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.

 

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!

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.

 

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.

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.