to be the second-biggest market for illicit elephant tusks.

We all know about promises made by politicians; they are not exactly reliable.  And Thailand has made previous pledges to bring its laws into accordance with global standards.  Nevertheless, the efforts of WWF and other conservation groups involved in forcing the issue should be applauded for reaching their goal. The hard work is ahead, in Thailand and in other nations that need to take action to end illegal trade in ivory.  Let’s make it our goal to help that process along, stretching our reach to its very limits.

Call to Action

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Last week’s elephant poaching tragedy in Tsavo has received widespread global media coverage.  In response, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga has announced the establishment of a commission to explore ways in which the various government agencies in Kenya could collaborate to strengthen their efforts. He said that security agencies “must treat the emerging poaching threat as part of the insecurity griping the country and not a wildlife issue to be addressed solely by the Kenya Wildlife Service.” (emerging poaching threat?)  In addition, he has called upon the international community to help curb the illegal ivory trade by increasing policing and prosecution efforts.

Meanwhile, much of the international community is awaiting the CITES meeting in Bangkok  March 3 – 14, 2013 to see “what happens” or what plan will be adopted. (Thailand has the world’s largest unregulated ivory market.)

Commissions and meetings are by their very nature slow and lumbering, rarely igniting immediate and effective action.  But time is running out. For Africa at-large, the elephant body count in 2012 is greater than it was in 2011.  Experts predict at this rate wild elephants in Africa could be extinct in 15 years.  The poaching rate in Central Africa may well eliminate all wild elephants in that region even sooner.

Here is something you can do right now that will help.  Join the World Wildlife Fund‘s movement to call upon Thailand to ban ivory trade. While the world is watching during the CITES meeting, WWF wants to present 1 million signatures to Prime Minister Shinawatra, asking her to do the right thing in her own backyard. Thailand permits the sale of items made from indigenous ivory. Because the market is unregulated, much of the poached ivory from Africa finds its way to Bangkok and is sold in markets there as “Thai” ivory. Drawing attention to this may be the most compelling and effective near term consequence of the CITES meeting.  Be a part of that action!