Picks from The Elephant News Service

  • "Interview - China consumerism latest threat to Africa's elephants - report, August 29, 2011"

    • Tom Kirkwood, August 29, 2011. Reuters Africa, (article)

      China's fast-growing consumerism and lax policing of ivory laws are the latest threats to wild elephant populations, said an author of a recent report on endangered species. Poaching of elephants and other species has increased in Central African countries, with products headed mainly to Asian markets and for the bush meat trade.

      Esmond Martin and Lucy Vigne, authors of the report that was presented at a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Geneva in mid-August, visited ivory carving factories and stores in southern China in January. They compared the data with that which they had collated in previous visits going back to 1985. Despite rigorous laws controlling the sale of ivory in China, the industry was booming and much of it appeared to be unregulated, they found. "Chinese authorities produced in 2004 a system where every piece of ivory must have an identification card ... What we found in southern China was that 63 percent of at least 6,500 ivory pieces being sold did not have the appropriate identification card and thus was illegal," Martin said at his home in Nairobi last week.

      The imposition of controls over ivory sales won China CITES approval to buy and sell ivory from legal stocks and in 2008 China imported 62 tonnes of elephant ivory from CITES-approved auctions in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. But of 80 outlets that Martin and Vigne visited, only eight had compulsory ivory identification cards on display. "Perhaps two-thirds of all ivory being sold in southern China today is illegal because it doesn't have proper identification," said Martin, who monitors the sale of elephant ivory and rhino horn around the world.


      Fuelling the illegal trade in ivory, according to Martin, is a growing demand from China's consumer class. "When I first went to China in 1985, 99 percent of the ivory being sold was being sold to foreigners. Now, by far the majority of the ivory being sold in southern China is being bought by Chinese because the Chinese like ivory and they are now wealthy enough to purchase it," he said.

      Martin said he was concerned by the way unregulated demand in China has led to rising prices for ivory and fuelled poaching of elephant herds in Africa. "Its about $750 a kilo now, compared with maybe $300-$400 a few years ago and this puts added pressure, added incentive by the poachers and traders in Africa to go after elephants."

      It is not just elephants that are being killed. "People are being killed in the field trying to kill elephants, government officers are being killed as well by poachers, this trade is encouraging massive corruption in Africa and people are being bribed and removed in order to get the stuff out of the continent and over to China," Martin said.

      A CITES report released in Geneva last week said the highest levels of elephant poaching since 2002 were recorded in 2010, with central Africa of most concern. CITES officials announced the creation of a $100 million fund to enhance law enforcement and secure the long-term survival of elephant populations. As for China, it can be part of the solution, Martin said. "If Chinese officials and traders can tighten their controls and law enforcement, they can reduce the illegal ivory trade in China."

  • "Agony and Ivory, August 2011"

    • Alex Shoumatoff, August 2011, Vanity Fair (article)

      Highly emotional and completely guileless, elephants mourn their dead—and across Africa, they are grieving daily as demand from China’s “suddenly wealthy” has driven the price of ivory to $700 a pound or more. With tens of thousands of elephants being slaughtered each year for their tusks, raising the specter of an “extinction vortex,” Alex Shoumatoff travels from Kenya to Seattle to Guangzhou, China, to expose those who are guilty in the massacre—and recognize those who are determined to stop it.


      Another carcass has been found. On the Kuku Group Ranch, one of the sectors allotted to the once nomadic Maasai that surround Amboseli National Park, in southern Kenya. Amboseli is home to some 1,200 elephants who regularly wander into the group ranches, these being part of their original, natural habitat. More than 7,000 Maasai live in scattered fenced-in compounds called bomas with their extended families and their cattle on Kuku’s 280,000 acres. Traditionally, the Maasai coexisted with their wildlife. They rarely killed elephants, because they revered them and regarded them as almost human, as having souls like us. Neighboring tribespeople believe that elephants were once people who were turned into animals because of their vanity and given beautiful, flashy white tusks, which condemned them, in the strangely truthful logic of myth, to be forever hunted and killed in the name of human vanity. And Maasai believe when a young woman is getting married and her groom comes to get her from her village she musn’t look back or she will become an elephant. “But in the last few years, everything has changed,” a member of the tribe told me. “The need for money has changed the hearts of the Maasai.”

      In 2008, post-election ethnic violence followed by the global recession halved tourism to Kenya, making the wildlife in the parks even harder to protect. Then, in 2009, one of the worst droughts in living memory hit much of the country. More than 400 elephants in Amboseli died. The Maasai lost many of their cows and are still struggling, while the price of ivory is higher than ever, so increasing numbers of them are risking the misfortune that killing an elephant could bring on their families, according to their traditional thinking, and are getting into poaching. There are brokers just across the Tanzania border who are paying cash—around $20 a pound—for raw ivory and selling it to the Chinese. Or perhaps there is a series of transactions, a series of middlemen, but ultimately what is not being picked up by the Kenya Wildlife Service’s sniffing dogs at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, in Nairobi, is making its way by all kinds of circuitous routes to China, where raw ivory is now fetching $700 or more a pound. Ninety percent of the passengers who are being arrested for possession of ivory at Jomo Kenyatta are Chinese nationals, and half the poaching in Kenya is happening within 20 miles of one of the five massive Chinese road-building projects in various stages of completion.

      There had been almost no poaching around Amboseli for 30 years before a Chinese company got the contract to build a 70-mile-long highway just above the park. Since the road crews arrived, in 2009, four of Amboseli’s magnificent big-tusked bulls have been killed, and the latest word is that the poachers are now going after the matriarchs—a social and genetic disaster, because elephants live in matriarchies, and removing the best breeders of both sexes from the gene pool could funnel the Amboseli population into what is known as an “extinction vortex.”

      Unfortunately, this problem isn’t limited to just Kenya. Across the continent, in their 37 range states, from Mali to South Africa, Ethiopia to Gabon, elephants are being killed, some believe, at the rate of around 100 a day, 36,500 a year. But like so many things in Africa, it is impossible to know how many elephants there really are (estimates run from 400,000 to 650,000), how many are being slaughtered for their tusks (figures range from “more than 4,000” to “as many as 60,000” a year), or how much ivory is being smuggled to Asia (over the last 10 years, an annual average of roughly 45,000 pounds has been seized in Asia or en route). But the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) believes roughly 100 elephants are being killed each day, and this lines up with two of the most plausible estimates.

      A Kenya Wildlife Service official and Soila Sayialel, the deputy director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, have invited me to come along as they investigate the carcass found on the Kuku Group Ranch.

      Soila, a local Maasai woman in her 40s, has been working with Cynthia Moss—the revered 71-year-old American conservationist who started the project in 1972—for 25 years and wants to know if this latest victim is one of Amboseli’s elephants. A week earlier, K.W.S. rangers shot dead two poachers right outside the park who had just killed Magna, one of the big breeding bulls.

      The poaching is even worse in the northern part of the country. A few weeks ago, two poachers were killed and a ranger was wounded in a firefight in Meru National Park. Al-Shabaab, the Islamist youth militia which is in league with al-Qaeda and controls most of Somalia, has been coming over the border and killing elephants in Arawale National Reserve. Ivory, like the blood diamonds of other African conflicts, is funding many rebel groups in Africa, and Kenya, K.W.S. director Julius Kipng’etich told me, “is in the unenviable position of sharing over 1,700 kilometers of border with three countries with civil wars that are awash with firearms: Somalia, Ethiopia, and Sudan.” Nothing less than a full-scale military operation is going to stop the poaching in the north.

      But Kenya’s poaching problem is nothing compared with that of some other African range states. It’s only losing a few hundred elephants a year. (Kenya has zero tolerance for poaching and banned the sale of all ivory, including its old stock, in 1989. There has also been a blanket ban on all hunting since 1977.) Gabon, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania are losing thousands. Chad, home to 15,000 elephants in 1979, has less than 400 left. Sierra Leone is down to single digits.

      This April was the cruelest month in the current wave of killing. Then, in the first week of May alone, a ton of ivory was confiscated in Kenya, more than 1,300 pounds in Vietnam—from Tanzania—and a Chinese man was arrested at Entebbe airport in Uganda with 34 pieces of ivory. To top it off, a South Korean diplomat was caught trying to bring 16 tusks into Seoul. The carnage is escalating During the great elephanticide of the 1970s and 1980s, Africa’s elephant population was cut from an estimated 1.3 million to some 600,000, and Kenya’s elephant population went from 120,000 to 15,000. (It is now about twice that.) At the height of the slaughter, it is believed, 70,000 elephants a year were being killed continent-wide. The death toll may be half that now, but there are only half as many elephants left.

      The previous slaughter was driven by Japan’s economic boom. This new crisis is driven by China’s nouveaux riches, or bao fa hu (the “suddenly wealthy”), who are as numerous as the entire population of Japan. The main consumers are middle-aged men who have just made it into the middle class and are eager to flaunt their ability to make expensive discretionary purchases. Beautiful ivory carvings are traditional symbols of wealth and status. Soila expertly navigates the cavernously potholed dirt road that leads to Kuku, at one of whose bomas we pick up Johanus, the Maasai scout who found the carcass. Johanus was looking for lion tracks down by the river a few mornings ago when he picked up the blood trail of an elephant and started to follow it. The wounded elephant was making for the safety of nearby Tsavo National Park. It was accompanied by another elephant who was not bleeding, and they were being followed by two men—local Maasai, Johanus tells us, because they were wearing tire-tread sandals of local manufacture. Johanus shows us the four sets of prints, which we pick up at the river. We follow them up a slope of jagged red stones—an old lava field, with patches of grass and thickets of flat-topped acacia trees, which several stocky, mud-reddened zebras and frisky impalas melt into as we approach. After half an hour of tortuous progress, Johanus says we are here.

      We are greeted by the nauseating stench of rotting flesh. Fifty yards from the blood trail, the dead, decomposing elephant is kneeling in a pool of its own fluid, which is swarming with flies. The carcass was covered with branches by the poachers so it wouldn’t attract vultures, which would alert the K.W.S. pilots who make daily flyovers to its presence. Its face is completely gone, hacked off by a machete: no eyes, no trunk, no tusks. The trunk, Soila suspects, was taken by hyenas. The tusks were chopped out with an ax. The elephant’s cheekless mouth is a gaping black hole, like one of Francis Bacon’s silent-scream paintings. The elephant’s tail has been sliced off. Bracelets of black elephant-tail hair are still bought by tourists. The animal has been speared on both sides, 23 times. Soila counts the holes. This was a savage, low-tech, local poaching. An opportunistic poaching. If it had been a deliberate one, poison would have been used. If poison had been used, the elephant would not have had to be speared so many times or have gotten this far.

      The poison, known as mbaya (Swahili for evil), is a concoction brewed from the leaves of two trees and the livers of puffer fish from the coast. Applied to an arrowhead or a spear tip, it is so powerful that it kills an elephant in five minutes and breaks down its flesh so quickly that after two or three days the tusks just slide out. Soila puts on rubber gloves, draws some blood from the carcass, and slices off a section of flesh to send to the lab at Duke University, which will determine if it has the Amboseli genotype. She thinks it is no more than two or three days old. The poachers could have been some of the scouts who were employed by a private foundation to protect the ranch’s wildlife but have been dismissed until further notice because of a power struggle with the group-ranch leadership. The scouts know the movements of the elephants on the ranch and are now in desperate need of money. Suspicion falls on one in particular, a reformed poacher who may have gone back to his old ways. “We will get them,” the K.W.S. official assures me.

