A story on the threat the Chinese-induced ivory trade poses to elephants in Africa published in the Seattle Times Sunday partly underscored the big dilemma Africa faces as it tries to preserve the last of the wild populations of these venerable pachyderms.
The story, by The Associated Press, also rekindled memories of an Africa-wide meeting I covered two years ago in Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa during which representatives of 19 African countries openly voiced discordant views on whether the elephant is more valuable to Africa – and to the world – dead or alive. The meeting was held prior to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
For some reason unknown to me then, most of the speakers had pleaded with the United Nations-funded endangered species convention not to allow China to be a partner in the limited ivory trade that had been allowed by the UN body previously. But when a number of Chinese nationals were arrested in different airports in East Africa with illegally acquired ivory, it dawned on me why African countries had raised the alarm. It also appears that the fear then was that China, unlike Japan, had not come up with an effective way of ensuring that illegally acquired ivory is not traded within its boundaries.
But in more significant terms, the true story of the African elephant is a love-hate story that goes beyond what the Chinese have been up to. It was telling that even as the accusations against China flew from one corner of the hall to the other, the enigmatic dragon was nowhere to defend itself. At the same time, representatives from countries including Togo, Cameroon, Congo, Brazzaville and Sierra Leone said that even before China had made a request to be allowed to partner in the trade, they had been losing their small elephant populations to poachers largely because they did not have adequate people to protect the animals on the ground.
Thus it might not be right to lump all the blame on China and the Chinese.
For me, the true story of the African elephant is one that is never told properly. Instead, its narrators have tended to cling somewhere between expressing romantic notions about the African wilderness and voicing deep concern – in a world so guilty for immensely damaging the ability of fellow residents of mother earth to survive – that anybody in their right faculties would load a gun and kill elephants merely to sell their two elongated teeth.
But having covered the politics of conservation for years in East Africa, I came to appreciate that the story out there of the African elephant is hardly about the "myths" that have continued to inform a world gripped by an undying fascination with the wilderness and all its residents.
As I came to learn from the conference on endangered species, Africa is in a great dilemma as far as conservation of its elephant population is concerned and that disagreements about whether international trade in ivory ought to be allowed are deeper than previously thought.
Samuel Wasser, a biologist from the University of Washington Center for Conservation Biology, believes that allowing international ivory trade would lead to a surge in poaching – even away from countries that end up getting the nod to sell ivory. “There is a relationship between legal (ivory) sale and poaching," he said in an interview Monday.
Wasser was instrumental in the development and use of DNA profiling of ivory in the market, which is said to be an effective method of monitoring where the ivory came from in the first place.
He says that during buildups to international endangered species meetings, the very focus given to it by the media leads to a rise in the elephant killings because the poachers expect to offload ivory in the event that a major pro-trade announcement is made.
Such killings appear to have escalated since late 1990s. For instance, Wasser says that since 1997, as many as 20,000 kilos of ivory were seized by customs authorities each year: “Customs officials estimated that the seizures were a mere 10 percent of the ivory smuggled from African countries. This means that as many as 30,000 elephants are killed each year.”
He says that this means that each year, Africa has been losing about 6.5 percent of its entire elephant population. Now, this is a worrisome trend because it surpasses the rate of natural increase, which stands at between 4 percent and 6 percent.
As a result, the Democratic Republic of Congo has lost 95 percent of its elephant population over the last five years alone while equally significant losses have been recorded in Chad, Ghana and Tanzania. Wasser says Tanzania lost 30,000 elephants over the last year in its Selou Park alone! In the past, there have also been fears in Kenya that besides the recent rise in poaching there, the country’s elephants could – in a way – be facing a subtle threat from ongoing widespread killings in Tanzania since, just like other wildlife, elephants crisscross the Kenya-Tanzania border. Unlike Kenya, Tanzania allows killing of animals for sport (or safari hunting).
