It’s like a scary movie: Just when you think the creature is finally dead, he rears his ugly head again. This monster is the poaching of African elephants for their tusks, and the details are both horrific and heartbreaking.
Until fairly recently, it seemed as though this problem had been stabilized. An international ban on the ivory trade in 1989, and an effective awareness campaign, highlighted by Kenya’s burning of confiscated ivory stocks, helped stem the slaughter and diminish demand for ivory.
This came at the end of a bloody decade that saw an elephant poached every 10 minutes; over 50,000 per year, claiming more than two thirds of Africa’s wild elephants.
Less than a decade later, the progress was reversed by a seriously misinformed decision. The Convention on the Illegal Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) caved to pressure from Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia and allowed these governments a one time, “experimental,” sale of 50 tons of stockpiled ivory to a single customer, Japan.
The justification was that saturating the market with that much ivory would so increase the supply that the prices would decline as demand was met. Thus, taking the incentive out of poaching. The experiment failed miserably.
Elephant range states, including Kenya, worried that China was emerging as a major market for poached ivory. The findings of a 2002 Environmental Investigation Agency report supported those concerns.
That year, China itself warned that the Japan experiment had confused consumers into believing that trade in ivory had resumed, and it was now OK to purchase it. This sentiment did not last long. By 2008 China, with newfound wealth and an insatiable consumer culture, wanted in.
They petitioned CITES to become approved ivory buyers, and joined in the bidding in 2008 for a second sale. This time it was a stockpile of 102 tons of ivory from the previous three countries and South Africa.
The consequence has been devastating. Like a drug dealer, supplying just enough to get you hooked, CITES-sanctioned sales have placed ivory front and center as a status object, stoking global demand beyond what the ivory on all the remaining elephants could even come close to meeting. China is still expanding its ivory-carving factories.
The African elephant population is currently approximately 350,000 to 400,000. Conservative estimates are of 35,000 elephants poached per year, but most agree that the numbers probably exceed 50,000. Killing on that scale requires mechanization and unimaginable cruelty.
The trade in ivory is estimated at $7 billion to $10 billion annually. The rifle has been replaced with AK-47s, rocket propelled grenades and helicopter gunships. Nails are placed on elephant paths. When the elephants cannot walk, they are shot. Entire herds are machine gunned or poisoned.
This summer, a herd of 91 elephants in Zimbabwe was killed when their watering hole was laced with cyanide. Scores of other animals including lions, hyenas, and vultures were also killed.
Why should we care?
Elephants are not only the largest land animal, they are among the most intelligent, maybe our closest match. Research has shown that they are capable of expressing complex thoughts using a common language of intricate acoustics, including infrasound, which projects over many miles.
Elephants form strong family units. These beautiful, magnificent creatures which mourn their lost family members, demonstrate compassion, loyalty and long memories. They embody all the qualities we love and respect in people.
They are the symbol of sub-Saharan Africa. They hold a special place in our imaginations, and our world would be seriously diminished if they were destroyed for no better reason than to provide trinkets and decorations.
Like ours, elephant society depends upon the guidance of elders. In times of drought, the matriarchs know where to go for food and water. The selective extermination of older elephants, which have the largest tusks, has created a knowledge gap. This has doubled the mortality rate of calves in times of drought and wrought havoc on their social order.
The dense forests of Central Africa depend upon elephants for seed dispersal. These forests among our most important tools in managing climate change. Many other species depend upon the water holes they dig and the clearings and trails they create. Elephants play a critical role in many ecosystems.
Illegal ivory funds terrorist groups such as al Shabaab, an affiliate of al-Qaida. Its estimated that 40 percent of their revenue, $200,000 to $600,000 per month, comes from illegal ivory.
The war is on, and it is a war. In Nairobi, The Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/ has seen its numbers swell with baby elephants, orphans of poaching. But the frontline rangers protecting the elephants on the ground are being killed in numbers, making orphans of their children as well.
The Clinton Global Initiative has just announced an $80 million commitment to action to stop the slaughter. The Wildlife Conservation Society has announced plans to support the global initiative with its campaign called, “96 Elephants,” named for the number of elephants killed each day for their ivory. The campaign hopes to combine the collective influence of average citizens, activists and world leaders to directly protect elephant populations and reduce global demand.
China is now the world’s top consumer of illegal ivory, by far. Don’t cast a stone quite yet. The United States is the world’s second largest ivory market, with a significant amount of this being illegally imported from China. We are complicit in the carnage.
The engine of this genocide is demand for ivory. The only solution is a “Just say no” approach. The legal ivory trade creates loopholes for the illegal trade and sends the wrong message to the world. The U.S. and the world must impose a ban on all ivory trade. Just as one would not knowingly wear the products of child labor, one cannot buy or display ivory.
What can you do?
Go to www.96elephants.org/. Get informed. Get involved. Spread the word. To be informed about ivory is to abhor it. How can an item, stripped from, and at the cost of, such a wondrous animal; so costly to our ecosystems, supportive of terrorism and born of cruelty and greed, be considered beautiful?
Yet, walk into almost any antique store, or go online, and you won’t have to look long to find it. It’s “pre-ban” or antique, you will be told. Don’t accept that. It’s mere presence says some ivory is OK, and the legal trade provides cover for the illegal trade. The goal is to stop the demand, stop the killing and stop the trafficking.
The U.S. must lead the world by example by imposing a total ban on the ivory trade.
Dr. Henri Bianucci is a local veterinarian. He also writes The Post and Courier’s Pet Docs column with Dr. Perry Jameson, his colleague at Veterinary Specialty Care LLC.