      Amboseli National Park

      We return to Amboseli in silence. On the other side of the Chinese road, a huge bull, with magnificent, perfectly symmetrical tusks, emerges from the trees. “It is Upendo [love in Swahili],” Soila says. “He has recognized the sound of the vehicle and come out to say hello.” Upendo lifts his trunk into the air and, swiveling it like a periscope, gives us the sniff-over, which indicates a certain level of suspicion. He detects strange male testosterone in the vehicle and hears the excited clicking of cameras; flapping his ears with a parting snort, he quickly backtracks into the thicket. “He is telling us, ‘I’m fed up with you guys. No more pictures,’ ” Soila explains. There are still a few hours of daylight to watch the elephants in the park. The rains have come, and with all the newly flushed grass they are able to congregate in extended-family groups of 70 or more. We observe one group twisting up bundles of grass with their trunks and stuffing them into their mouths. A full-grown elephant needs to eat about 300 pounds of vegetation a day. They can live to 65 or more and, like humans, reach sexual maturity in their early teens.

      Babies are running between the legs of their mothers, trying to suckle some milk from their teats. Two two-year-olds have locked trunks and are having a tug-of-war. A randy bull in musth—Hindi for intoxication—is hanging around the periphery. It was here in 1978 that Cynthia Moss’s colleague Joyce Poole discovered that musth is not a disease, as it had been thought to be, but a phase of up to five months in the reproductive cycle of bulls during which their testosterone levels can shoot up 100 times above normal. Constant little dramas are going on in this group. An eight-year-old bull, still a mama’s boy dependent on her milk, lets out a wounded bellow as his mother, having a newborn to feed, tells him with a jab of her tusk to shove off. Elephants are highly emotional. Whatever they are feeling, they let it out immediately, and the histrionics are over and forgotten in a moment, lasting no longer than the cloud formations that are constantly coming apart and re-forming overhead. There is no guile in pachyderms. They are highly sentient, totally alive to what is going on, fully in the moment in ways we are only beginning to understand. They can pick up the rumble of a distant thunderstorm seismically through the soles of their feet, and family groups a mile or two apart keep in constant touch with an assortment of far-carrying infrasounds too low for us to hear. No one really knows what they are saying or thinking. Scientists are only starting to talk cautiously about “empathy” and “neurocognition.”

      Soila says that each elephant has its own personality. “Some are talkative, some are bad-hearted, some are stupid,” she says. “They are very much like us. Sometimes when I am watching them, I forget that I am working. I forget that they are elephants and I am human.” But elephants are not human, of course. They are something much more ancient and primordial, living on a different plane of existence. Long before we arrived on the scene, they worked out a way of being in the world that has not fundamentally changed and is sustainable, and not predatory or destructive. We have been in close association with elephants from the beginning. The few dozen humans who left Africa may have even followed an elephant trail, but the proboscideans are on a distant branch of the tree of life, closer to manatees and aardvarks than to primates. It is amazing, really, that something so antediluvian and unlike us is still here. This is the feeling we get as we are watching these elephants. They are what they are, and they put things into badly needed perspective. The world needs them. We need them.

      I have been in running contact with elephants for 30 years, but only on this six-week reporting safari am I beginning to understand the wavelength they are on. I have already had communication breakthroughs in the last month with three elephants, moments when “Adam’s wall,” as the barrier between us and animals has been called, seemed to come down. The first was in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where I spent a few days with a 28-year-old Zimbabwean ivory orphan named Bubbles, who was raised from the age of two by an animal trainer named Bhagavan Antle. “Bubbles is my oldest and most devoted friend,” Antle told me. He trained her to be an entertainment elephant—she has been in Doctor Dolittle with Eddie Murphy, the second Ace Ventura movie, and a Janet Jackson video.

      I went swimming with Bubbles in the Intracoastal Waterway, and she kept playfully hoisting me out of the water with her trunk and tossing me over her head back into it. She is totally habituated to humans and “doesn’t get along with other elephants at all,” Antle told me. “When I’m not on the property, she guards it like a pit bull. Even the staff can’t get close to her.” The two of us rode her into the forest, where every few feet she would snap off a branch of wax myrtle and stuff it into her mouth. “The world is her salad,” Antle explained. He said that Bubbles could recognize the sound of his pickup making its way home through the rush-hour traffic, and that she always recognized a guest who had been there before and gave him or her special attention, and over the years she had done her routine for tens of thousands of them. “Bubbles is an ambassador of what is being lost, and she takes her job very seriously,” he told me.

      Bubbles’ eyes especially got to me. Screened by thick black lashes, they were dolorous, humorous, knowing, forgiving, the eyes of an ancient sage, a highly evolved being, the eyes of Einstein.

      As the sun sets in Amboseli, the clouds break and we catch a glimpse of Kilimanjaro’s summit cone, coated with new snow. All the elephants head for the swamp in long single-file columns, huge convoys making their way across the timeless savanna toward the vanishing point, as they have been doing for eons, “as if they had an appointment at the end of the world,” Isak Dinesen wrote in Out of Africa.


      Trying to intercept an ivory shipment is like trying to guess what dish the bean is under in a shell game, Sam Wasser, a Seattle-based conservation biologist, tells me. Wasser has developed the ability to sequence the DNA of a piece of seized ivory, which is the only way to find out where in Africa it is actually from. This is a hugely important tool. The ivory in a 2006 seizure in Hong Kong shipped from Douala, Cameroon, for instance, turned out, by DNA sequencing, to have come from neighboring Gabon. This was the first inkling anybody had that there is widespread poaching there; Gabon had previously been regarded as a success story. Wasser was also able to determine that 60 percent of the ivory going to Asia in 2009 was coming from Tanzania, and that Zambia was—and is—another major source. This was explosive information when it was presented last May in Doha, Qatar, where Tanzania and Zambia were petitioning the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) for permission to sell their old ivory stocks. His revelation of the extent of the poaching in these two countries was instrumental in getting their applications quashed.

      In the case of the Kuku Ranch carcass, we know where the tusks are from. The question is, where did they go? The poachers probably walked them over the border into Tanzania and sold them to a broker in one of the four towns where ivory is known to be bought and sold. From there—after changing hands a few times—it is likely they were hidden in one of the charcoal lorries that go back and forth between Kenya and Tanzania and re-entered Kenya. From there, they could have made their way to Nairobi or Mombasa. Once ivory gets to Nairobi and is ready to be shipped, the Chinese involvement becomes traceable. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers and other temporary laborers are employed on road, logging, mining, and oil-drilling crews in all of the elephants’ range states. Some manage to make it home with a few pounds of ivory hidden in their suitcases, thus doubling their meager earnings, or they are recruited as carriers for higher-ups. But they are not the real problem. The real problem is the managers, who have the resources to directly commission some local to kill an elephant and bring them the tusks, and diplomats, whose bags are not checked, and the Chinese businessmen, who are taking over the economy of Africa.

      In the last decade the number of Chinese residents in Africa has grown from 70,000 to more than a million. China’s trade on the continent—$114 billion last year—is expected to keep increasing by over 40 percent a year. According to Traffic, a nonprofit wildlife-trade-monitoring network, each day, somewhere in the world, an average of two Chinese nationals are arrested with ivory.

      Back to the tusks. Maybe the smugglers deliver them to Mombasa. K.W.S. knows the networks. Once there, little boats come from big ships offshore to private wharves of local “tycoons” with heroin and guns and return with ivory. The drug, arms, money-laundering, and ivory trades are intertwined, K.W.S.’s Julius Kipng’etich told me. Where you have one, you have the others. Once on the big ship, the ivory is hidden in shipping containers with legal consignments like sisal (the fibrous agave that twine is made from), avocados, or pottery. All over Africa, ivory from freshly killed elephants is being put on planes or ships and is hopscotching around the Middle East and Asia: to Beirut, Dubai, Bangkok (the big hub at the moment), Taipei, Vietnam, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macao. One consignment hidden in sisal made it all the way from Tanzania to the Philippines and was sent from there to Taiwan, whose customs thought, Sisal from Tanzania going to the Philippines, the world capital of sisal production? That’s like importing oranges to Florida. So they opened the crates, and there were 484 pieces of ivory.

      Once a shipment leaves Africa, it never goes directly to the final destination. The routes are constantly changing. It’s a shell game, as Wasser says. But eventually most of the ivory arrives, by land, sea, air, or a combination thereof, in Guangzhou, formerly Canton, China’s main ivory-carving-and-trading center, just up the coast from Hong Kong. All roads lead to Guangzhou. There are around 100 master carvers in this humming city of eight million. Most of them are working in illegal factories. But there are also legal, state-owned factories, which get their ivory from the one-off sales of old stock that CITES allowed South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe to have in 2008. These sales supplied 100 tons of ivory to the Chinese and Japanese markets. The argument for allowing them to happen was that China and Japan would be happy with so much ivory, and the poaching would be reduced, but they have had the opposite effect: the poaching has been showing a steady rise, and a lot of illegal ivory is being passed off as old stock.

      Obviously, no ivory should be sold, legally or illegally. It has to be taken off the table completely. You can’t keep feeding the demand and providing incentives to poor Africans to continue killing their elephants. That—and educating the Chinese—is the only hope for the remaining ones in the wild. All of Africa needs to follow the lead of Kenya, which burned its ivory stock in 1989. As he ignited the 12 tons of tusks, thus depriving the government of millions of dollars of revenue, in a huge conflagration that remains the single most important event in the history of the battle for the elephants, then president Daniel arap Moi declared, “To stop the poacher, the trader must also be stopped, and to stop the trader, the final buyer must be convinced not to buy ivory. I appeal to people all over the world to stop buying ivory.”

      Hong Kong

      In the corridor leading from my plane to the formalities in Hong Kong International Airport, there is a display cabinet of forbidden wildlife products, including a hawksbill-turtle shell and an elaborately carved elephant tusk. But this isn’t stopping Hong Kong and adjacent Macao from being two of the main destinations for African ivory. A few days ago 2,200 pounds of ivory were seized on the beach of the Westin hotel in Macao. Using the commonly accepted figure of 12.6 pounds for the average pair of tusks, that would be 175 elephants. An average 45,000 pounds of ivory a year have been seized in the past decade. Using Interpol’s 10 percent estimate, which is based on the amount of drugs they believe they are intercepting—meaning 90 percent gets past them—that would be 450,000 pounds, or more than 35,000 elephants a year. So IFAW’s 36,500-a-year estimate, 100 a day, is definitely possible.