Kenya digs in its heels
With an estimated elephant population of slightly more than 20,000 (the figure could be larger or smaller depending on who you ask) Kenya always digs its heels deep during meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Almost always, the country maintains that allowing trade in ivory would open floodgates for illegal poaching of its elephants. And Kenya has so much to be afraid of because it has a porous 900-mile border with Somalia, where decades of lawlessness has meant, among other things, a big security nightmare for wildlife in its 55 national parks and reserves. In addition, the long-running conflicts in such countries like Congo, Chad and the Central African Republic appear to strengthen Kenya’s argument because conflicts always end up giving poachers free rein to reduce the already small elephant numbers in the region. During the meeting, delegates from Central Africa had expressed fears that allowing China to partner in the limited ivory trade would have worsened the poaching that was already going on there.
Inability to meet basic needs (food, clean and adequate water as well as decent housing) for a significant percentage of Kenya’s 40 million people remains a big nightmare and could – in a way – be contributing to loss of elephant herds. Besides intruding on elephant habitats, the fact that millions live in dire straits essentially means that some would jump for anything (legal or illegal) to make cash. The greatest danger is that even individuals from those communities like the Maasai or their cousins the Samburu, who have strong conservation traditions engraved in their culture, have increasingly being jumping for such inducements. As the Associated Pressreported, this is how most of the 271 elephants killed in Kenya last year met their deaths.
Thus Kenya has reason to worry and has made it abundantly clear during the last four or so endangered species conventions that it wanted nothing but a total ban on global ivory trade. As if to underscore its seriousness, the country’s former president burned 12 tons of ivory before the full glare of international media on July 19, 1989. And as the 20-foot pile, $3-million worth of elephant tusks went up in flames, Kenya used the gesture to send a message, to a world that paid attention then, that killing elephants for their teeth ought be made unprofitable. Indeed, coming from a poor country (where more than half of the people live on less than a dollar a day), the gesture attained global sympathy leading to an international ban on trade in ivory in October the same year during an endangered species meeting held in Switzerland.
Over the years, Kenya had also sought and received sympathy for its position from developed countries and from fellow African countries – the Sudan, Mali, Sierra Leone, the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, Southern Sudan and Ghana. One characteristic running through the anti-ivory trade group of African countries is that these nations also happen to be among the poorest in the world and most lack the wherewithal to effectively conserve their wildlife.
On the other hand, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland and Zimbabwe have always clamored to be allowed to sell stockpiles of ivory they had accumulated since the ban. Initially, delegates from these countries had watched with envy as the anti-ivory trade groups succeeded in convincing the world to maintain the ban. But it appears that Kenya’s argument for supporting the ban was becoming less fashionable, particularly to Southern African countries, which often raised the counter-argument that they should not be victimized (through the ban) because of inability of Kenya and her anti-trade partners to secure their elephant populations from poachers. Several years ago, their arguments appeared to have carried the day after the international endangered species meeting held in The Hague, Nertherlands, allowed them to offload 107 tons of their ivory stockpiles into the international market. Interestingly, they were allowed to sell to Japan and not to China.
To the anti-ivory trade group, this was a major setback and they had lobbied hard, but it seems one cannot have his or her way all the time.
Of course, there are other African countries, some with significant elephant populations, that prefer to sit on the fence and whose delegates either miss out during endangered species meetings or raise muted voices about their position.
A host of factors
But why are some African countries so sensitive about the resumption of international trade in ivory? The answer to this question hinges on a host of factors, most of which escape the attention of international media.
One nagging fact is that much of Africa’s elephant range is no more. One of Africa’s foremost researchers in elephants, Patrick Omondi of the Kenya Wildlife Service, maintains that the vast areas Africa had – throughout history – been devoted to elephants to feed, breed and play, are largely gone. Elephants, Omondi says, can today be found in 37 elephant-range states in Africa where they either live in vast grassland-dominated savannah (particularly in East and Southern Africa) or in tropical forests like the ones found in the Democratic Republic of Congo and parts of West Africa. Today, there are about 2.6 million square kilometers of land available for elephants. But only a mere 31 percent of these lands are protected areas where elephants as well as other wild animals have reasonable chances of survival away from poachers’ bullets, snares and poisoned arrows. Now, such protected areas in southern Africa constitute 39 percent of the elephant range. East Africa and West Africa constitute 22 percent and 39 percent, respectively.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Southern Africa has the largest amount of open land for elephant conservation and also the biggest known population of elephants on the continent. Although elephant data might have changed owing to ongoing poaching in Kenya and elsewhere, it is estimated that there are 297,715 elephants in Southern African countries while East Africa has 137,485. Both Central Africa as well as West Africa have 10,383 and 7,487, respectively. Thus, Africa might be having plus or minus 472,269 elephants remaining today.
