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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New Year’s Greetings

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Nothing like a new year to reflect, reboot,  recommit and resolve!

From the elephants’ point of view, 2015 was a better year than recent years.  While poaching remains at a critical level, with more elephants dying than being born each year, progress was made on a number of fronts.  The price of ivory actually declined, while an increase in confiscations took more “product” out of the marketplace.  The coincidence of the two may appear counter intuitive (e.g., less product theoretically would raise prices) but perhaps demand for ivory finished products is finally declining and the supply chain just hasn’t caught up with that reality.  High profile campaigns by celebrities, NGOs and media outlets seem to have broken through the sound barrier, resulting in major political and policy efforts to shut down the trade in ivory.

Looking back, here are some month-by-month highlights of ivory politics:

January:  Release of “The Last Days of Ivory” short film and campaign by award-winning producer Kathryn Bigelow and WildAid

February:  China announces a one-year ban on the import of ivory carvings for one year

March:  Britain’s Prince William calls for an end to all trade in ivory during a visit to China

April:  Singer Billy Joel and the Wildlife Conservation Society release a new video to raise awareness of elephant poaching

May:  Chinese government announces that it plans to shut down all domestic trade in ivory

June:  DNA from elephant tusks reveals poaching routes

July: UN adopts resolution on wildlife trafficking

August:  U.S. announces unprecedented coalition to fight wildlife trafficking

September:  U.S. and China agree to halt ivory trade

October:  California passes ban on ivory sales

November:  African countries demand total ban on international ivory trade

December:  Hong Kong legislature passes motion calling for smuggling crackdown

Just one year ago, these collective accomplishments would have been unimaginable. However impressive though, they are but a beginning not an end.  2016 is the year to build upon 2015’s achievements and turn “plans” and “intentions” into real, meaningful action.  We talked the talk in 2015, now we have to walk the walk in 2016.  Put another way, we were given tools in 2015, we must use them in 2016.  Happy New Year to all!

Happy World Elephant Day!

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What have you done for the elephants today?

There is still time to act, if not today, then tomorrow or the next.  But don’t put it off for too long.  Your voice is needed now to continue the momentum that is building around the world.

Sign a petition sponsored by the groups listed below, write your legislators, join a cause, donate to one of the organizations listed to the right under “Bookmarks.”

Go to the following sites and make your voice heard:

WildAid

Wildlife Conservation Society

 African Wildlife Foundation

World Wildlife Foundation

iworry (The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust)

Save the Elephants

Care2

U.S. Wildlife Trafficking Alliance

If we all act, and continue to support the work these organizations are doing, we will always have live elephants to celebrate! Otherwise, in ten years World Elephant Day may be an unhappy occasion to mourn extinction, something none of us want.

If you still need convincing, go to “In the News” for the latest on how serious the situation is and actions governments, NGOs and the private sector are taking.

 

World Elephant Day — Be a Part of the Action!

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Tomorrow, Wednesday, August 12, is World Elephant Day.

While for some of us, every day is Elephant Day, tomorrow provides an opportunity to rally around the many great efforts that are in place to reduce the demand for ivory, fight poaching and the illegal ivory trade.  Here are links to several sites where you can take meaningful action:  96 ElephantsThe David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, WildAid, and Care2.

Start with 96 Elephants, a Wildlife Conservation Society effort that is named after the number of African elephants that are killed every day.  Here is a copy of their press release, citing what they hope to accomplish tomorrow — and they are only one of the organizations taking action:

Timed to coincide with #WorldElephantDay on Wednesday, August 12, The Wildlife Conservation Society’s 96 Elephants Campaign is rallying Americans against the ivory trade and elephant poaching crisis and urging support of the proposed Federal ban on ivory sales.

On July 25, President Obama announced the pending release of the long-awaited 4(d) rule on African elephant ivory during his trip to Kenya. The text of the proposed rule is now published in the Federal Register and will be followed by a 60-day comment period that will conclude on September 28.

The 4(d) rule seeks to ban the sale or offer of sale of ivory in interstate or foreign commerce and delivery, receipt, carrying, transport or shipment of ivory for commercial purposes except for defined antiques and certain manufactured items containing de minimis quantities of ivory. Persons seeking to qualify for any exceptions from the ban must demonstrate they meet the criteria to qualify for the exceptions.

“The United States Government has shown true leadership in the fight against poachers that currently kill 96 elephants each day,” said John Calvelli, WCS Executive Vice President for Public Affairs and Director of the 96 Elephants Campaign. “It is now up to all of us on World Elephant Day to be part of this ‘stampede’ to support the strongest possible ivory ban. Together, we can help save these majestic animals from extinction.”