      In the shopping arcade of the hotel where I am staying, there are a few bangles identified as “genuine ivory” for sale. Their prices range from $200 to $600. “I thought ivory was banned,” I tell the saleswoman. “This is a free port. You can buy whatever you want,” she says. “But there’s a display at the airport that says it’s forbidden,” I say, and the woman, shamelessly quick on her feet, says, “Well, yes, African ivory is. But this is mammoth ivory. Status fine.” But the bangles are pure, creamy white, unlike mammoth ivory, which is nut-colored or streaky—this is unquestionably savanna ivory from Africa. An American couple with southern accents are fingering the bangles covetously. “I wouldn’t think of buying them if I were you,” I warn them. “A guy in Atlanta was just fined $400,000 for bringing some old ivory piano keys into the country.” American law says that you can bring in only ivory documented to be at least 100 years old or meeting CITES-approved exceptions to the U.S. Endangered Species Act like trophy tusks from countries, such as Tanzania or Zimbabwe, where sport hunting is permitted. If these bangles were legal, the saleswoman would have said so and had the paperwork. I scowl at the American couple, and they hand the bangles back to the saleswoman, who scowls at me. The couple leave. I scowl back at the saleswoman.


      I take the evening train to Guangzhou, a big wholesale city and a mecca for thousands of African traders, who buy apparel and footwear to take back home to sell in Dakar or Kinshasa. The three men sitting next to me are Congolese. Guangzhou has a growing population of eight million people, and thickets of brand-new high-rises with kitschy pagodas on their roofs and lots of neon signage. It’s like Disney World, this crass new capitalist China. You can feel the economic vibrance and might of the next global superpower. I rendezvous with “Crystal,” an undercover investigator for IFAW. Crystal is Chinese, in her 30s, and tiny, half my size, and she is absolutely passionate about elephants, even though she has never met one in the flesh.

      “Elephants are a global priority,” she tells me. “Tigers are an Asian priority, and we are trying to do something for the stray cats. China has no animal-welfare laws.” Although the killing of a panda or an elephant was a capital offense until last year. There are only a few hundred wild elephants in China, all of them in the extreme south of Yunnan Province, near the Laos and Burma borders. They are the Asian species, Elephas maximus, of which there are around 50,000 left—about one-tenth of the African population. Most of them are in India, and their annual mortality from poaching comes to only 300 or 400.

      In Guangzhou there are markets that specialize in wild-animal meat like snakes and rats, and there’s a special cat market. You pick the cat you want to eat, then they kill it and sell you the meat. There’s a saying that the southern Chinese will eat anything with legs except a table, and anything with wings except a plane. I’ve been hearing that this is also now a problem with the Chinese in Africa—and not only those from the South—who are eating domestic dogs and cats, baboons, painted dogs, and leopard tortoises and making soup from the marrow of lower leg bones of giraffes and from lion bones. Grace Ge Gabriel, Crystal’s boss in Beijing, laments, “Chinese society today is ruled by one principle only: Make Money for Me. On the way to make riches for oneself, there is no concern for anything, including other people and the environment, let alone animals. Unfortunately, the south-Chinese practice of ‘eating everything in sight’ is adopted by a lot more people now. And the Chinese have the ability to travel all over the world now. Especially in countries where law and order are not well established, these Chinese feel that they can get away with eating anything and everything.”

      “Another problem,” Crystal explains, “is that the Chinese word for ivory is elephant’s teeth—xiang ya. We did a survey. Seventy percent thought tusks can fall out and be collected by traders and grow back, that getting ivory did not mean the elephant is killed, and more than 80 percent would reject ivory products and not buy any more if they knew elephants were being killed, so it’s ignorance.” But the same survey found reluctance to comply with the ivory-control system and a desire for “affordable” ivory. Fourteen and a half percent of those polled were already ivory consumers, and 76 percent were willing to break the law to buy ivory at a cheaper price.

      Liwan District, Guangzhou

      The next morning Crystal and I go to a jade store in the Liwan District to see if there are any ivory hanko. Hanko are the signature seals that documents in China and Japan are traditionally stamped with. The seals in Japan are round; in China they are square. Japanese tourists fly to Hong Kong or Shanghai for the weekend, where ivory is cheaper, and pick up a cylinder of ivory and take it back to a Japanese hanko shop that will then carve their seal. There are plenty of perfectly good substitutes, like ox bone or wood, but ivory hanko have cachet. It’s like owning a Mont Blanc pen. The salesman tells us there is strict government control of ivory. “We can’t sell ivory publicly, but”—his voice lowers—“I have a friend who can do it. How many hanko you want?”

      We continue to the Hualin Street wholesale jade market, which has all kinds of beautiful stuff, not only jade. Contraband wildlife artifacts are openly displayed. One stall has hawksbill-turtle-shell eyeglass frames and combs. In another the man shows us two ivory bangles, a tiny abacus, a little Buddha, and a small tusk carved with a cabbage-leaf motif. He has his own factory in Fujian Province. The ivory comes from Africa by ship to a port near Taiwan. With a little coaxing he brings out the big stuff, wrapped in plastic: a two-foot-long tusk with the cabbage-leaf design for 28,000 yuan (a little more than $4,000). “Do they have to kill the elephant?,” I ask him. “No,” he says. “After you get the ivory, teeth grow again, just like human teeth.”

      In the morning I say good-bye to Crystal. “You will see many changes in your lifetime,” I tell her. “China will have taken over the world, and maybe there will be no more elephants.” “I will never let that happen,” she promises me.


      I sit down with Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who has probably done more for Africa’s elephants than anybody. A pioneer in the study of elephant behavior and the founder of Save the Elephants, Douglas-Hamilton is at his computer in his home office, watching his 23 radio-collared elephants move in and around Samburu National Park, 200 miles north. Samburu, like Amboseli, is a threatened piece of paradisal Africa. There’s also a Chinese road-building project nearby, and with a mushrooming, cash-starved local population, poaching is on the rise.

      Save the Elephants is headquartered at Samburu, and Douglas-Hamilton knows most of its 900 elephants there intimately. Signals from the collared ones are being beamed to a local cell-phone transmission tower, and he is monitoring their movements by satellite. A month later, the slowly streaking red line on his screen, which is tracking one of Samburu’s beloved matriarchs, Resilience, of the Virtues group, will suddenly stop. He alerts K.W.S., whose rangers rush to the scene and find Resilience gunned down by a spray of bullets. The Virtues have almost been wiped out. The Hope and Enthusiasm groups are gone, and four of the seven collared elephants on Mount Kenya have been lost this year as well.

      Douglas-Hamilton, now 68, has been studying elephants in Africa since 1965. He has just returned from China. “We went to listen and learn,” he tells me in his posh British accent. (His father was a Scottish lord.) “I’m quite optimistic that a long-term relationship can be established. We were taken to see their few hundred elephants by some people who cared deeply about them. And they are coming to Samburu to experience the delight of ours. If the Chinese treated Africa’s elephants as nicely as they treat their own, there wouldn’t be this problem.” Douglas-Hamilton tells me about an important initiative by WildAid, which is using Chinese celebrities, like N.B.A. star Yao Ming and Jackie Chan, to get out the message. I call Peter Knights, the outfit’s director, in San Francisco. “It’s a combination of new money and old ideas,” he tells me, “a huge bubble we’re trying to burst.” Funding conservation at the consumer end is not as easy as it is for fieldwork with the animals, but the Chinese government has been very supportive. CCTV, the state-owned television station, and a whole range of other outlets have donated media time and aired everything from 15- to 30-second public-service announcements to five-minute shorts to half-hour documentaries.

      “The younger generation gets it,” Knights continues. “It’s the aging new wealthy, who have tremendous purchasing power and see acquiring ivory as part of holding on to their historic Chinese-ness, who have to be reached—before there’s no more ivory left to buy.” But China isn’t the only problem. The organizations and African government authorities that are supposed to be monitoring and controlling the poaching and the ivory trade are underfunded, under-manned, lacking, their many critics say, in transparency and proper outside peer review, and, in some cases, compromised by hidden agendas. Dr. Richard Leakey, who thought up and pushed through the famous bonfire of Kenya’s old-stock ivory in 1989 and became the newly reconstituted and motivated K.W.S.’s first director (at which post he survived three attempts on his life, including a suspicious plane crash that cost him both his legs), told me—he was the only critic to go on the record—“CITES is now anachronistic and a sham. It’s funded and controlled by the ivory trade—and should be put away. The very concept of trade in high-value wildlife species as a tool for conservation is completely untenable.” A man deeply involved in elephant poaching and smuggling interdiction compared CITES to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission: “It was created to become a regulator, and became a facilitator, and the victim is not millions of people, but nature.”

      Traffic, which compiles the ivory-seizure figures, is, curiously, also in favor of “sustainable trade.” Only one person, Thomas Milliken in Harare, Zimbabwe, the head of Traffic’s African operation, is supposed to be on top of all the seizures continent-wide. The reviews on Milliken, whose reports are presented as faits accomplis, are very mixed. No one I talked to accused MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants), an arm of CITES, of being compromised, but I spent two hours discussing its work with its director, Julian Blanc, in Nairobi, and came away with the conclusion, which I am not alone in having, that its figures do not begin to reflect what is actually happening. MIKE’s numbers are based on whatever figures the government authorities give it, and the government figures are often low, because their wildlife people want to look like they’re doing a good job or because some of their rangers and top officials may be involved in the poaching themselves or because they don’t have the information. The entries for some countries in the tallies Blanc provided me with were blank. And if MIKE or Traffic questions the numbers the governments give them, they aren’t going to get anything, so they have to go along with them. Outsiders who ask too many questions or accuse the politicos in their host country of malfeasance run the risk of being thrown out, or even, as in Dian Fossey’s case, killed. MIKE funds a lot of important basic research and provides logistical and financial support to elephant surveys in Asia and Africa. Traffic just put out a hard-hitting report on the persistent ivory trade in Japan, and Milliken’s work can be excellent, so it’s not a black-and-white situation. Douglas-Hamilton, who is trying to make these institutions work—because without them there would be nothing at all—cautions against “throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Traffic and MIKE are the only ones who are making every attempt to get the correct figures.”

      But many things conspire against even the most honest and rigorous attempts to learn what is really happening to Africa’s remaining wild elephants. How many carcasses are covered with branches or otherwise elude the rangers on the ground? How many elephants hidden in the trees are being missed by the aerial census takers? How many elephants are being double-counted because they have crossed a national border or wandered into the next aerial transect? How many confiscated tusks are not making it to the strong room, or are disappearing from it and being shipped to Asia in the illegal consignments? And this barely scratches the surface of the unknowns.

      Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe

      Foreign journalists are not welcome in Mugabe’s failed state. There are reports of some getting roughed up and thrown in prison or put on the next plane. So I decide to enter as a tourist, listing my profession as musician. I am coming to see Victoria Falls and the country’s other wonders. I don’t tell them I’ll be going around with Johnny Rodrigues, who runs the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, which he founded in 1999 with 16 other concerned citizens.

