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?

boswell

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.

 

Paradise Lost?

tsavo slaugher

Tsavo.  Elephant country.  Big skies, big horizons, big herds.  For eons, this eastern portion of Kenya has been home to large herds of elephants. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, paradise was disrupted.  Drought took a huge toll on all animal populations in the Seventies; thousands of elephants died from starvation and dehydration.  In the Eighties, poaching escalated to unprecedented levels.  By the end of that decade, Tsavos’s elephant population had been reduced by 80%, compared to populations in the early 1970s.

With the ban on ivory trade in 1989, and good rain cycles, populations began to recover. Tsavo is one of my favorite elephant haunts. I have a special relationship with Tsavo, having “almost died” there in 1986 when I was struck with a vicious travel virus.  I’m told by my traveling companions that I would have been airlifted to Nairobi had the camp’s radio been working, but since it wasn’t, they iced me down in the bathtub and hoped I made it through the night.  When I awoke in the morning, and looked out the window to see elephants at the waterhole, I decided that if I were going to die on the road, this would be as good a place as any.  I survived and lived to visit Africa and Kenya many more times, but had not been back to Tsavo since then.  Having followed its reported recovery from afar, I wanted to see firsthand and in 2011 was able to spend a few days there. What a delight.  There is nothing like a big Tsavo elephant, encrusted with red earth, sauntering across the golden stretches of grass with blue mountains in the distance.  I visited the Elephant Research Station there and talked to several of the researchers.  They were very optimistic about the outlook for the park and its natural treasures.

Fast forward to the present.  News outlets all over the world this week are reporting on the slaughter of a herd of Tsavo elephants.  Twelve, including a baby.  NBC reports (click here) in grim detail the brutality of the attack and the process of tracking down the poachers.  Although Tsavo is no stranger to the brutality of poaching, this one is the largest single poaching incident ever reported in the Park.

I think back to my time with many of Tsavo’s elephants in August 2011 and wonder, are any of the elephants I photographed victims? Are the elephants in the photo above part of that ill-fated herd? It’s personal this time.