Saving the Last African Elephants
One afternoon in late October 2012, in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, photographer Nick Brandt was lucky enough to capture an entire elephant family on film. He watched the matriarch Qumquat, her daughters and a ten-month old calf stroll through the Amboseli National Park in the Rift Valley Province, Kenya. Born in 1968, Qumquat was one of the oldest and most beloved elephants roaming the park. But that afternoon was to be her last walk with her family. Criminal wildlife poachers shot the beloved elephant, along with two of her daughters, the very next day. They then hacked out their ivory tusks, leaving their majestic bodies lying in the blood and dust.
Park rangers scrambled into position, but because of outdated equipment were slow to locate the poachers. Shots were fired at the rangers, and they held their ground amidst a frenzy of confusion. As night fell, they called off their search. But by morning they had located the bodies of the three murdered beasts and miraculously found the ten month old calf, who after seeing his mother gunned down and so horrifically slaughtered, had stood vigil by her side all night, alone in the silence. His time of roaming the savanna with his family was over. He was rescued by a trained team, and promptly airlifted away from Ambosili National Park, away from his natural home, to the David Sheldrick Orphaned Elephant Sanctuary. The other adolescent elephants of the herd were not located, and their chances of surviving without the protection of their mothers were few.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident, as the Sheldrake Orphanage even cares for elephants who where orphaned on the same day they were born. As heartbreaking and senseless as this murder is, there are still people in the world today who want to buy ivory, there are still countries who want to trade and buy ivory, and there are still people who steal, slaughter and torture endangered and vulnerable tigers, lions, rhinoceroses, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and elephants for profit. The carvings and trinkets (even, ironically, miniature carved elephants), made from ivory tusks are still sought out by people in Asia, specifically China and Thailand.
Today, under 500,000 African elephants remain in the wild, down from 5 million just 70 years ago.
March 3, 2013 marks the 16th annual Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITIES) bringing world leaders together to redefine laws that can hopefully stop people from getting away with the murder of these imperiled creatures. CITIES, however, is not a magic bullet. The group has faltered under corruption, confusion and weak policies in the past. Their bottom line concerns trade over animals. For instance, although a ban on ivory trade was instituted in 1989, it was lifted in 1999 with a plan to sell stockpiled ivory in a “one time” legal sale to Japan. This was then repeated for China. The reintroduction of that ivory incited a lust for more, while increasing consumers’ confusion and traffickers’ corrupt activities. Sadly, the biggest loser was the African elephant, as poachers gladly helped themselves to more killing, fueled by the indistinguishable ivory flooding the market. Today, under 500,000 African elephants remain in the wild, down from 5 million just 70 years ago. Eight African elephants were killed every hour from 1979 to 1989. If ivory consumption continues, scientists estimate the African elephant could vanish in the next seven to ten years.
The Vanishing Footprints of Elephants in Africa
Elephants are extremely social and intelligent creatures and will remain alone even twenty years after the loss of a family group. They have been shown to exhibit “mirror recognition” (the ability to recognize themselves in the mirror), something only certain great apes and dolphins have been known to do. They use touch as a form of communication, make and use rudimentary tools, and also communicate through the use of seismic vibrations. Biologists believe they use their leg and shoulder bones as transmitters of sound to their inner ear. Interestingly, elephants have shown distinct signs of grieving other elephants’ deaths by picking their bones up with their tusks, cradling them, inspecting every inch, together, as if performing a rite—speaking, perhaps, through the bones themselves, listening to the frequencies only they understand.
A female elephant will carry her baby two years before giving birth and will remain without another calf for four to five years. This long interval makes protection of the creatures and their habitat absolutely imperative. But park rangers have found themselves in a war zone. Instead of biologists, they are now expected to be military troops as well. Dozens of park rangers were killed by poachers in 2012, fifteen in Kenya alone. Many national parks are begging for funds to help better protect the land and its inhabitants. They are in desperate need of better training, equipment, funding and government protection. Wildlife poachers are shooting at cars of park rangers, poisoning elephants and using helicopters as getaway vehicles.
Elephants are a keystone species. They provide seed dispersal that no other mammals can provide; they dig for water using their tusks as well as widening watering holes that are used by many other animals.
Gabon is one country taking a strong stance against the illicit ivory trade, installing 500 more rangers to patrol its national park, plus adding 250 military personnel. Dangerously low numbers of the subspecies of African forest elephants live in Gabon’s rain forests. However, newly built roads have accessed deeper parts of the forest, making it a river for criminals who kill elephants for their tusks and chimpanzees and other animals for illegal bush meat. There are only twenty African forest elephants left in the world whose tusks touch the ground. These forest elders would each be “worth” $100,000 dead. Estimates predict their extinction could come as little as five years from now—an extinction that would cause the African ecosystem irreparable damage. Elephants are a keystone species. They provide seed dispersal that no other mammals can provide; they dig for water using their tusks as well as widening watering holes that are used by many other animals. If Africa is left with only footprints, it will never be the same.