Beginning on August 12, #WorldElephantDay, through the conclusion of the public comment period, WCS and the 96 Elephants coalition will show a “STAMPede” of support for the Federal ban collecting letters of support and generating online and social media engagement. The goal will be to deliver a symbolic 96,000 messages to decision makers in Washington D.C.

Social media has made it easier than ever to communicate with decision makers on issues of importance, and it will play a large role in rallying support for the 4(d) rule. People are encouraged to take photos of themselves with drawings or signs in support of elephants and post their “elphies” to social media channels. They can also create a 6-second video of creative foot-stamping to symbolize “joining the STAMPede.” These simple acts of support should be shared using these hashtags: #JoinTheSTAMPede, #BeHerd, #96Elephants and #WorldElephantDay. Supporters can also #BeHerd by submitting their public comment in support of the ban at http://www.96elephants.org.

Through these social media engagements, the collective 96 Elephants coalition, which includes more than 120 AZA accredited zoos and aquariums, a network of business and non-profit partners, and millions of conservation advocates, will send a clear message to decision makers that only elephants should own ivory.

96 Elephants was named for the number of elephants gunned down each day for their ivory. The Wildlife Conservation Society launched the campaign in September 2013.

The 96 Elephants campaign:

Bolsters elephant protection in the wild by increasing support for park guards, intelligence networks, and government operations in the last great protected areas for elephants throughout the Congo Basin and East Africa.

Funds high-tech tools in the field ranging from drones and sophisticated remote cameras that track poachers in real-time, to specially trained sniffer dogs to find smuggled ivory in ports and trading hubs.

Engages the public through a series of actions including online petitions and letter writing campaigns enhanced through social media to support U.S. and state moratoria, increase funding, and spread the word about demand and consumption of ivory. 96 Elephants educates public audiences about the link between the purchase of ivory products and the elephant poaching crisis, and support global moratoria and other policies that protect elephants.

Be a part of the action — tomorrow and every day!

 

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.

 

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.

The Fate of the Forest Elephant

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I wrote about the forest elephant in September upon my return from the Republic of Congo. The thrill of seeing these secretive creatures notwithstanding, our visit was overshadowed in spirit by descriptions of twin evils plaguing the elephant populations:  commerce and war.

Odzala-Kokoua National Park is as remote as a national park can be.  The primary and sole “highway” in the region is a pitted, dirt (or mud, depending upon the season), single lane road that connects Congo to neighboring Gabon. Most of the park is accessible only by foot, and even that is near impossible in many areas.  Impenetrable and remote — this should be fairly secure habitat for all creatures.  But commerce is intruding, and the Chinese are the primary drivers.  As they are doing in many African countries, the Chinese offer to build roads as a goodwill gesture if they are permitted to harvest minerals and in this case timber. The “highway” is being paved by Chinese workers. The lumber is being harvested by Chinese workers. While improved roads are generally a “good thing,” increased accessibility to isolated elephants helps poachers as well.  The lumber operations will also reduce habitat.

The impact is already being felt. A recent CNN Report reveals how Chinese construction camps are proving to be conduits to the ivory trade.  Chinese workers are suspected of poaching elephants and using the cover of their legitimate lumbering operations to transport the ivory out.  The meager law enforcement establishment is no match for the size and scope of the Chinese presence.  Tourism to the region is in its infancy; the poor and sparse local population has yet to appreciate what economic benefits their wildlife resources may produce as new safari camps are opened. Neighboring Gabon has lost 80% of its elephant population; Congo beckons to the poachers.

Just north of Republic of Congo is the war-torn, impoverished Central African Republic.  CAR is home to Dzanga Bai, the most famous and prolific Bai in the Congo Basin.  A large open, wetland, as in the photo above, the Bai is the social center for an abundance of wildlife.  This is where the most important research on the forest elephant is taking place. Andrea Turkalo, a scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, has been studying elephants at Dzanga for two decades and is widely regarded as the world’s leading expert in their behavior. In a recent interview, she described how the war in CAR forced her to leave her research post last spring. The insurgents have used poaching to fund their weapons.  While private interests have stepped in to guard Dzanga Bai, the rest of the area is completely unprotected.  It is not yet safe for her to return.

The Congo Basin region hosts all remaining forest elephants, perhaps 70,000.  It is a complicated part of the world and unlikely to become any less complicated in our lifetime.  The only hope for the forest elephant is a collapse of the market for ivory.

 

Elephant Numerology

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On New Year’s Eve, in his address to the nation, President Kikwete of Tanzania  renewed his pledge to fight poaching, citing shocking new survey numbers:  the elephant population in the huge Selous Game Reserve fell to 13,084 in 2013 from 109,419 in 1976. And Tanzania is hardly alone.  Since 2002, the pan-African elephant population has declined by 76%.  According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, the killing continues at a rate of nearly 100 elephants a day . The “supply side” is dangerously dwindling.

