19 February 2013

Africa: Time Running Out to Save Elephants From Ivory Trade

Photo: Anup Shah/WWF
African elephant in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya.

The new wave of killing of elephants in Africa is in many ways far graver than the crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. Firstly there are fewer elephants, and secondly the demand for ivory is far higher.

Record ivory prices in the Far East are fuelling poachers, organised crime and political instability right across the African elephant range. And the situation shows no sign of calming.

In January last year, Janjaweed militia gunned down more than 300 elephants in Bouba N'Djida National Park in Cameroon. In March, 22 elephants in Garamba National Park, DRC, were slaughtered in a single attack, many with shots to the top of the head. A Ugandan army helicopter was seen flying low-level over the park a few days after.

In December 2012, an illegal shipment of six tonnes of poached ivory was seized in Malaysia, one of the largest such hauls in recent history. Over the last decade Zakouma National Park in Chad has lost 90 per cent of its elephants.

As if we needed more evidence of the dire situation, at the time of writing news arrived from our study area in Northern Kenya that three adult elephants have been found dead in a pile near Isiolo, evidence that experienced gunmen are at work.

Littered around that valley were at least 20 more fresh carcasses. This well-monitored elephant population has suffered higher levels of illegal killing in 2012 than in any other year on record.

"Over the past few years wildlife trafficking has become more organised, more lucrative, more widespread, and more dangerous than ever before," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently warned a meeting of Washington's diplomatic community. The situation has become an issue of both national and economic security for nations across Africa, she added.

The ivory trade is the greatest threat to elephants, one that threatens to wipe them from the wilds of Africa and Asia long before they disappear beneath man's ever-expanding footprint.

Behind the many facets of the current crisis is the swelling demand for ivory. The race is on to convince China's affluent middle class of the terrible impacts of buying ivory before elephants succumb to the unbridled desire for their tusks.

Elephant populations across Africa have been falling like dominoes. The once-widespread elephants of West Africa - such as the fabled herds of the Ivory Coast - disappeared into tiny, isolated pockets long ago. Central Africa's elephants seemed more secure as recently as the 1980s when they were thought to comprise more than half of the continent's population and to be a vast repository that could withstand an ivory trade indefinitely.

It took years for scientists to penetrate the forests and accumulate reliable facts on the elusive forest elephants that inhabit them. Populations there had entered a steep decline which I believe started in the 1970s.

By the first decade of the 21st Century vast areas of forest had been emptied of elephants. Their range has now shrunk to a tiny fraction of its previous extent, and the animals that remain are under acute threat.

Notorious armed groups like Darfur's Janjaweed and the Lord's Resistance Army are funding their operations by preying on the few survivors. The Central African domino has toppled.

With this central reserve of elephants gone, the rising demand for ivory can only be sated by poachers turning to the remaining populations in East and Southern Africa.

The deep south of Southern Africa - Botswana, Namibia and South Africa itself - has long escaped the poaching problem thanks to their relative wealth and their well-financed wildlife departments. Their elephant populations are still the most secure, but with ivory now an established commodity for organised crime that may yet change, and reports of substantial ivory poaching are beginning to come from Botswana.

As evidenced by recent seizures, even sleepy Cape Town is now seen as a soft option for ivory traffickers, and the authorities of the Kruger National Park, having suffered a devastating and unexpected assault on rhinos, are now bracing for a similar attack on elephants. Unless demand is lowered, all that stands between Southern Africa and an ivory poaching onslaught are the elephants of East Africa.

Here the battle is in full spate. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species monitoring of elephants has shown that nine out of 10 major East African Protected areas showed record levels of illegal killing in 2011. Most of the illegal ivory seized in large-scale shipments in the past three years originated in Kenya and Tanzania.

One of Africa's best-studied elephant populations is in the Samburu District, north Kenya, where the fate of individually known elephants has been a particularly sensitive barometer of trouble.

Elephants are safe and very tame and trusting within the national reserves of Samburu and Buffalo Springs, but they often leave this highly protected haven and move into dangerous areas outside.

First the large bulls disappeared, targeted for their ivory. Sometimes the bodies were found, but mostly we have simply seen their numbers dwindle away. Currently females outnumber the bulls by two to one, but they are now being killed and one fifth of the families have no mature females left to lead them.

It looks as if 2012 will turn out to have been the worst year we've recorded for elephant poaching in the Northern Kenya area. The actual number of elephants killed per day across the continent is difficult to estimate.

On the assumption that their populations are still much as they were estimated in 2007, and that natural mortality is within normal limits, then as many as 100 elephants killed per day is an easily believable figure, despite more boots and guns being deployed in their defence than ever before.