To add to this, when elephants and other animals roam beyond invisible boundaries of national parks, they become legal targets for “trophy” hunters. This unconscionable practice is carried out by wealthy tourists on vacation who pay top dollar for the chance to kill lions, elephants, buffalo, leopards, rhinoceros, crocodiles and even giraffes. Recently a trophy hunter killed one of the most beloved and photographed elder male elephants, who was considered by some to be the national symbol of Zimbabwe. He weighed five tons, and his tusks nearly touched the ground. He was featured in countless photographs with tourists over decades, seemingly enjoying the presence of people who were thrilled to get a chance to see such an otherworldly beast so close. He was also radio collared for research, something the hunter and his safari guide claimed to not see.
Wisely, in January of this year Botswana called for a halt of all trophy hunting, with Zambia following course with a large area now off limits. Both countries have banned the hunting of lions, leopards and elephants as well. African lions are waiting for critical endangered species status protection, but until that happens, they are routinely shot by vacationers in other areas of Sub-Saharan Africa—over 50% of them ending up on walls in the United States. However, an encouraging 87% of Americans are against trophy hunting and the trade of lion parts for meat.
The same cannot be said for countries like Vietnam, whose current insatiable need for Rhino horn fueled the illegal slaughter of 668 critically endangered Rhinoceros last year. Astonishingly, 105 have already been killed in just the first two months of 2013. The last 3,000 tigers in the wild have also been caught in the web of illegal wildlife trade, being starved to death in cages in southeast Asia to make, amongst other things, wine from their blood which people believe contains healing qualities. The illegal bush meat trade is also sadly on the rise. The remaining 170,000 wild chimpanzees, who share 98% of our DNA, are routinely killed by poachers, their meat ending up in expensive restaurants in Equatorial Africa, and international markets in Europe and America. The orphaned chimpanzee infants are sold into the illegal “pet” trade, and much like their orangutan cousins, are subjected to lives of misery and isolation.
Taking Action to Stop the Elephant Trade
Putting a world wide trade ban in place seems like the only hope for these iconic and remarkable animals. But instead of relying on groups like CITIES, we need to take a realistic look at the facts. A recent survey of 600 people in China found that 60% of them agreed that a ban on ivory would shut down the trade dramatically. But more telling is the fact that less than one fifth of the group said they saw a connection between ivory and animal cruelty. 50% of those polled said that educational videos on the subject did not sway their beliefs either. Similarly, rhino horn, banned since 1977, is seeing more of a devastating resurgence now than ever before.
The demand for these items is still there, and that demand is what needs to be addressed if we as a global family are to protect the last stands of these magical creatures. People buying ivory are doing so because they believe it enhances their spiritual, social, or cultural status. The confusion set in place by CITIES’ game of ethical musical chairs does not help matters. What needs to occur is a deep change in consumer attitudes and world views. To do that, we need to have all governments involved in wildlife crime on the same page. We need to stop the blurring of lines by CITIES and others, and start a viral campaign to stigmatize ownership of ivory and wildlife parts. It needs to be considered shameful and disgraceful. Status-seekers like Jay-Z, who bandy about their gym shoes made of crocodile, alligator, stingray, anaconda, boa and elephant skins, need to be shamed. The continuation of selective compassion and moral bankruptcy will be the continuation of the rape of Africa and the continuation of the systematic decimation of the planet’s finite animal wonders.
Status-seekers like Jay-Z, who bandy about their gym shoes made of crocodile, alligator, stingray, anaconda, boa and elephant skins, need to be shamed.
We need to capitalize on the small glimmers of hope such as the fact that 16% of those polled in the Chinese study said they would not buy ivory. That group needs to be targeted and expanded, the same way that the Chinese literati convinced people that mutilating women’s feet was not the way a successful culture behaves. Within two decades, a centuries old practice suddenly became taboo and ugly to those who woke up and realized that disabling women was cruel and disgusting. The change started with the elite, then moved through the middle classes and trickled down. Foreign views also greatly shaped a sense of dishonor and embarrassment throughout the Chinese elite, as they saw that playing on the international field of the dawning 20th century meant abiding by the international norms.
On March 3, 2013, the first day of the CITIES convention, the prime minister of Thailand stated that the country would institute a ban on all ivory trade. A petition with over a million and a half signatures from people around the world was cited as one of the factors in the decision. The remarks are a revelation, but what needs to happen is follow through. A timeline needs to be produced and implemented, and other countries, like China and Vietnam, need to follow. The United States needs to ban the trade and trophy hunting of these vastly diminished numbers of animals, as well as listing more animals on the endangered species list. Governments need to support the people on the front lines protecting the animals on a day to day basis. By aiding the work of experts in the field, spreading viral campaigns to curtail the demand for these items and working to stigmatize all aspects of wildlife crime, more peace and freedom for all living beings can be achieved.
Astonishingly, 44% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa are under the age of fifteen. They may never remember what was once their cultural and economic treasure trove when each day it’s being stolen, eaten, hacked away, shot at, caged and erased. These kids may not remember what was taken from them. But as entire families of African elephants are being slaughtered, one point is indisputable: Elephants never forget.
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