Evidently, this appears like a situation of too many elephants in some African regions and too few in others. However, some would argue that it would be misleading to say that any region in Africa has too many elephants, particularly when one takes into account data from the Smithsonian Institute that say that African elephant herds plummeted between 1979 and 1989 from some 1,300,000 animals to 750,000.
Wasser, the UW biologist, says that Southern African countries, in particular, face a “density problem” in that most of their elephants are concentrated in a limited area – which are more often than not fenced and installed with artificial water holes: “Droughts result in elephants regulating their numbers because they do not breed then, but in a situation where they are supplied with water all the time, this does not happen.”
The remaining elephant population in Africa further faces the more direct threat posed by human-elephant conflict. Over the last few decades, human population has risen almost exponentially in most African countries. As people sought land to live and grow food, this has tended to eat into the remaining habitats for elephants and other wild animals. The threat might be more imminent for elephants because, owing to their sheer size, these pachyderms feed for 16 to 18 hours a day, consuming between 330 and 375 pounds of vegetation in the process – and they continue doing so for as many as 60 years.
So, to maintain big numbers of elephant herds – whose feeding habits are a study in destruction – required huge tracts of land and has been a big dilemma for many African countries. It ought to be appreciated that elephants routinely fell trees, young and old, thus seriously damaging fragile ecosystems. Humans equally need the land and moreso in Africa because a significant percentage of population is rural, farm-based and depends on the direct consumption of natural resources. As a result, it is not always easy to determine whose interests – between the elephants and humans – ought to take top priority, particularly in areas bordering wildlife-protected areas. And where authorities have failed to come up with land-use plans that would designate elephant range and set it apart from other forms of land use, serious conflicts always result. In some cases, the conflicts take a tit-for-tat fashion in which humans kill or injure elephants when the latter kill or injure their relatives or destroy crops.
Are we seeing the last of African jumbos?
As a result, many policy makers in Africa have advocated for a reduction in the size of elephant population to lessen the conflict. But Wasser terms this a “silly” argument, saying that only a small number of elephants cause such problems and that even when you reduce their numbers, there will always be rogue jumbos to wreak havoc on people’s farms.
“If anything, it is poaching that has exacerbated conflicts, because elephants feel unsafe living in protected areas and tend to wander off,” Wasser said. Wasser says that more often than not, poachers end up killing matriarchs, thus rendering the herds leaderless and making them prone to ceaseless wandering away from protected areas.
All that has been taking place in Africa points to the fact that the world could, unwittingly, be seeing the last of the truly wild species of elephants. Wasser believes that unless something drastic and consistent is done, we could be facing a total loss of African elephants in the next 20 to 30 years.
But if this statement is to be turned around, it might be taken to mean that the world has a 20- to 30-year window of opportunity to do something. And at some point, the world might probably embrace African elephants as part of its remaining natural heritage to which every human being has a claim – direct or indirect. This might mean raising the amount of resources – both financial and technical – that Africa needs to safeguard this heritage, and entering into pacts that would ensure elephant range states in Africa commit themselves to safeguarding elephants for the young and the unborn.
Of course, there are individuals, groups and organizations – including governments – that have aided greatly to keep wildlife protected in Africa, and whose experience would be valuable in securing this. But as fortunes in the global economy worsened over the last couple of years, it appears that the grand donor-dependent conservation project in Africa is doomed – which points to a different level of dilemma.