      Johnny, 62, a diesel mechanic by day, is short but solid as a rock. Back in the day, he did covert operations in the Rhodesian Army against Mugabe’s ZANLA guerrillas. He looks like a cross between Robert Shaw and Norman Mailer, only Portuguese. His parents were from Madeira and moved to Harare when he was four. Last year, Johnny exposed Mugabe for serving the meat of three elephants at one of his re-election rallies. He has had death threats, survived two attempts to drive him off the road, and been declared an enemy of the state. Of his 16 original collaborators, most have left the country, and the ones still here are afraid of having anything to do with him. But he remains absolutely fearless. “I put my balls on the table long ago. If they want to kill me, they can put the bullet right here,” he says, pointing to the middle of his forehead. We drive down to Hwange National Park, which is as big as Connecticut but has only around 60 rangers on anti-poaching patrols. Hwange is the largest park in Zimbabwe and has one of the largest herds of elephants in Africa. It’s supposed to be 50,000, but Johnny doesn’t believe it. “Where are they then?” he asks after we spend the day driving 300 miles all over the park and only see, at sunset, two bulls and a smaller elephant quickly cross the road. There are none in the 75 pans, or artificial water holes, none in the vleis, the grassy vales between the forested little hills, only a few skittish zebras and impalas and warthogs, a tiny fraction of what there used to be.

      What we do see are the skeletons of dozens of elephants that have been killed right along the road: huge pelvises and skulls and leg bones, already bleached white by the sun, scattered around among the teak trees, with piles of dung left by other elephants, which is how they express sorrow at the death of one of their own. Elephants are clearly aware of death and capable of grief. The smell of putrescence leads us to a carcass whose decomposition is more advanced than the one at Kuku Group Ranch. This one died on its side. Its skin is draped over its staggered, fleshless legs like a deflated balloon; the upper half of its rib cage is missing, its innards gutted by hyenas and vultures. The tusks are long gone. We learned about this victim from two of Johnny’s informants. It was killed half a mile inside the park border. The rangers tracked the killers to the adjacent hunting lodge. The lodge’s guides claimed they shot it on their property; it was part of its six-elephant annual quota. The wounded animal fled into the park—and they took its tusks because they were rightfully theirs. Zimbabwe’s dozens of hunting lodges cater to trophy-hunters, most of whom are from Texas, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico. They pay between $10,000 and $60,000—money that goes to the government and the lodge—to kill a big bull and are allowed to ship home its head and tusks. A video on YouTube called “elephant safari kill shot” shows an American man sneaking up to within 30 or 40 yards of an elephant in some trees and dropping it with a brain shot, then exulting, “We did it! Oh man! Big-game hunting is one of the most exciting things there is in the world. You got your grizzlies, you got your lions, you got leopards, you got your buffalo. But I’m here to tell you, baby: ain’t nothing like the elephant!”

      And the hunters are only one type of human predator the elephants in Zimbabwe have to worry about, Johnny explains. “The rangers are killing them and other animals for rations, which they are allowed to do every Thursday, and if they didn’t they would starve, because the government isn’t giving them anything to eat,” he says. “Then the local people who are setting snares. You can’t blame them because they have to feed their families, and there’s 80 percent unemployment. Then the military, who have posts all over the country and elephant quotas that nobody is reinforcing, so they are exceeding them and selling the ivory to the Chinese. Then the professional hunters who are providing meat to the local communities. They have a 500-elephant quota, which they are petitioning to be increased by 180. Then the cronies of Mugabe to whom he gave the private game conservancies he confiscated. They have converted them into hunting camps and are liquidating the animals. Each has a slaughterhouse and some have their own butchery and boneyard. I’ve seen pictures of one of them that was solid white bone for several acres. They supply bushmeat to the tourist lodges and the local food stores. And finally there are the industrial South African poachers who fly over the border from Limpopo and are helped by Zimbabwean exiles who know the ropes and where animals are and who to pay off. They are very organized. Two were just caught with 2,000 zebra skins.”

      With all this killing, Johnny doesn’t think there are anywhere near 100,000 to 120,000 elephants in Zimbabwe, as the government is claiming. He suspects it’s more like 30,000 to 40,000. There hasn’t been a census since 2006, when 85,000, give or take 7,000, were counted. “We have investigators who flew around in Chizarira Park, and all they saw was 900 carcasses, and we know a lot of the ivory is being sold to the Chinese,” he says. At a pan called the Hide we find five giraffes. “Hello, boys,” Johnny says to them, and, firing up a cigarette, reflects, “We have much to learn from the animals. When they come to the water holes, each species has its turn. I made a 24-hour video of this pan five years ago, when there was still wildlife in the park. Elephant, giraffe, zebras, sable, kudu, warthog, baboons, buffalo, even hyenas and jackals—all your different species came, and each took its turn to take a drink. It was like Noah’s Ark. And after all had a drink they came back a second time, each in its turn. And you say to yourself, Why can’t humans learn from that? We’d kill each other to get to the water.”

      Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

      There is ivory for sale right in the tourist shops in downtown Victoria Falls. A saleswoman shows us a two-foot tusk carved into a curving procession of elephants that costs $2,000. The tusk doesn’t have the requisite parks-department stamp. The saleswoman in another store has a two-and-a-half-foot tusk with a longer procession of carved elephants that she’ll let me have for the same price. She says it is ivory from culls. South Africa put a stop to culling in 1994, but it is still going on in Zimbabwe. Between 1960 and 1994, 46,755 elephants were culled here. The rationale was “to conserve biological diversity,” which was supposedly being destroyed by excessive numbers of elephants. As many as 5,000 were shot and killed in Hwange in the space of three months in 1980, and in 2008 some British hunters were allowed to wipe out an entire family group of 11 in Hwange, as part of a cull of its population of supposedly 50,000. According to Graham Child, a former director of National Parks and Wildlife Management in Zimbabwe, “Since ’86, and especially 1992, the department has been using high numbers as a political pawn and for generating income mainly from sport hunting, and concerns for habitats on which the future of elephants and many other wildlife depend appear to have been forsaken.”

      In South Africa between 1967 and 1999, 14,629 elephants in Kruger National Park were culled, to keep the population at the park’s perceived carrying capacity of 7,000. Dr. Markus Hofmeyr, head of Kruger’s veterinary wildlife services, wrote the standard operating procedure for culling: you start with a brain shot from a helicopter with a high-caliber weapon, not less than a .375. “The spasmodic jerking of one or more legs is frequently indicative of a good brain shot.” Once the animal has collapsed, you fire a second “insurance” shot to make sure it is dead. Your first target should be the matriarch, “which anchors and confuses the rest of the group, [so they can be] quickly dispatched, as they mill around.” After some orphan bulls who had watched their mothers killed grew up into psychotic teenagers who raped rhinos and attacked tourists in Pilanes National Park, this procedure was modified. Now if you’re going to do it, the most “ethical” thing is to kill them all, to gun down the whole family. South Africa is keeping open the resumption of “lethal management” as an option.

      Central African Republic

      I catch a plane to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, a country of four and a half million that used to be part of French Equatorial Africa. This is deep, dark Africa, pulsating with insect din and birdsong and joyous music that people burst into at the drop of a hat. It is nothing like East Africa, a white man’s playground, or South Africa, which is like an outpost of Europe.

      It’s a grueling, 12-hour, 300-mile drive to Bayanga, at the southern tip of the country, the knifepoint dividing Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo (Little Congo, not to be confused with Big Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire), where the tri-national park I’m visiting is. In the 1970s there were some 50,000 forest elephants in the Central African Republic. Now there are maybe 3,000. Big Congo, once the stronghold of the forest elephants—Douglas-Hamilton estimated there were 300,000-plus in 1979—has around 20,000 left. Loggers and miners from Cameroon—said to be in cahoots with local government officials—are wiping out adjacent Gabon’s approximately 60,000 forest elephants at the rate of a few thousand a year. Central Africa is getting hammered. My destination is Dzanga Bai, a 550-by-275-yard clearing in the forest which everyone has been telling me is the last Eden for the forest elephants. Since 1990 an American woman, Andrea Turkalo, has been studying and keeping a watchful eye on the elephants who frequent the bai, or clearing.

      After several hours of driving we enter towering virgin tropical forest. The trees’ naked columns shoot 120 to 150 feet up before putting out crowns and look like (as Tim Cahill has described the Amazon rain forest) monstrous stalks of broccoli. I begin to see pygmies, small forest people as gentle and innocent as the elephants, bathing in little brown streams in blizzards of butterflies. These are the Bayaka. There are 100,000 pygmies in the C.A.R., neighboring Cameroon, and Little Congo. Many of the mammals in the forests of central Africa—elephants, giraffes, buffalo—are smaller in size, the better to move around in the dense vegetation. Forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) generally have smaller ears and shorter, harder, straighter, more orange tusks than the savanna or bush elephants (L. africana), and a different number of toenails. DNA analysis, resolving a long-standing debate, has just established that they are separate species, with no more overlap than the Indian elephant and the extinct woolly mammoth from which it evolved. I don’t pull into the Doli Lodge, in Bayanga, till 11 P.M. The Doli is on a big river, the Sangha, gliding through the forest. In the morning I meet Andrea. She is 59, dressed in field khaki, with Moroccan silver bracelets. She has high Ukrainian cheekbones from her father, who was a prison guard in Taunton, Massachusetts.

      As we drive to her camp, 15 miles into the glorious green forest, I ask Andrea how she happened to wind up here, devoting her life to elephants. She tells me that she was in the Peace Corps in northern C.A.R. in the early 80s, at the height of the previous poaching epidemic. “I didn’t know a thing about elephants, and suddenly I was seeing seven carcasses a day,” she says. “They were being killed by horsemen from Sudan. We never saw them.” Andrea was married to Michael Fay, another major hero in the battle for the elephants. Fay persuaded Gabon to create 13 national parks to protect its large forest population, after walking across central Africa for 455 days to find out where they were. After she and Michael split up in 2003, Andrea stayed on at the bai.

      Something hidden in the vegetation only 50 feet from us barks menacingly. “It’s a gorilla,” Andrea says—one of the 5,000 or so in the vicinity.

      The bai is a 45-minute walk along a little river, then into magical forest. We head down to the river with Azobe, one of the four Babenzele pygmies who help Andrea take care of the camp. The Babenzele, a local group of Bayaka, are generally taller and darker-skinned than the pygmies of the Ituri Forest I hung out with in Big Congo 30 years ago. Azobe is barefoot and wears only shorts, but his neck and wrists are decorated with intricate glass-and-seed beadwork. A big bull is standing in the water—Luther, whom Andrea hadn’t seen in three years and who suddenly reappeared a few days ago. Ears flaring, Luther raises his trunk and gives us the sniff-over. Azobe, slapping the water with his machete, shoos him back behind the bend. The riverbank is littered with elephant dung. Andrea kicks apart one of the boluses, and it is full of big, hard-shelled seeds—Pandanus, Drypetes, and Gambeya. A new study has found that forest elephants are essential to central Africa’s forests for tree-seed dispersal. They can carry heavy seeds like these (which wouldn’t get very far on their own) in their gut for 50 miles before voiding them. Another study measures the rapid, prodigious growth of the forest trees and concludes that central Africa is the second-most-important equatorial sink for atmospheric carbon after the Amazon, so elephants are important for controlling global warming, on top of everything else.

