This past week, perhaps missed in most headlines, is news of the machine gun slaughter of a family elephant herd in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, the worst of its kind ever seen in Kenya. Horrendous as it is, it’s hardly an isolated incident in Africa, where wildlife are being gunned down at a record pace, including endangered species, by poachers financed by international criminal interests. Says Drew McVey, African elephant and rhino specialist, “This horrific crime demonstrates the lengths that poachers will go to get ivory—even killing a two-month old calf.”
What are the principal causes of the decline in Africa’s wildlife?
Habitat loss: Disruption of the ecosystem through deforestation and agriculture expansion continues unabated.
Poaching: Widespread and growing, corrupt government seems involved as evidenced in a Uganda military helicopter assault from the air in Garamba National Park in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Twenty-two elephants died, their tusks later cut from their bodies.
Population growth: The world’s fastest population growth is taking place in Africa. Today, there are 2-billion Africans, with an average of five children to a family. At present growth rates, the population will double at mid-century.
Poverty: It’s easy to understand the economic impetus behind poaching when a pound of ivory can glean as much as a $1000. Even without widespread poverty, such prices would continue to fuel the market. According to the NYT, tusks from a single adult elephant can be worth more than ten times the average African income. Reports abound that “in Tanzania, impoverished villagers are poisoning pumpkins and rolling them into the road for elephants to eat. In Gabon, subsistence hunters deep in the rain forest are being enlisted to kill elephants and hand over the tusks, sometimes for as little as a sack of salt.”
Terrorism and civil strife: Armed bands like the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Shabab have been on killing sprees to secure funds for weapons. Escapees from the LRA report that LRA head, Joseph Krony, has ordered unlimited killing of elephants. The LRA isn’t alone. In January 2012, the worst massacre on record took place in Bouba Ndjida National Park in Cameroon with 300 elephants slaughtered by Darfur militia 600 miles from home.
Which animals are most vulnerable?
Africa has a variegated animal population, much of it under duress. Among familiar animals, elephants, lions, rhinos, hippos and gorillas face immense survival challenges due to human exploitation.
What is the rate of decline?
Elephants have declined by 99% since the 1930s from an estimated 10 million to about 400,000 currently.
Only 10,000 rhinos survive, representing an 85% reduction since 1970. Of these, the black rhino, which once roamed throughout Africa, is down to just 2500 and confined to East Africa.
Lions have seen their numbers drop by 50% since the 1950s, when they were in the 40,000 range. Ranchers have been the primary cause for their decline.
Where is smuggling most prominent?
Most of the illegal trade takes place in Asia, with Hong Kong its primary center, despite diligent control efforts. In the last three months, custom officers have seized three shipments of ivory with an estimated worth exceeding $6 million. An estimated 70% of ivory smuggling ends up in China. There even exist popular online forums that give counsel on smuggling techniques.
What feeds this demand?
Medicinal: Rhino horns have been long regarded as an aphrodisiac.
Affluence: The pro-longed economic boom in China has fueled the rise of an affluent class that sees possession of such contraband as reflecting status. It’s the same principle behind why some people choose more house than they need or a price-prohibitive car for the general populace. China, however, is not the only country driving demand. Thailand and Vietnam engage in this activity as well. Last week, Thai custom officers seized a suitcase at Bangkok airport containing more than $500,000 worth of rhino horns. The perpetrator, who had just arrived from Ethiopia, has been arrested.
Ignorance: A 2007 poll conducted in China by the International Fund for Animal Welfare showed that 70% percent of the Chinese did not realize an elephant had to be killed to remove its tusks.
Can anything be done?
There are 177 current signatories to the Convention on In international Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), limiting trade in wild animals and their body parts. Collectively, the accord provides some measure of pledged protection for 33,000 plant and animal species. http://www.cites.org/ Unfortunately, this 1989 measure needs more teeth. Domestic as well as international trade bans need to be implemented. As is, apprehended poachers often receive just a slap on the wrist.
Obviously there needs to be greater domestic intervention, with serious penalties. This takes resources and, frankly, the need for surveillance helicopters, rangers, night vision goggles, jeeps, etc. Unfortunately, even an increase in resources may not be sufficient. Garamba has about 150 rangers on a shoot first basis, yet it experienced its own horrid elephant massacre and the perpetrators escaped.
Ironically, the American taxpayer has been footing the bill for millions of dollars in foreign aid to countries like Dafur, Congo, and Uganda for military assistance to defeat the LRA. So far, our State Department denies there is any connection between the militaries of these countries and the orchestrated killings such as in Garamba. I would call it political expediency. The bottom line is that Western governments can, and should, do more to apply pressure on such governments, including China, Thailand, and Vietnam.
A prosperous Africa would result in probable population stability, the pattern in the industrial nations. This would help curtail the destruction of habitat for agricultural expansion. A prosperous African continent, however, seems unlikely anytime soon.
For some, the best trade off, radical as it may seem, is to begin a program of detusking, elephants and rhinos. Obviously this is controversial and an alternative I need to study more before making-up my own mind, but here is a site that opposes this option vehemently: http://www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/opinion/cut-it-outhwww.
Africa, the world’s most troubled continent, defies any easy answers. Meanwhile, the carnage continues. It breaks the heart!
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