In the coming months elephants and their ivory will be increasingly in the news. Cites is holding its 16th Conference of Parties in Bangkok in March. Those with an interest in the future of elephants will potentially be riven by a fundamental argument between those who believe in a sustained ivory trade, and those who opt for a complete trade ban.

We must break the deadlock and find consensus, rather than division. There is cause for common ground in a new conservation paradigm that recognises that the current demand for ivory exceeds the possible supply of elephants, and that demand needs to be reduced if elephants are to survive.

If concerned individuals, NGOs, institutions and governments can hold to this understanding it could lead to united international action to lower the demand for ivory. Whatever our point of view, this is crucial for the long-term survival of elephants.

We don't yet have all the facts we need to understand the relationship between ivory supply and demand to make all the judgments, but we have been through intensive elephant killing before and history can teach us some lessons.

It is true that in the 20th century in the colonial and immediately post colonial era some East African Game Departments were substantially funded by legal ivory sales, but that world has gone forever. At present any call for re-opening a well regulated legal trade is utopian and unrealistic.

Corruption, mismanagement, weak penalties for wildlife crime and a lack of political will to change things mean that too often poachers have the upper hand. The 20 years after the 1989 ivory trade ban were accompanied by recovery of elephant populations, particularly in East Africa. Thanks to the ban and widespread outrage in the media, ivory became unfashionable and almost all the key populations in the region recovered from the excessive illegal killing of the former epoch.

Increasing numbers were seen in aerial counts and the ratio of carcasses to live elephants diminished. In most protected areas law enforcement was adequate enough to allow elephant populations to grow through the 1990s and early 2000s even in areas where poaching was at a moderate level.

The Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants programme, put in place by Cites with input from independent scientists and the African Elephant Specialist group, picked up on the Central African declines early.

In 2011 the alarm bells finally began ringing loud and clear that illegal killing was not sustainable in all four regions of Africa. For Samburu the tipping point appears to have come in 2008 when the price of ivory surged yet again. The current level of killing is unsustainable.

If it continues unchecked we will lose most of Africa's wild elephants. Under these circumstances it is a moment of wisdom that Tanzania's proposal to sell its ivory, the only one that was on the table, was gently withdrawn before it engendered polarisation on the familiar lines usually seen at Cites conferences.

The desperate situation of the elephants in that country and the inability of the government to monitor or control illegal killing made the proposal for one-off sales of an ivory stockpiles seem doubly untenable.

However, the claim of such countries that they desperately need money for elephant conservation and protection is true and there is a need for new strategic thinking. In particular there is a need to explore how to deal with large stockpiles of ivory.

They cannot be traded and ideally should be destroyed, but new money must come to help those countries. Forty years ago, in the first pan-African onslaught on elephants, the surge in poaching was driven by newly wealthy Japanese buying ivory totems.

Demand for ivory still exists across the Far East, but today it is the booming economy of the world's most populous nation that makes China a black hole with the power to suck in all elephants in only a few short years.

Our own NGO, Save The Elephants, is one of many that are reaching out to the people of China. Last year, with our talented and visionary partners WildAid, we brought to Kenya one of their most influential celebrities, basketball player Yao Ming where he was received by KWS. In 2013 we will broadcast hard-hitting campaign advertisements in China to highlight the impacts of buying illegal ivory.

Yao's emotional response to living, breathing, playing elephants and to horrific faceless carcasses revealed the powerful commonality of human responses and awareness needed to save elephants.

The few remaining elephants in China are revered and highly protected, as we learnt when we visited Xishuangbanna two years ago. When a Chinese delegation paid us a return visit, they too were shocked at the sight of poached elephants and were delighted by the living herds.

Helping China to realise that Africa's elephants are just as worthy as their own is not only possible, it is happening.

The speech by Hillary Clinton signaled an unprecedented new political awareness in Washington about elephants and other wildlife. She promised US intelligence assets to help fight the chaos and organised crime.

New technologies must be used to their full, but so too should existing ones, such as the DNA tracking of tusks, whose potential has been proved but which has been very slow to be properly implemented. Low-tech solutions can be just as useful, as shown by the success of the community conservation movement in the north of Kenya and in Namibia.

The root of the problemme lies in excessive ivory can be changed, as it was both in the West and in Japan. But such shifts take time, and awareness of what is happening to elephants must rapidly be shared in ivory consumer countries in the East. If it is not, elephants will not survive even at their current reduced levels.

The clock is ticking. A coalition of the willing is needed to help change come faster. To paraphrase Clinton, elephants cannot be manufactured. Once they're gone, they cannot be replaced.

We must tackle the demand for ivory. If we do not elephant massacres like those of the two Congos, Cameroon, Chad and Kenya will be repeated, over the coming months and years, intensifying and spreading deeper into areas previously seen as safe.

No amount of seizures and arrests on their own will be able to stem the tide of death that threatens Africa's elephants.

This article was first published in Swara magazine

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