      As we near the bai, we hear trumpeting and sounds of boisterous, gregarious agitation. We tiptoe up the stairs to the Mirador, as Andrea calls her platform, and there they all are. Dozens of elephants are milling around in clusters that are constantly forming and breaking apart. A perfect illustration of elephants’ “fission-fusion” society, as one scientist describes it. Half of them are peach-colored from rolling around in the mud. Three big bulls have their trunks stuck deep into holes in the bare clay of the clearing and are sucking up its minerals, which help them digest the alkaloids and other nasty compounds in the leaves they eat. Every few minutes one of them pulls out his clay-stuffed trunk and aspirates it into his mouth. This is the elephants’ primary reason for being here, and there’s a pecking order for who gets to suck at the holes. The big bulls, of course, have the honors. As the dry season progresses, there are fewer fruits, and the elephants have to eat more foliage, so the visits to the bai become more frequent and prolonged. This is also when the males usually come into musth, so there is a lot of sexual activity. The bai is a social arena with all kinds of interactions constantly going on, a nonstop soap opera, a parallel universe, that never ceases to amaze and amuse Andrea.

      “There are at least 50 other bais in central Africa, but Dzanga is the jewel. I like to call it the spiritual center of the forest elephants,” she whispers. Scanning the scene with binoculars, she spots, way up at the top of the bai, 500 yards away, a tiny baby. It couldn’t be more than a week old. “Births are rare in the bai,” she tells me. “The females prefer to have their babies in the privacy of the forest, because here all the elephants come and hassle them.”

      Deaths in the bai are also rare. Footage from here in 2000 shows a procession of clearly distressed elephants, 127 of them over the course of two days, paying their last respects to a dead baby lying on one of the paths to the bai, caressing it with their trunks, trying to prod it back to life, placing their feet over its heart to see if it is still beating. One young male tried to lift it 57 times. Everything else between birth and death seems to be happening. A little calf calls pitifully for its mom, who is only 50 yards away. An older juvenile who is trying to snag some milk from its mother’s teat lets out the wounded awooga protest call as she pushes him away.

      Two young bulls are sparring, fencing with their tusks. Two big bulls are staring each other down like prizefighters before the first-round bell. It looks like there’s going to be a major rumble in the jungle, but they back away. Real fights are rare in the bai. One of the Agaves, as Andrea named this family, is having a snooze on its feet. “They have such weird sleeping patterns,” she says. “They only need three hours of sleep. Some don’t seem to sleep at all.” I wonder if this has anything to do with the elephants’ enormous, convoluted hippocampus—the part of the limbic system that plays major roles in long-term memory and spatial navigation. Humans need eight hours to delete (or file away) the hundreds of thousands of sensory impressions we absorb unconsciously and consciously in the course of the day. But elephants have this huge engine, this enormous hard drive which can store much more information than ours can and also accounts for their famously prodigious memory.

      A bull in musth, whom Andrea doesn’t recognize, enters stage left and advertises his sexual state with a big, strong, low, pulsating roar. Scanning the bai for estrous females with the Jacobson’s organ in his mouth, he picks up on Aurora, who does a little come-hither shuffle, and he starts to follow her around. The other females watch with interest. “The musth male guards the estrous female for a day or two,” Andrea explains, “and when they finally copulate, the other females send up a nuptial chorus, a screaming cacophony of rumbles. She can be inseminated by more than one bull. You never know the father of the calf. A couple of years ago Hilton comes in and heads right for a musth bull who is guarding Leila and drives him off, and while he is chasing him, meanwhile, a little bull, Caligula, copulates with her. He seizes the opportunity, zooms in on that little window. This is known as sneaky-fucker behavior.”

      Katie Payne—an expert on whale and elephant vocalizations who strung up the bai with microphones and did the pioneering research on elephant infrasound communication here in 2002 and 2003—tells me, when I ask if she thinks elephants can sing, that an estrous female who has been mated by a young male and is looking for someone bigger and fitter will produce this powerful, low, melodious rumble that can last 45 minutes. This is one of the many things that we haven’t found out yet about the elephant tribe: these sounds they make that are too low for humans to hear and carry much farther than their audible vocalizations—are they some kind of secret language (an idea that has seized the popular imagination) or just an extension of the audible sounds, the low part of a graded sequence that echoes the same message? “I’ve gotten a lot of solace from the elephants,” Andrea muses. “They’re probably the best friends I have. People are the scary ones.”

      Of particular concern are the Sudanese poachers, who are descending on Bayanga and were just routed and scattered by government troops, who took two casualties, and the logging camps encroaching on the reserve, whose workers are living off locally poached bushmeat, including elephant. “I feel there is a compression going on,” Andrea tells me. “The bai is chockablock with elephants,” swarming to their last and only sanctuary. The day shift begins clearing out, and the night shift—a different crowd, many of whom have had brushes with poachers and are nervous about being out in the open in broad daylight—is coming in to get its mineral fix. So ends another day in the bai—nothing earth-shattering, nothing worthy of the evening news, just another day at play in the fields of the Lord, the usual sound and fury, signifying nothing.

  • "Elephants are on their way to extinction, July 27, 2011 "

    • Dan Simpson, July 27, 2011,Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (article)

      The long and short of it is that, in spite of a well-meaning and fairly organized effort over the past few decades, the world's African elephants in the wild are being systematically exterminated. The cause is a combination of growing wealth and a taste for ivory in China coupled with fecklessness and greed on the part of Africans who host and are supposed to protect the elephants. The bottom line for Americans is that, given the likelihood that efforts to save the elephants will not succeed, the best thing to do is go to Africa and visit them while they are still around. The most recent layout of the situation is contained in a masterful piece of journalism executed by Vanity Fair editor Alex Shoumatoff -- after a six-week, nine-country investigation -- entitled "Agony and Ivory" in the August issue of the magazine.

      I should say, for purposes of "truth in advertising," that I have had a soft spot for elephants for 50 years. I first ran into them outside of a zoo as a teacher in Nigeria in 1961. My students turned up one morning with the alarming news that a rogue elephant was running loose in a nearby village, destroying houses and fields, and that some brave hunters were going to have to kill it. Since then I have seen elephants in the wild in Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and especially in the Central African Republic, which is featured at some length in the Vanity Fair piece. I've also ridden a tame one in Thailand. Elephants are very endearing, although one should not get too close to them and definitely should not anger one. They run in extended families -- like modern Americans -- and can live past 65. They demonstrate a whole range of emotions, including sorrow, and those who study them are still trying to figure the many ways they communicate.

      Mr. Shoumatoff reports that elephants are well on their way to extinction. They are being killed at the rate of 100 per day, 36,500 per year, for their ivory tusks. In 1970 there were an estimated 1.3 million elephants in Africa. That number now may be down to as low as 400,000.

      African elephants still exist in some 37 countries, principally in the Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Mali, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. They are protected with varying degrees of effectiveness and honesty. To make the other side of the argument, it is worth noting that unemployment in Zimbabwe, for example, stands at 80 percent, so people need sources of income.

      Various international agreements, in principle, protect elephants and other endangered species. The best known is the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Another is the International Fund for Animal Welfare. They may be international, but they depend for enforcement on the governments of the countries where the animals are found. Some countries do better than others. Kenya banned hunting in 1977 and the sale of ivory in 1989. Kenya shoots poachers. Sports hunting and culling are permitted in some countries.

      But the real problem is only in part at the supply end. On the demand end is a rapidly expanding population of prosperous Chinese who like to display ivory carvings and tusks as evidence of their new wealth. There are an estimated 100 master ivory carvers in the city of Guangzhou alone, says Mr. Shoutmatoff. Markets for ivory also exist in Vietnam, South Korea, Hong Kong and Macau. Chinese dealers are supplied in part by an estimated 1 million Chinese now living and working in Africa.

      My own experience in the Central African Republic was that there had to be some means of persuading both the authorities and hunters in Africa that elephants are worth more to them alive than dead. (The same logic applies to forest gorillas, also at risk, but as meat, not body-part trophies.)

      Kenya and South Africa have been best at grasping that picture, with Tanzania and Zambia not far behind, having devoted resources to protecting their animals and developing their tourist industries as money-earners and employers.

      In countries where government has more or less broken down, such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zimbabwe, the animal population has perforce virtually been written off. Gabon is advancing into that category and has now reportedly become a major source of tusks.

      African governments prepared to wade into the swift, dangerous river of drug and arms dealing, money-laundering and organized ivory exporting are not numerous. It is all too easy for African leaders to take the short-term gain or bribe that comes from the ivory trader and forgo the more difficult path of working in the long-term interests of his people by preserving this very honorable animal.

      If you want to help, probably the best thing you can do is support the tourism industry in one of these countries by visiting the elephants, and, while there, figure out how to help on a longer-term basis. Otherwise, like so many other things we are told about but that no longer exist, the elephants simply won't be there for our children and grandchildren.

      Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador who served the State Department for many years in Africa, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1976).

  • "Chats, flirting and travel rows - Jumbo is just like us, 5 June 2011"

    • The Sunday Times, 5 June 2011

      A 35-year study of African elephants has concluded that they are as intelligent as dolphins and much nicer than humans.

      Chimpanzees and gorillas may resemble us more closely, but elephants are just as likely to ape human emotions and skills, according to the most detailed analysis of the creatures ever undertaken. A 35-year observational study of African elephants has discovered that they wince at each other’s pain, argue over directions and are able to recognise more than 100 of their fellows. Elephants have long been known to display human-like behaviour such as grieving over their dead. However, the sheer range of emotions and their ability to use tools shown in the new study has led researchers to conclude that elephants should be considered at least as similar to humans as some of the most advanced animals.

      “They are certainly a higher animal,” said Cynthia Moss, founder of the Amboseli elephant research project near Kenya’s border with Tanzania. “They are right up there with apes and dolphins in their intelligence and their complex social behaviour — and, if anything, they are much nicer than humans.”

      Moss’s team has individually tracked about 2,500 elephants, observing and recording their lives over the decades. They conclude there is “no doubt” that elephants display empathy for one another. In one example, a female adult elephant was seen to wince as she watched a young calf reach out to touch an electric fence. Others have been seen removing branches caught on another elephant’s body or pulling out tranquilliser darts when another is hit. Two elephants were once observed wedging another elephant between them to stop it falling after it had been tranquillised. Moss, whose findings have been published in a new book by University of Chicago Press, said: “Sometimes you will see the allomothers [female carers] who ‘babysit’ their younger relatives — rescuing a calf that gets stuck in the mud or retrieving one that gets left behind.” She added: “You can’t help but get attached. You spend so much time following them for many years, watching as they grow up and have new experiences. They certainly have individual personalities. “It’s like a soap opera, that’s what keeps you going back. It’s all the same drama ... like ‘did she get pregnant by that bull or another?’”

      In addition to their ability to empathise, the Amboseli elephants showed a wide range of body language and sounds to communicate in a way recognisable to humans. Moss has observed them entwining trunks or bumping shoulders in greeting, while playful elephants waggled their heads or prodded another with a trunk to start a game. Flirting females sometimes opened their eyes wide while glancing coyly over their shoulders at suitors. The elephants used complex communications in what seemed to be protracted discussions over which route to take when herds were on the move. A common signal known as the “let’s go” rumble would prompt lengthy exchanges with the cadence of a conversation until an apparent consensus was reached and the animals would move off in a chosen direction. Elephants also have the ability to make and use basic tools, such as fly swats taken from branches, and the knowledge to remember routes through the landscape decades after they last travelled them. They are thought superior to apes in some areas, such as route planning, while other experiments have shown them as capable as primates in cooperating on tasks. Scientists have even suggested their short-term memories are better than humans’ in some respects.

      Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who runs the Save the Elephants project in Samburu nature reserve in Kenya, welcomed Moss’s research. “They’re definitely compassionate animals,” he said. “The discovery of their cognitive skills is significant because it shows that these skills have developed in parallel along separate evolutionary lines — in effect, that different species are coming to very similar conclusions.”

      However, others caution against reading human motives and emotion into elephant behaviour. Fritz Vollrath, a professor in the animal behaviour unit at Oxford University, said: “This is a really exciting area in which we know very little. From these observations, it seems elephants have evolved comparable coping strategies to our own. “In many ways elephants live similar lives to us — they have a similar life span, and live collectively. The question is, ‘Are they really identical to us?’ “I agree that elephants behave as if they have compassion or empathy, but do they have it like ours? We must be aware that behaviour we might interpret as showing human-like emotions might have arisen for completely different reasons.”

  • "Northern Threat, 23 April 2011"
    • Andrea Turkalo, 23 April 2011, dzangaforestelephants, (article)

      There have been reports of Sudanese poachers north of the area of the Dzanga Clearing. Reports coming in are mostly second and third hand and resemble the information that we received during the dry season in 2010 when there is movement of different groups in the northern part of the Central African Republic. In years past the dry season was the time when banditry escalated on the roads, especially in the northern savannah but for two consecutive years there have been additional reports of Sudanese caravans which consist of horsemen and camels making there way south where there are still healthy populations of elephant.

      The last report was a couple of days ago when there was a purported confrontation between the Sudanese and Central African military. Deaths were reported but getting credible information is difficult especially specific details about the exact location of these groups.

      Besides this alarming situation and the possible threat to this area which is one of the last strongholds of elephants in the Central African Republic our daily observations have shown elevated numbers of elephants and other species of forest mammals. For the past couple of days there have been well over 100 elephants a day with the appearance of elephant individuals we haven’t seen in months. Family group members have been coming together in the clearing in happy reunions with lots of vocalizations and tactile encounters.

  • "Elephants: the gardeners of Asia's and Africa's forests: An interview with Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz and Stephen Blake, 25 April 2011"

    • Jeremy Hance, 25 April 2011, mongabay.com, (article)

      It seems difficult to imagine elephants delicately tending a garden, but these pachyderms may well be the world's weightiest horticulturalist. Elephants both in Asia and Africa eat abundant amounts of fruit when available; seeds pass through their guts, and after expelled—sometimes tens of miles down the trail—sprouts a new plant if conditions are right. This process is known by ecologists as 'seed dispersal', and scientists have long studied the 'gardening' capacities of monkeys, birds, bats, and rodents. Recently, however, researchers have begun to document the seed dispersal capacity of the world's largest land animal, the elephant, proving that this species may be among the world's most important tropical gardeners.

      "In our paper we show that African forest elephants are the ultimate seed dispersers—they disperse vast numbers of seeds of a high diversity of plants in a very effective way […] Asian and African savanna elephants also disperse many seeds […] but seem to be less frugivorous [i.e. fruit-eating]," Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, co-author of a recent paper on African and Asian elephant seed dispersal in Acta Oecologica, told mongabay.com in an interview.

      Stephen Blake, the study's other co-author, says that the behavior of different elephant species, in this context, has more to do with habitat than species' preference. "African savannah elephants don’t disperse many seeds usually, but stick them in the Kibale forest in Uganda where fruit is accessible, and they become formidable seed dispersers," Blake explains, "no large-bodied generalist feeding mammal is going to refuse a good fruit feed if it is available."

      Blake and Campos-Arceiz highlight in their study some plant species likely depend entirely on elephants for their dispersal, much as some orchids depend wholly on a single insect pollinator for propagation.

      "The best documented case is the relationship of Balanites wilsoniana and savanna elephants in Uganda. Several studies have found that elephants consume and disperse lots of Balanites seeds, that no other animal disperses these seeds," explains Campos-Arceiz.

      However, Blake adds that the "cumulative impact of elephant dispersal" is more important than their connection to one species: "a few trees declining because elephant disappear is of course detrimental, but Balanites going extinct will be unlikely to have massive impact on the forest ecosystem. However, elephants going extinct means that the competitive balance of many many species, arguably over 100 in central Africa will be tipped in favor of species poor abiotically [i.e. non-biologically, such as wind] dispersed species. That is the key point from an ecological perspective."

      One of the reasons elephants are so important to a forest ecosystem is, unlike many other species, elephants are capable of spreading seeds far from the parent tree. According to the researchers, Asian elephants spread seeds from 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) to 6 kilometers (3.7 miles), while in the Congo, forest elephants are capable of spreading seeds as far as 57 kilometers (35.4 miles).

      "These are truly unprecedented dispersal distances for large forest seeds—most animal dispersers in tropical forests will drop seeds just a few tens or hundreds of meters from the source," explains Campos-Arceiz.

      Despite their ecological important, elephants in Asia and Africa are threatened. While some populations of savannah elephants in Africa are stable, Blake says Africa's forest elephants—the world's biggest frugivores—are in "steep decline due to poaching ".

      Asian elephants face pressures from poaching in addition to human-elephant conflict and habitat loss.

      "Asian elephants are rapidly declining and now they exist mainly in small and fragmented populations. Asian elephants have lost most—probably over 95%—of their range in historical ranges. […] Nowadays, one out of three Asian elephants is a captive animal," explains Campos-Arceiz, who says that priority in Asian elephant conservation is dealing with rising human-elephant conflict.

      In central Africa, Blake says the economic, education, and social situation has become so poor that if forest elephants are to survive drastic measures may be needed.

      "I am afraid a very un-politically correct fortress mentality needs to be imposed inside national parks until there is a new world order for valuation of natural resources…there simply isn’t the financial incentive or other benefits to get local communities interested in conserving elephants […] but how to do this with ever decreasing funds and ever increasing external threats getting closer to park borders every day is the challenge," Blake says,adding that "land use planning that respects the needs of wide ranging species like elephants, strong law enforcement, and socio-economic, political and environmental stability are among potential solutions, but Central Africa (just like the rest of the world for that matter) is a long way from these things."

      Blake believes that the plight of the seed-dispersing elephant is in some ways emblematic of the globe's wider conservation, environmental, consumption and even philosophical problems.

      "We need to generate some higher ideal in the general public beyond the next car and big house life goal…we need to make people think of the connection between their buying a cheap product and the reasons why it is cheap," says Blake. "Elephants are simply one more natural resource that is being caught up in human greed on the one hand and human need on the other. We somehow need people to become reacquainted with nature, or they can have no clue as the interrelatedness of cause and effect. This philosophical change will be way too late for elephants if it ever comes, and with 9 billion people estimated to be here soon, the tsunami is just going to sweep over the last great wilderness areas and take their natural resources with it, elephants and all."

      And if Blake is right and elephants disappear for good from the forests they once dominated?

      "Overall, we can expect a loss of biodiversity and a simplification of forest structure and function," Campos-Arceiz explains succinctly.

      And so, the gardener has abandoned their plot leaving it to an expanding monoculture of weeds.

      In an April 2011 interview Stephen Blake and Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz discussed the importance of Asian and Africa elephants to tropical seed dispersal, the varied threats facing elephants, and ways to save the world's greatest horticulturalists.


      Mongabay: What are your backgrounds?

      Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz: I’m from Spain but moved to Asia almost one decade ago. I have been since then studying large Asian herbivores, mainly elephants in Sri Lanka but also Mongolian gazelles, Japanese sika deer, and Malayan tapirs. After many years based at the University of Tokyo, and a short period at the national University of Singapore, I’m now in Kuala Lumpur, working at the Malaysian campus of the University of Nottingham.

      Stephen Blake: I am British. Began working in the Congo Basin in 1990 at a gorilla orphanage, then started with the Wildlife Conservation Society in 1993. Did a Masters (1993) and PhD (2002) at the University of Edinburgh: Phd on forest elephant ecology. Am now a researcher with the Mac Planck Institute for Ornithology, working on Galapagos tortoises.


      Mongabay: Why are elephants important to the forests they inhabit?

      Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz: Elephants are important because they play unique functional roles in the forest they inhabit. All animals are involved to some extent in ecosystem processes but elephants, as the largest animals in the forest, do it in unique ways. Elephants alter the physical structure of vegetation when they feed, they mobilize large amounts of nutrients with their feces, they provide food and create habitats for a large number of vertebrates and invertebrates, and of course, disperse the seeds of many of the plants they consume, therefore, promoting forest maintenance and regeneration.

      Stephen Blake: Remember too that at natural density elephants can make up the great majority of mammalian biomass in tropical forests. So elephants are using a large fraction of the energy flow through animals. Their body size means that they do things that other animals just don’t do—move seeds over larger distances than other dispersers, etc.

      Mongabay: Which of the elephant species are the greatest seed dispersers?

      Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz: In our review paper we show that African forest elephants are the ultimate seed dispersers—they disperse vast numbers of seeds of a high diversity of plants in a very effective way (e.g. over long distances and improving their germination capacity). Asian and African savanna elephants also disperse many seeds and can be extremely important, but seem to be less frugivorous (we also know less about of their role in seed dispersal).

      Mongabay: Why do you think Asian elephants disperse less seeds?

      Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz: That somehow puzzles me. I think the main difference lies in Asian forests, rather than in the elephants. In Southeast Asia, forests are dominated by dipterocarps—wind-dispersed trees with complex supra-annual cycles of mast fruiting. Non-dipterocarp trees often follow these mast-fruiting cycles as well. For frugivores, this means that fruit is a less abundant and reliable food resource than in other tropical moist forests. This is probably one of the reasons why Asian elephants seem to be less frugivorous than their African forest relatives, in spite of otherwise many parallelisms in their ecology. In any case, Asian elephants are very fond of large fleshy fruits and it would be very interesting to study their importance as seed dispersers during mast-fruiting episodes.

      Stephen Blake: Agreed: it is the composition and structure of the forest, not some intrinsic choice by the elephants. African savannah elephants don’t disperse many seeds usually, but stick them in the Kibale forest in Uganda where fruit is accessible, and they become formidable seed dispersers…no large-bodied generalist feeding mammal is going to refuse a good fruit feed if it is available.

      Mongabay: Is there evidence of elephants as the sole seed dispersers for some species?

      Old piles of elephant dung become fertile grounds for seed germination. Photo by: Stephen Blake. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz: Yes, there are quite a few examples of plants whose seeds are solely dispersed by elephants. The best documented case is the relationship of Balanites wilsoniana and savanna elephants in Uganda. Several studies have found that elephants consume and disperse lots of Balanites seeds, that no other animal disperses these seeds, that being consumed by elephants greatly enhances the capacity of Balanites seeds to germinate, and in places without elephants there is no recruitment of juvenile Balanites trees away from adult trees. Steve Blake has also documented as many as 13 species that largely rely on forest elephants to disperse their seeds in Ndoki forest, Congo.

      In Asia we have no well-documented case. I’m currently preparing studies in Sri Lanka and Malaysia looking at potentially obligate dispersal by Asian elephants. We definitely need more people studying the relationship between elephants and the so-called megafaunal-syndrome fruits (those supposedly adapted to dispersal by megafauna). And yes, this is a call to Asian students interested in the topic!