There are no numbers to suggest demand is abating. The Elephant Tracking Information System (managed by TRAFFIC) reports: “illicit trade in ivory rose in 2011 to the highest levels in at least 16 years and persisted at unacceptably elevated levels through 2012. Preliminary indicators suggest that even higher levels of illicit trade may have been reached in 2013. Although incomplete, the raw data for large-scale ivory seizures in 2013 (involving at least 500 kg of ivory in a single transaction) already represent the greatest quantity of ivory confiscated over the last 25 years for this type of seizure.”

China accounts for 70% of the world’s ivory market.  On January 6, China made global news by crushing six tons of confiscated ivory — good news, but that represents only 13% of its total stockpile.  The U.S., the next largest market for ivory, crushed its entire stockpile this past November.  Yet it is still legal to sell ivory (“old ivory”) in both countries.

By any measure, these numbers tell a tale of destruction and duplicity — elephants are killed; their ivory is smuggled, enriching criminals; keystone countries express horror and outrage, and destroy the ivory for show while still permitting legal sale of the substance.  It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the possibility of change in China and the fact that momentum for outlawing the sale of ivory is growing.  For example, an article in China’s Southern Weekly publication about elephant poaching went viral, reaching over 10 million “netizens” from Tier 1 Chinese cities (Beijing, Chongqing, Guangdong), the most significant consumers of ivory. Research shows that “most” (between 60-70%) Chinese are unaware that an elephant is killed when sacrificing its tusks for trinkets. This media coverage resonated with the very people who are most likely to purchase ivory as a status symbol. Many Chinese, when presented with the facts, say the government should outlaw ivory sales.

In 2014, 100 million Chinese will travel overseas, comprising 75 percent of overseas travelers visiting Asia and Europe.  I’m willing to bet the bulk of the Chinese market for ivory is in that group. What an opportunity to expose them even more to the realities of the illegal ivory trade!  Now, to make those communications a reality . . .  to be continued

Happy Holidays

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I’m celebrating the holidays with carpal tunnel surgery tomorrow so this will be the last posting for this year!  Meanwhile, check out the four programs listed below for great programs you may want to support during this holiday season.

iWorry” by The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Space for Giants” Campaign by The Independent

“96 Elephants” by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)

Elephant Crisis Fund” by Save The Elephants

For news on elephants, check “In the News” section of http://www.elephantsforever.net and “A Voice for Elephants” by National Geographic.

Wishing happy holidays to all and hoping 2014 brings more support for the elephants.

Forest Elephants, A Species Apart

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In December 2010, scientists from Harvard, the University of Illinois and the University of York in Britain announced their finding that the African savanna elephant and the forest elephant are distinct species, having been largely separated for 2 million to 7 million years.  The forest elephant is found in the vast Congo Basin, which stretches across six countries:  Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.  The determination that they are separate species came from DNA analysis of the modern-day pachyderms — savanna, forest and Asian elephants — and their extinct ancestors — the wooly mammoth and mastodon. The highlights of their study can be found here.

I was fortunate to observe several forest elephants on my recent trip to Republic of Congo.  What an experience!  With rounder ears and slim, straight tusks, the smaller forest elephant has some obvious physical differences.  In addition, their eyes are a light brown, as is the case of most of the forest-dwelling animals in the dense rain forest.  The forest elephant lives in very small groups, unlike the vast herds savanna elephants occupy.  Their world is unbelievably impenetrable.  The forest covers an area larger than Alaska, with few natural openings.  With ample food and water throughout this ecosystem, they live a solitary life, most of them never setting eyes on a human being.   An elephant’s home range can be nearly 800 square miles.  As a result, they are shy and skittish when sensing a “foreign” presence.  The elephants we spotted kept their distance, usually widening that distance considerably once they picked up our scent.

Because their world is so remote and inaccessible, little is known about the habits of forest elephants.  What we do know, and in spite of their isolation, poaching is taking an enormous toll on them.  Heavily militarized groups  from Sudan and Uganda have slaughtered hundreds of forest elephants across CAR, Cameroon, Gabon and DRC.  The WCS reports that the  in Gabon alone, the forest elephant population has been halved in the past decade.

Slipping into their world for just a week was a special privilege.  In addition to the forest elephant, we encountered western lowland gorillas and wild chimpanzees.  Sitings were infrequent and required trekking through very dense and insect-infested, damp rain forest.  One would think that this habitat would protect them from the evils of the outside world.  But the barriers are breaking down.  The demand for ivory is penetrating the impenetrable; and ivory carvers favor the  tusks of forest elephants as they are softer and easier to shape.  Logging and mineral extraction operations also are bringing more human “commerce” into the entire Congo Basin.  Is there time to get to know this “new” species of elephant?  . . .to be continued. . .