PETER FROST welcomes last week’s burning of 105 tons of elephant ivory and 1 ton of rhino horn in Kenya but believes more sophisticated methods of protecting wildlife are needed.
Elephants, largest of all animals that still walk upon the Earth, are among the most recognisable and beloved of wild creatures. Yet unless we take urgent action they could be totally extinct in the wild in 10 or 15 years. Wild populations are now less than 10 per cent what they were a century ago.
Their ancestors once roamed most of the planet, but today are now confined to shrinking areas of Africa and Asia.
Elephants are hunted mercilessly for their prized ivory tusks and are also severely threatened by habitat loss, human disturbance and the occasional rich so-called sportsmen and women who pay huge amounts of money to shoot them for fun.
I have been lucky enough to spend some time with wild elephants in South Africa. Addo Elephant National Park is now the third largest national park in South Africa and unlike most of the rest of the continent the population of elephants here is both healthy and growing.
I’ll never forget watching elephants visiting the floodlit water hole from my safari tent on the campsite.
Since Addo became a protected park in 1931 the elephant population has grown from just 11 animals to today’s population of over 600 of the magnificent beasts.
The park is also home to lion, buffalo, black rhino, spotted hyena, leopard, a variety of antelope and zebra species, as well as the unique Addo flightless elephant dung beetle, found almost exclusively there.
This is the only national park in the world to conserve the big seven — that is the normal big five of African game: lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros plus, in the off-shore section of the park, the southern right whale and great white shark.
Sadly, environmental success stories like Addo are rare exceptions to the drastic and disastrous reduction in African elephant numbers. Many experts believe the species could be extinct in our lifetime, that is within one or two decades.
Latest figures from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature make sad reading. The total African elephant population has dropped from 550,000 in 2006 to 470,000 in 2013. East Africa has seen the worst decline, from 150,000 to about 100,000.
The current killing rate is clearly unsustainable. So who is killing elephants and why?
Elephant hunting is often organised by international criminal networks to supply the illegal ivory market, mainly in Asia. The biggest trade in illegal ivory is from Kenya and Tanzania via countries including Vietnam and the Philippines, before going on final markets in China and Thailand where it is made into jewellery or art pieces that are sold at huge prices.
As so often the real driver is profit. Poachers sell their ivory for about £30 a pound. By the time it reaches China that pound of still unworked ivory will change hands for between £1,500 and £2,000. Ivory art works will sell for millions.
Julian Blanc, an elephant specialist for the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), points out the connection between poverty in Africa and elephant poaching: “In places where there is high level of infant mortality and poverty, we monitored the highest level of elephant poaching… so addressing poverty is a significant component of elephant conservation.”
Last weekend tusks from more than 6,000 illegally killed elephants were burnt in Nairobi national park, Kenya. It was the biggest ever destruction of an ivory stockpile and the most striking symbol yet of the plight of one of nature’s last great beasts.
Burning seized ivory is a highly public symbol of the fight to save the elephant from extinction. Together with crushing it puts the ivory beyond use preventing it from fuelling the world’s ivory markets — legal and illegal — and is a way of stamping out that trade.
This ceremonial burning of about 105 tons of elephant ivory and 1.5 tons of rhino horn was attended by Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta along with heads of state from Gabon and Uganda.
At the burning Kenyatta said Kenya would seek a “total ban on the trade in elephant ivory” at the Cites conference in Johannesburg this September. “The future of the African elephant and rhino is far from secure so long as demand for their products continues to exist,” he said.
Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones and patron of the Tusk charity was among celebrities speaking out to welcome the burn: “It makes me so sad to think that in another 15 years or so elephants, rhinos and even lions could have disappeared from the wild, denying our children the experience of knowing and loving them. We just cannot allow that to happen.”
Kenya first burned ivory in 1989, under President Daniel Arap Moi, as a symbol of its determination to protect its remaining elephant population, which had fallen 90 per cent in the previous 15 years, from 168,000 to 15,000 elephants.
Four countries — Kenya, Gabon, Uganda and Botswana — have among them more than half of Africa’s remaining elephants. The presidents met ahead of the burning and discussed new ways of preventing poaching including a call to close down the world’s remaining legal ivory markets.
Other methods of discouraging poaching, such as removing tusks and dyeing rhino horns, have been tried to limited effect.
Some countries have suggested limited hunting of iconic game species like elephants as a method of conservation. Last year, the limited permitted hunting of big game was brought to global attention when the lion Cecil was shot, sparking widespread outrage.
What is really clear is the need for buyers of ivory to be targeted by campaigns to stop the trade. Ivory, rhino horn and other parts of endangered animals, including tiger skins, are sometimes used in Chinese medicine, but potentially a bigger problem is their purchase as status symbols by the super rich in some Asian countries.
China officially disapproves of these trades, and there have been limited moves to discourage domestic markets, but widespread trade still continues. And as long as that trade continues the future of the elephants hangs in the balance.
This article first published on the 6 April 2016.