Is it time to say goodbye to the majestic elephant? The species has been hurt by habitat destruction and species fragmentation, but its biggest enemy has undoubtedly been mankind: An elephant is killed every 15 minutes. And now, one expert predicts that within 12 years, elephants will be extinct, the victims largely of poachers who sell their ivory, and the mostly wealthy customers and celebrities who buy it.
On World Elephant Day earlier this month, Kenya's Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust warned that "in 12 years' time there may not be any elephants left in Africa to celebrate. A world without elephants is hard to comprehend, but it is a real possibility. Against a submachine gun or poacher armed with a spear, they stand little chance." Indeed, 36,000 elephants were killed in Kenya last year, and 163 of Kenya's 35,000 elephants were killed by poachers just this June and July.
In 1989, the ivory trade was banned under the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and elephant killing subsequently decreased. But organized bands have often skirted the ban, and Philip Mansbridge, CEO of Care for the Wild International, writing in The Huffington Post, contends that the situation is getting worse.
Elephant poaching across Africa has reached an unprecedented high and now looks set to wipe out our beloved elephants from the planet in as little as 20 years. Some reports are now suggesting that up to 40,000 elephants are being killed for their tusks each year in Africa alone... In minutes his tusks will be removed, usually by cutting most of the face off, often by chainsaw. An intelligent, social elephant with complex communication and family structures, that may have walked around its land in peace for the last 60-70 years, now dead and soon to be a trinket. This is not only unsustainable and cruel — it is barbaric. [The Huffington Post]
Mansbridge and others largely blame China. The International Fund for Animal Welfare says China "has historically been a significant destination for illicit trade in ivory and was identified as the single most important influence on the increasing ivory trade" for many years. A research project in March released by the Wildlife Conservation Society concluded that the number of elephants killed in Africa has skyrocketed. Part of the reason: government corruption, including officials who benefit from the ivory trade, according to NPR.
But the biggest contributor to the uptick in elephant killing is a huge spike in demand for ivory in China, where new wealth means more people can buy ivory... Chinese collectors covet ivory for figurines, chopsticks and trinkets. China is by no means the only market, but wildlife experts say China consumes half the supply. A growing population of Chinese workers in Africa makes the trade that much easier. As a result, the price of ivory has shot up tenfold over the past five to seven years. [NPR]
So Africa's ivory wars rage on:
Asian elephants have suffered a 75 percent decline in population — from 160,000 in 1950 to 40,000 now — and could also soon vanish from the face of the Earth. And it isn't only elephants that are in danger of being eradicated by poachers. The world's rhino population is also at risk. In South Africa, one rhino is killed every 11 minutes. Rhino horn powder is used in Chinese medicine and worth more in weight than gold. The Atlantic reports: "A rhino-head heist spree is sweeping the world and destroying rhino populations, mostly because of some ridiculous myths" about the powder's potency. In Vietnam, it's believed it can cure a hangover and cancer. The African black rhino has already been declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened species.
The problem of poachers came into sharp focus on Aug. 7, when Hong Kong officials seized an estimated $5 million in smuggled goods comprised of 1,120 ivory tusks, 13 rhino horns, and five leopard-skin pieces hidden in a container declared as Nigerian wood.
What can be done except tightening — and enforcing — local and national laws, cracking down on the markets that sell products based on the kills? At one South African private game farm, rhinos may soon be protected by drones. A test flight was conducted May 26 at the Balule Game Reserve near Krueger National Park.
"We believe this is the first time that a UAV has been flown at night, with an infrared camera, where rhinos were identified from the air and a possible poaching event was successfully deterred," Snitch said. "As we say at the University of Maryland, 'Fear the Turtle.'" [Marketwatch]
Will all this be enough? Or have rhinos and elephants now passed the point where they'll be gone by the mid-21st century?