6 January 2018

Rwanda: As We Applaud China's Ivory Ban, Let Us Visit Mutware the Elephant

Many Rwandans will be familiar with Mutware (chief), the ageing patriarch elephant at Akagera National Park. He miraculously survived the loss of his tusks at the hands of poachers in 1994 as the battle raged to liberate the country from the genocidaires.

Aged around 40 years now, he has since become an icon pulling domestic and foreign tourists to the park, in addition to enjoying fond embrace among the locals despite his escapades in their farms.

As the world continues to applaud the landmark ban on ivory sales in China that went into force on 31st December 2017, it is worth taking note of Mutware's resilience. Along with the elephant herd numbering over 80 in the park, he is assured of a long life, not least because of his tusk-less visage to interest the poachers.

But it is also because, under the watch of the conservation organisation African Parks that manages Akagera, the pachyderms and other game at the park rank amongst the best guarded on a continent that continues to suffer carnage of its wildlife - chief among them the elephant and rhino - at the hands of the highly militarised rustlers.

Rwanda is among 9 countries in the continent with protected game parks and reserves managed by African Parks, a non-profit organisation supported by a range of international partners dedicated to wildlife conservation in Africa.

Under the initiative, last year Rwanda became one of the first countries to adopt a new technology system, dubbed "smart park", that allows park rangers to monitor animals, visitors, and equipment in real-time through a Long Range Wide-Area Network (LoRaWAN). A smaller version of the LoRaWAN technology was initially employed in Tanzania in 2016.

For the moment, however, the focus is on China's ban on ivory sales and the impact this is likely to have on elephant populations in Africa.

It is estimated that 30,000 African elephants are killed by poachers every year. The situation is so dire that unless something drastic is done to curb the carnage that wildlife campaigners' fear that the continent's elephants may be annihilated in a decade.

The African elephant population is estimated to have numbered more than 20 million in the year 1800 but now stands at less than half a million.

The story of its decimation starts with the European colonial powers and North American entrepreneurs throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries to feed a demand for ivory jewellery and other ornaments, billiard balls and piano keys. By 1960 there were just two million.

Then, in the 1970s and '80s with Japan's economic rise the slaughter continued further decimating the numbers.

Soon after, with China's subsequent emergence as a major economic power amid allegations of corruption and crony capitalism fuelled by its burgeoning middle-class penchant for displays of success, the country rose to the top accounting for up to 70 per cent of the global demand for ivory.

For this reason, the Chinese government's closure last Sunday of some 34 processing enterprises and 143 designated trading venues is being hailed as a significant step toward reducing elephant poaching.

A statement by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) summed global support for the ban noting how "China's actions, more than those of any other country, can reverse the trend of elephant poaching and illegal ivory trafficking, and have a significant impact on the future survival of African elephants."

It, however, won't be so easy. This is not least because the demand is yet to be unquenched even in some countries in the European Union including the United Kingdom and Japan, but also in the raging debate about whether or not to allow the legal sale of stockpiled caches of ivory by some countries.

For instance, many conservationists have pointed to the dramatic increase in elephant poaching, despite the 1989 international ivory trade ban. They specifically note how the one-time sale of ivory to China by Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe in 2008 sanctioned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) provided the opportunity for traffickers to slip illegally obtained ivory leading to the increase in poaching.

On the other hand, there are countries such as Kenya that are set against allowing legalised sale, and continue piling pressure on nations opposed to the ban on ivory trade.

In effect, it all means a lot remains to be done even as Mutware and the Akagera herd remain relatively safe.


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