The War on Elephants

Alastair Leithead, The War on Elephants. BBC, 28 April 2016. “How the very existence of Africa’s elephants is threatened by poachers, traffickers and Asia’s appetite for ivory.”

Garamba, in the north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, is one of the oldest national parks in Africa, designated in 1938….

The park was made a World Heritage Site in 1980 for its rare Northern White Rhinos, and with 22,000 elephants back then, they never seemed in danger.

But the last rhino was seen some years ago. Poaching has wiped them out, and now with 95% of the elephants gone, and the killing continuing week after week, these giants are going the same way….

For many years Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army has funded its rampage of rape, kidnap and killing through the ivory trade, but there’s a newer, bigger threat.

The park borders South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, which has been tearing itself apart in civil war for more than two years.

Disparate heavily armed rebel groups regularly pass through, killing the animals, cutting off their tusks and handing them over to traffickers, who smuggle the ivory across the continent and on to its main markets in Asia.

There’s also the threat of local poachers and heavily armed Sudanese horsemen hiding among the nomadic cattle herders who come south through the Central African Republic. It’s thought that soldiers from there and nearby countries have joined the killing frenzy….

Every year in Africa between 30,000 and 40,000 elephants are poached for their ivory, and it’s thought there are only 400,000 left.

Even accounting for the newborns, this rate of killing calls into question whether these amazing creatures will still be around in a generation, especially as Africa’s ever-increasing population is reducing the space for them….

Organised crime runs the ivory industry.

“Corruption is probably the single biggest cause of the increase in elephant poaching,” says Esmond Bradley Martin, who has spent decades talking to traders and traffickers and investigating smuggling routes around the world.

“Most ivory now is going out of Africa through Dar es Salaam and Mombasa, so there’s corruption in those ports as well. Then it has to be shipped over to Asia – mostly Vietnam and China – so there’s corruption all along the line. And it’s obviously increased significantly.”

Many of the complex networks crossing the continent lead to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, which for the past few years has been the hub of African ivory smuggling….

The ivory is getting through because people are prepared to pay for it. Stopping the men with arrows and the corrupt officials is just one part of the solution – the other is destroying the hunger for ivory.

The love of ivory goes back millennia. Its pure, translucent beauty and the ease with which a tusk can be carved into intricate sculptures, has given it a lasting value throughout the ages….

A high-profile publicity campaign driven by social media has been launched in China to try to destroy the demand for ivory by educating people about the impact it has on the African elephant population….

Later this year [2016] at a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting in Johannesburg, the world’s wildlife experts will come together, and one of the key questions up for discussion will be whether today’s limited international legal trade in ivory should be banned outright.

Broadly speaking, southern African countries, where many of Africa’s 400,000 elephants remain, are in favour of selling ivory stockpiles and using the money for conservation. There have been two one-off sales in 1999 and 2008 from southern African countries to China and Japan.

But countries such as Kenya are vehemently opposed to any ivory sales – saying they just encourage the illegal trade – and want a complete ban.

It is a fierce debate within the conservation world. Some argue that because ivory is now being hoarded as a commodity by investors, destroying huge amounts will increase its rarity value and actually put the price up….

…[T]here are also ways of making elephants more valuable alive than dead….

There is a stark difference between the way Westerners view elephants, through the prism of safari holidays and wildlife documentaries, and the perception of those who have to live with them.

And in future more people will be living with them.

The number of Africans will double from one billion to two billion people in the next 20 years and there must be somewhere for them to live, somewhere for their food to be grown and for their cattle to graze.

Europe wiped out its vast forests and its big wildlife centuries ago, and there is hypocrisy in asking Africa to protect its landscape at the expense of economic growth….

There is another problem too, both for humans and elephants – loss of habitat as a result of climate change. As it intensifies the competition for space will only increase.

A hundred years ago there were perhaps 10 million elephants in Africa. Today there are fewer than half a million and that number is falling fast….

About half of Africa’s remaining elephants roam the sparsely populated spaces of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area – a cross-border region the size of France shared between Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

A new elephant census to be published this year is expected to show a healthy population here, and in some places there are too many elephants for the habitat.

But in most places – as in Garamba and Tanzania – elephants are in decline….

Tourism and tougher laws and penalties are working together in Kenya, where the level of poaching in the past five years spiked and then dropped significantly.

In Namibia it’s hunting that has given value to live elephants, and a high level of accountability ensures the cash goes where it should.

Solutions in one country do not necessarily work in another, when levels of corruption differ and attitudes toward wildlife change….

“The whole global community has to come together to make a future for elephants,” says Milliken [elephant and rhino expert for the wildlife trade monitoring network, Traffic].

“I think if you lose elephants you are saying something about the future of humanity.

“If we can’t learn to live sustainably on Earth, if we can’t learn to share space with other creatures, what future is there for us in the long term?”