      Stephen Blake: Humans have considerable overlap with the big seeded stuff; our estimate of 13 in Congo was probably too high, and definitely if humans are included which they need to be. The central point for me is not how many species elephants are sole dispersers of, but the cumulative impact of elephant dispersal…a few trees declining because elephant disappear is of course detrimental, but Balanites going extinct will be unlikely to have massive impact on the forest ecosystem. However, elephants going extinct means that the competitive balance of many many species, arguably over 100 in central Africa will be tipped in favor of species poor abiotically dispersed species. That is the key point from an ecological perspective.

      Mongabay: How does elephant's intelligence aid them in finding food and in turn dispersing seeds?

      Stephen Blake: How important intelligence is hard to say without specific studies, but it is likely to be high.

      Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz: It must play an important role. Finding fruit in the forest is quite challenging because fruit is a very clumped resource—both in space and time—and the plants with large fruits dispersed by elephants often occur at very low densities. In our paper we speculate that elephants probably have cognitive maps that allow them to remember where and when fruits are likely to be available, very much in the same fashion as savanna elephants know where to find water during dry spells. Chimpanzees are known to use these cognitive maps in their search for fruit.

      Besides individual memories, elephants have a 'societal spatial memory' in the form of permanent trails, carved in the forest by generations of elephants moving to and from dependable resources. As Steve described in a previous paper, these trails trap-line fruiting trees and other important resources. Of course, by moving along these trails elephants also disperse a higher number of seeds in their surroundings, in a self-reinforcing process of habitat 'improvement'.

      Mongabay: How far do elephants disperse seeds? Why does this matter?

      Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz: Elephants regularly disperse large seeds over several kilometers. In my study with Asian elephants I found that in Sri Lanka and Myanmar they dispersed 57% of seeds more than 1 kilometers (0.62 miles) away from the mother plant, with maximum distances of up to approximately 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) (playing with unpublished data from a different Burmese population I found dispersal distances of over 20 kilometers (12.4 miles)!). But these distances look short compared with what Steve describes in Congo, where African forest elephants dispersed 82% of seeds farther than 1 kilometer (0.62 miles) and some seeds as far as 57 kilometers (35.4 miles)!! These are truly unprecedented distances for large forest seeds—most animal dispersers in tropical forests will drop seeds just a few tens or hundreds of meters from the source.

      Dispersal distance is one of the main determinants of the spatial distribution of seeds, which has an important influence on tree distribution patterns and therefore forest structure. Trees dispersed over long distances by elephants have wide geographic distributions, low degree of spatial aggregation, and occur at low densities. Long-distance seed dispersal events also play a key role in process like plant migration (e.g. in response to climate change), connectivity of isolated populations (e.g. in forest fragmentation scenarios), and re-colonization of degraded habitats (e.g. after abandonment of agricultural fields).

      Mongabay: If elephants are gone do other species make up for their absence in terms of seed dispersing?

      Stephen Blake: The loss of elephants is the herald of mass crashes in populations of other large mammals usually to the bushmeat trade, so the species that could jump into fulfill some of the elephant role on competitive release—gorillas chimps, large duikers, etc, wont be there either. In the Congo basin, this is compounded by Ebola, for example, which is wiping out gorillas from vast areas of forest. So we should not see elephants disappearing as an isolated event, but as a more obvious signal of wider ecological collapse.

      Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz: Plants rarely put 'all the eggs of their dispersal in a single basket'—they generally have multiple and complementary mechanisms to disperse. Most fleshy fruits are dispersed by a variety of animals, which continue to disperse seeds in the absence of elephants. Generally there is some level of functional redundancy.

      In the case of elephants, however, because of their unique functional characteristics there is less redundancy and mechanisms to compensate their loss. Some plants with very large seeds might not find any other animal disperser (e.g. Balanites wilsoniana in Africa or Borassus flabelifer in Asia). And even if there are animals that still disperse the seeds (e.g. scatter-hoarding rodents), the spatial patterns of dispersal change drastically, resulting in a very different ecological trajectory for the plant—e.g. species distribution range constrain, the spatial distribution of adults becomes more clumped, genetic structure increases locally, and ultimately many populations disappear.

      Mongabay: How do you believe forests will change if elephant populations plunge or even go extinct locally?

      Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz: Elephants have already disappeared over large areas of Africa and Asia, and from the Americas, so forest must have changed already. The main changes that we can expect are: plants with very large fruits and seeds (specialized in dispersal by megafauna) will fail to recruit and will become increasingly rare, until they eventually disappear; plants that are dispersed by elephants and other animals will see their patterns of dispersal modified, which will result in range reductions, increased spatial aggregation and genetic structure of populations, and higher risk of local disappearance; and plants that are not dispersed by large animals (especially those dispersed by abiotic [i.e. non-biologic, such as wind] factors) will gain a competitive advantage and become more dominant.

      Overall, we can expect a loss of biodiversity and a simplification of forest structure and function.


      Mongabay: What is the difference between African forest elephants and savannah elephants? A recent study found that the African forest elephant was a distinct species. Do you believe this?

      Stephen Blake: It is all still up in the air. A new paper just came out in PLOS Biology talking about "deep speciation among African elephants", but it is all still a matter of opinion. Right now the African elephant specialist group, who oddly might not be the ideal group to decide, still have 2 subspecies for African elephants.

      Mongabay: If they are separate species what are the conservation implications?

      Stephen Blake: As far as conservation implications, I am not sure it will make much difference in practical terms to have two separate species defined, though in the short to medium term it might make things even more difficult for forest elephants. CITES would immediately open the trade in the savannah species, which would increase the price of ivory in the world market and demand would rise. Rising demand and rising prices will make it even more profitable for black marketers to operate, which they will be able to do in the absence of effective law enforcement. The key is law enforcement, and because law enforcement in exporting and importing countries is often weak due to corruption and lack of funding and expertise, illegal ivory from the Congo Basin would be easier to shift into the world market. Now the traders say this is not the case, and that the legal market would be well controlled, but their evidence for this is scant.

      Mongabay: What is the status of the African forest elephant populations?

      Stephen Blake: The status of African elephant populations is highly varied between regions and taxa. Southern African elephants are stable or increasing generally, eastern African elephants ditto, central African forest and savannah elephants are in steep decline due to poaching and habitat loss. West African elephants seem to be relatively stable, but they are highly fragmented and found mostly in tiny populations, so the outlook for them is pretty poor. I think the southern African nations are complacent in their outlook of stability for their elephants. As middle class Chinese get richer and as Asia buys up Africa, we are going to see dramatic rises in ivory demand and price on the black market whatever happens to the legal trade. Couple this to political influence and corruption, and we are set to see elephants being hit hard in what are currently secure areas.

      Mongabay: And what is the status of the Asian elephant populations?

      Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz: The situation of elephant populations in Asia is complex. Something easy to understand is that Asian elephants are rapidly declining and now they exist mainly in small and fragmented populations. Asian elephants have lost most—probably over 95%—of their range in historical times. This decline is still going on, with an estimated loss of around 80% of the range during the 20th century alone (!!). Nowadays, one out of three Asian elephants is a captive animal. And countries like Myanmar and Thailand might currently have more captive than wild elephants. So things don’t look good for Asian elephants.

      Moreover, Asian elephants inhabit some the most populous countries in the world. Current local densities of Asian elephants in areas of Sri Lanka, India, and others are actually unsustainably high, because elephants living close to people inevitably resort to crop raiding and other forms of human-elephant conflict (HEC), which leads to retaliatory killing of elephants and the eventual elimination of these populations. In many areas Asian elephants are perceived as 'overabundant agricultural pests'. Since elephants are long-living animals, we need to keep in mind that demographic effects appear long after environmental changes. Many Asian elephant populations that are now under intense HEC can be considered living-dead populations, with little long-term hope.

      Mongabay: What conservation measures would you suggest for the Asian elephant?

      Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz: In my opinion, the priority in Asia is learning to deal with human-elephant conflict. Up to now, HEC has always led to the local extirpation of elephants. As human populations expand there are less and less elephants that can live without interacting with people. We need to learn how to minimize the damage caused by elephants to local communities (through the understanding of the ecological and behavioral factors that lead to crop raiding) and how to increase the level of tolerance in people (living with elephants involves risks and consequences that cannot be ignored altogether). It is not going to be easy, but understanding the real impact of HEC on people’s livelihood and the sociocultural factors behind their perceptions and attitudes will be very important.

      Mongabay: And what conservation measures would you suggest for the African forest elephant?

      PStephen Blake: It is always about the same old thing…protection, wildlife management, work with community leaders to generate local buy in, and good natural resource management. Unfortunately the same old thing has failed and is failing because the resources just are not there. You know, central Africa is getting deeper and deeper into the shit every day: in the Congo we are seeing a generation coming to maturity who have had almost no education, and who have no employment future. The big economic drivers, the Chinese are bringing in their own workers for logging and mining operations, at a time when the world’s desire for both international aid and philanthropy is rapidly diminishing.

      So, working with the private sector is critical for developing a conservation landscape. Conservation investment needs to be linked to market forces for the sale of timber and minerals and oil. Bad environmental companies need to be penalized and "good" ones rewarded, but as we see every day, this is tough in practice. Have you seen the latest from BP?—their growth strategy is to remain unchanged following a bad spell after the disaster…there is always a market out there for the bad operators, and as global demand for resources escalates, particularly in Asian markets, it will be the price of the raw materials in the mass market not high-end green luxury-end market that counts…and low prices cannot be maintained if companies have to invest in good road planning, anti-poaching, and other environmentally friendly practices.

      I am afraid a very un-politically correct fortress mentality needs to be imposed inside national parks until there is a new world order for valuation of natural resources…there simply isn’t the financial incentive or other benefits to get local communities interested in conserving elephants except in a few highly subsidized areas, like villages whose populations are employed by the parks, but how to do this with ever decreasing funds and ever increasing external threats getting closer to park borders every day is the challenge. Land use planning that respects the needs of wide ranging species like elephants, strong law enforcement, and socio-economic, political and environmental stability are among potential solutions, but Central Africa (just like the rest of the world for that matter) is a long way from these things.

      Mongabay: Where would you like to see research of elephants as megagardeners go next?

      Stephen Blake: I think research must get very applied at this point. We need to look at things like carbon benefits of elephant dispersal…what is the net carbon gain for having elephants plant hard wood tree species of high wood density compared to wild dispersed species of low wood density? There is some interesting work beginning in this regard. Keeping a mammal-rich forest intact may provide very tangible carbon benefits, and since the only currency the world currently understands is money based on an oil based economy, we have to jump on the bandwagon, imperfect though it is.

      Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz: We need a lot of baseline data. We need Asian students to study frugivory and seed dispersal by elephants in different environments, especially in tropical moist forests of South and Southeast Asia. We need to identify the dispersal mechanisms of many megafaunal-syndrome plants. And we also need to identify the changes that are taking place in forest structure after the loss of elephants and other large herbivores (e.g. forest rhinos).

      Mongabay: What can the general public do to help?

      Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz: This is a difficult one. I would really encourage people living within elephant ranges to understand that human-elephant conflict is part of the deal and that it can’t be solved unless all the elephants are removed.

