A jumbo-sized problem - Africa’s elephants in peril

Neil Clark
Neil Clark is a journalist, writer, broadcaster and blogger. He has written for many newspapers and magazines in the UK and other countries including The Guardian, Morning Star, Daily and Sunday Express, Mail on Sunday, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, The Spectator, The Week, and The American Conservative. He is a regular pundit on RT and has also appeared on BBC TV and radio, Sky News, Press TV and the Voice of Russia. He is the co-founder of the Campaign For Public Ownership @PublicOwnership. His award winning blog can be found at www.neilclark66.blogspot.com. He tweets on politics and world affairs @NeilClark66
Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo
Seventy years ago, there were between 3 million and 5 million elephants in Africa. Today, as the number of African bush elephants has dropped to nearly half a million, this magnificent animal faces extinction in some parts of the continent.

“If conservation action is not forthcoming, elephants may become locally extinct in some parts of Africa within 50 years,” warns the World Wildlife Fund.

Others have said that elephants could be extinct in Africa within our lifetime.

Recent news about elephant populations has been heartbreaking. These wonderful animals are being slaughtered on a truly horrific scale.

Last week, it was reported that the elephant population of Mozambique has almost halved since 2009, due to poaching. There were over 20,000 elephants in the southeast African state in 2009, but last year the total was down to 10,300.

This comes on the back of news that half of the elephants in Tanzania’s Ruaha National Park – one of the largest national parks in the whole of Africa – have been lost to poachers in just one year.

Elephants walk inside Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park. (Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo)

The decline in numbers of the African elephants is a shocking indictment of the way that modern man has exploited the natural world. Not so long ago, it was considered “the thing” to do for wealthy westerners to go to Africa to butcher elephants for “sport.”

One of the most famous of the “big game hunters” was Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell, aka “Karamojo Bell,” who was described as ‘the greatest of all elephant hunters’. It is thought Bell shot and killed over 1,000 elephants for their ivory. Licensed hunting still goes on, regrettably. In 2009, it was reported how an American huntress, Teressa Groenewald-Hagerman, won a bet by becoming the first woman in the world to kill an elephant with a bow and arrow.

As sickening as elephant hunting is, the biggest threat to numbers today comes from illegal poaching for ivory. Data revealed that in 2011, elephant poaching reached its highest levels in 16 years. In 2013, around 20,000 elephants in Africa were killed by poachers.

The problem is at its worst in central Africa where 64% of the elephant population has been lost in the last decade. In December 2013, new figures revealed that if poaching rates continued at the same levels, then Africa is likely to lose 20% of its elephants in the next ten years.

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Are we simply going to sit back and allow this to happen? In 1990, the international sale of ivory was banned, but demand in some countries is still there – making poaching a very lucrative business indeed. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, and poachers are willing to run the risk of getting apprehended when the rewards are so high. Some argue that because the rewards are so high, only the death penalty for convicted poachers would be an adequate deterrent and make poachers think twice before killing elephants.

In 2013, a government minister in Tanzania called for a “shoot-to-kill”policy against poachers in his country.

Poachers must be harshly punished because they are merciless people who wantonly kill our wildlife and sometimes wardens... “The only way to solve this problem is to execute the killers on the spot," Khamis Kagasheki said.

Shoot-to-kill policies against poachers have been carried out elsewhere: in Zimbabwe once was in place from 1984 until the mid-1990s (today there are mandatory nine-year prison sentences for ivory poachers and those found in possession of raw ivory). Botswana has adopted a ‘shot-to-kill’ policy too- perhaps this explains, at least in part, why the country has one of the lowest elephant poaching rates in the world.

A few months ago I was lucky enough to visit the Hwange National Park in northwest Zimbabwe – home to Africa’s largest single concentration of elephants. It didn‘t take us too long to come across a herd, and it was a wonderful experience to get reasonably close-up to them in our jeep. Hwange is home to about 20,000 elephants

but poaching, as in other national parks, remains a problem. One of our party remarked on the high number of carcasses we saw. In 2013, around 300 elephants in Hwange were poisoned by poachers with cyanide. The rangers are doing their best to protect Hwange’s wildlife, but the problem is that the park covers a huge area – it’s roughly the size of Belgium, and so it’s very hard to adequately patrol.

The Zimbabwean authorities have come up with a scheme to raise more money for anti-poaching patrols and boost conservation, but it’s controversial to say the least, as it involves selling some of the park’s elephants to zoos. In January, it was confirmed that 62 baby elephants would be exported to France, the United Arab Emirates and China. In May, it was reported that Zimbabwe was to sell wild animals - including elephants - to Angola.

A herd of elephants gather at a watering hole inside Hwange National Park. (Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo)

‘The selling off of live elephants will enable the wildlife authority to raise enough funds to protect the jumbos and other wildlife,” a Zimbabwean official said.

But the scheme has been criticized by wildlife campaigners in Zimbabwe, who have described taking baby elephants away from their mothers as “cruel.”

One way or another, the battle against the poachers has to be won.

However, that means more resources being put into wildlife protection, in countries which are among the world’s poorest – and in some cases, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, which have been badly hit by war. We hear the phrase “international community” a lot from the US and its closest allies, but the catastrophic decline in elephant populations in Africa can only be reversed by a new-found international commitment – from all the countries of the world – to save the elephant and indeed other endangered species.

Amid all the gloom there are signs of hope that the African elephant can be saved.

It didn’t make the headlines it should have, but the announcement by the Chinese authorities that they would phase outChina’s ivory market made during a public destruction of 662kg of confiscated illegal ivory, was a very positive development.

Attitudes towards the ivory trade are changing in southeast Asia - traditionally the largest market for ivory products: a recent poll in Hong Kong showed 75 percent support for a total ban on elephant ivory sales.

In China, 95 percent of people support such a ban.

The hosting, in Botswana, of an African Elephant Summit in March, to focus on the problems and discuss solutions, was another step in the right direction. “The overall objective of this meeting is to secure commitments at the highest political level to effectively protect the elephants and significantly reduce the trends of killings of elephants,” a spokesperson from the Botswana Environment Ministry said. Around 20 countries attended the summit.

There’s also been some success “on the ground” in protecting elephant numbers. It was recently reported that elephant numbers in Uganda, which plummeted to around 700-800 in the early 1980s, are now up back up to around 5,000. The use of cutting-edge technology by rangers in their battle against poachers has been hailed as a major factor in the country’s conservation success – an example other countries could copy, with the help of international funding.

In the 1990 film,“White Hunter, Black Heart,”Clint Eastwood plays the hunting- obsessed Hollywood director John Wilson (based on the real-life director of“The African Queen,”John Huston). He‘s challenged by his screenwriter, Peter Verrill, about his desire to shoot an elephant while on location in Africa. Verrill describes the elephant as“one of the rarest, noblest creatures that walks the face of this crummy earth,”and says that killing one is a crime, to which Wilson replies:“You’re wrong. kid. It’s not a crime to kill an elephant. It’s bigger than all that. It’s a sin to kill an elephant. You understand? It’s the only sin you can go out and buy a license for and go out and commit…. Do you understand me? Of course, you don’t. I don’t even understand myself.”

Wilson was right. It is a sin to kill an elephant and a sin of enormous proportions if we allow the current slaughter to continue.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.