      For those that don’t live with elephants I would encourage them to make financial contributions to conservation and research organizations because funds are a serious limitation to conduct elephant conservation projects; become educated consumers and reduce the purchase of products that harm elephant habitats (e.g. products containing unsustainably-produced palm oil, or wood from illegal logging); and be aware that certain elephant shows and activities in Asia depend on the unsustainable supply of elephants from wild populations, and should not be encouraged.

      Stephen Blake: Beyond all of the above we need to generate some higher ideal in the general public beyond the next car and big house life goal…we need to make people think of the connection between their buying a cheap product and the reasons why it is cheap. Why is Whole Foods food expensive? Because it comes from ecologically managed sources. All food should cost that much, and we should eat less and consume less. But that is not economic reality. Why are US cars so huge? Because the price of fuel is so cheap. What are the consequences of cheap fuel and massive cars? How many Americans and Europeans jump in their big SUV from their big house and give one second of thought to the consequences of what they are doing, and whether it is a tad wasteful. Elephants are simply one more natural resource that is being caught up in human greed on the one hand and human need on the other. We somehow need people to become reacquainted with nature, or they can have no clue as the interrelatedness of cause and effect. This philosophical change will be way too late for elephants if it ever comes, and with 9 billion people estimated to be here soon, the tsunami is just going to sweep over the last great wilderness areas and take their natural resources with it, elephants and all.

      CITATION: Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz and Stephen Blake. Megagardeners of the forest – the role of elephants in seed dispersal. Acta Oecologica. 2011. doi:10.1016/j.actao.2011.01.014.

  • "Gabon Creates Military Unit to Combat Elephant Poaching, 15 April 2011"

    • Parc Gabon, 15 April 2001, (article)

      Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba announces strong measures to combat a stark increase in elephant poaching following the discovery of over 30 fresh carcasses in the Wonga Wongué Reserve by staff of the National Parks Agency. These measures come just three months after Gabon raised the status of the forest elephant to ‘fully protected’ due to unprecedented levels of poaching.

      The African Forest Elephant, Loxodonta cyclotis, now accepted to be a separate biological species from the larger savanna elephant, resides in the forests of West and Central Africa. Its small size, smaller ears and down-pointing tusks are an adaptation to its lush tropical forest environment and its ‘pink’ ivory is more finely grained than that from savanna elephants, making it particularly prized by master carvers.

      The market price for ivory is growing exponentially. Today just one tusk from a prize bull elephant will sell on the black market for upwards of $50,000 and organized smuggling rings can make staggering profits, purchasing ivory from poachers for around $50 per kilo and selling it for $2000 per kilo in the Asian market.

      During an overflight of the Wonga Wongué Reserve, previously one of the last havens where forest elephants roamed freely, Conservationist Mike Fay and Park Warden Norbert Pradel counted over 30 freshly slaughtered elephant carcasses.

      “We spotted one carcass, then another, and another, and within minutes we realized that something was very wrong” said Mike Fay, who was one of the key actors in the creation of Gabon’s National Park Network in 2002, when he revealed the natural wonders of the country to the late President Omar Bongo Ondimba, following his epic walk across Central Africa, labeled by National Geographic as the “Megatransect”. “We shifted from a surveillance to systematic flight mode and within an hour had detected some 28 carcasses, all from the last few months”. “Wonga Wongué is mostly forested so we can only guess at the true number of carcasses, but this level of poaching is absolutely unprecedented in the history of Gabon”. “This is not an isolated act, we are seeing exponential growth in elephant poaching throughout the country and indeed the continent.”

      In the last 30 years the vast majority of forest elephants across Africa have been slaughtered for the illegal ivory trade. Democratic Republic of Congo, which once had over 500,000 forest elephants, counts 12,000 or fewer today. Gabon, and northern Congo represent the last frontier, and these observations confirm fears that the final battle for the survival of the forest elephant has begun.

      Professor Lee White, CBE, a Gabonese citizen of British origin, named head of Gabon’s fledgling National parks Agency, by President Bongo in 2009, stated that “these latest observations prove that organized criminals are penetrating deep into Gabon and slaughtering elephants in some of the most remote forests left on the continent. According to our intelligence, most of the poachers are foreign nationals using weapons that came into circulation during the civil wars that have plagued the region in the recent past. Our park guards are out gunned and out numbered. Without decisive action by Gabon’s political leaders we are going to lose the battle to save the forest elephant, and as we have seen elsewhere, that would be the beginning of the end for most rain forest species”.

      Following a briefing by Dr Fay and Professor White to the Cabinet, President Ali Bongo Ondimba announced the immediate creation of a 240-man military unit, a “Jungle Brigade”, to support the National Parks Agency that will be charged with shoring up the parks and stopping elephant poaching and other wildlife related crime in Gabon. President Bongo underlined the fact that “Wildlife protection and the preservation of natural resources generally is the great challenge of our time. If we lose our elephants we will enter the same spiral that has seen wildlife and natural resources plundered elsewhere in Africa, with the inevitable consequence of political instability and conflict in dysfunctional ecosystems where man can no longer live sustainably in harmony with nature. Today I have undertaken to create an elite military unit that will be signed into law this month, which will support our National Parks Agency in their critical work to manage Gabon’s natural treasures. This decision demonstrates my government’s commitment to the principal of Gabon Vert – Green Gabon – and to the management of our National Parks as both a National and International treasure. I implore ivory importing nations, particularly in Asia, to get serious about addressing this problem, as I am today, and to inform their citizens that the purchase of ivory will be dealt with severely. Ivory smuggling rings are working in a concerted fashion internationally, law enforcement must do the same. Gabon cannot fight this problem alone.

      The environment’s policy of Gabon

      Gabon plays a key role in the safekeeping of the Congo Basin forest. In 2002, President Omar Bongo Ondimba made the decision to classify 11% of the country’s land as a protected zone, which led to the creation of 13 national parks. In 2005, le Gabon was 12th worldwide and 1st in Africa in Yale University's sustainable ecological development index. At the Copenhagen climate change conference in December 2009, President Ali Bongo Ondimba put himself forward as a leading voice for environmental protection by actively participating in the negotiations right up to the final round. He has also committed himself to implementing a climate plan for Gabon and work began on this in 2010. In September 2010, President Ali Bongo Ondimba was designated spokesman for the African position on biodiversity at the end of the Libreville pan-African Conference.

      For more information contact www.cocom.rggov.org or visit www.presidentalibongo.com and www.legabon.org

  • "The Moral Lives of Animals, 21 March 2011"

    • Dale Peterson, 21 March 2011, Psychology Today Blog, (article)

      In June, 2000, Cornell University bioacoustician Katy Payne spent time sitting on an observation platform at a forest clearing in the Dzanga-Sangha Forest Reserve of the Central African Republic, watching elephants. These magnificent creatures would emerge from the forest to make regular visits to the mineral-rich mud wallows of the clearing.

      Once, a young elephant, weakened by malnutrition, collapsed off to one side of a narrow, sandy trail leading into the clearing. Within a few hours, she had died. Payne and some colleagues on the observation platform witnessed the event and used a telescopic videocamera to document the reactions of elephants as they ambled ponderously to and from the clearing, passing (on day one) a dying and then (day two) dead fellow elephant. Altogether during those two days, passing elephants paid 129 visits to the fallen animal, of which 128 showed some identifiable response.

      Most of the elephants began by exploring the body and the area around it, but after that initial exploration, what next? About half the visits ended with a response of fearful avoidance: the elephant backing off, sidling or dashing away. Reasonable. The presence of a striken elephant in an area frequented by poachers could mean danger.

      How remarkable, then, was the behavior shown in nearly a third of the visits. Some 15 percent of the total involved protective behavior: the visiting elephant protecting or guarding the fallen animal from others. And in about 18 percent of the cases, the visiting elephant tried to assist or revive the stricken one: attempting to push or lift her upright, using their feet, trunks, or tusks.

      Researchers already had developed a good record of these animals, identifying individuals and charting family and social relationships. Using this information, Payne and colleagues found no correlation between how individuals reacted and their relationship to the stricken elephant. Strangers were as likely to try defending or rescuing her as relatives or close acquaintances. This, then, could be a case of spontaneous kindess (or pure altruism): elephants trying to assist a fellow elephant in trouble, without a nepotistic bias or the anticipation of some reciprocated benefit in the future.

      It reminds me of the Good Samaritan parable. To refresh your memory: A man traveling on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho is set upon by robbers, who take everything he has, strip him naked, beat him, and leave him to die. As the victim lies there, dirty, naked, bleeding, helpless, dying, three travelers pass by.

      When the first traveler sees the unfortunate victim lying there, he hastily crosses to the other side of the road and continues on his way. The second traveler also quickly moves to the far side of the road and hastens away. These are honorable men, and their behavior seems reasonable. Perhaps they are worried about the presence of thieves. The third person to travel along this road is a Samaritan, a member of that despised sect of apostate Jews who have developed their own version of the Torah. What would a Samaritan know about personal ethics? When this man sees the robbers' unfortunate victim, however, he stops and attends to him. Washes the man's wounds with wine and soothing oils. Wraps them with bandages. Places the man onto the back of his own pack animal and transports him to a nearby inn. The Good Samaritan then pays for the victim's lodging.

      This didactic tale provokes us to consider our duty to our neighbor. Our duty is to behave not like the two respectable men but rather to emulate the third one, the Samaritan, who in his actions dramatized one of the central ethical principles of Christian teaching, which is to practice radical kindness: to "love . . . your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10: 27).

      People often think of morality as something received-either handed down by a wise deity or inculcated through the workings of culture. But the Good Samaritan story does not suggest that the kind traveler had received a special code of ethics that the other two men had not been exposed to. Instead, it suggests that the Samaritan resisted his own fear in order to follow a second impulse that-in my modern English translation-is called "compassion." All three men may have already possessed these two inclinations or emotional complexes. Two found their compassion overcome by fear. The third overcame his fear in order to respond compassionately.

      This parable may provide an explanation for the contrary behaviors exhibited by those elephants who, walking along the Dzanga-Sangha trail, discovered a fellow elephant in trouble. Most of them did the sensible thing, which was to listen to their fear. Some of them did the less sensible thing, which was to respond with compassion.

  • "Elephants Outwit Humans During Intelligence Test, 7 March 2011 "

    • Jennifer Viegas, 7 March 2011, Discovery News, (article)

      Elephants recently aced a test of their intelligence and ability to cooperate, with two of them even figuring out ways that the researchers hadn't previously considered to obtain food rewards. The study, published in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlights not only the intelligence of individual elephants, but also the ability of these animals to cooperate and understand the value of teamwork.

      Scientists now believe elephants are in league with chimpanzees and dolphins as being among the world's most cognitively advanced animals. "Elephant sociality is very complex," lead author Joshua Plotnik told Discovery News. "Social groups are made up of matriarchal herds (an older female is in charge), and varying levels of relatedness among members. Cooperation in elephants was most likely necessary in a context of communal care for, and protection of, young."

      "In the wild, there are fascinating anecdotes of elephants working together to lift or help fallen members, and forming clusters to protect younger elephants," added Plotnik, a Cambridge University researcher who is also head of research at Thailand's Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.Tests of elephant intelligence and their other abilities are rare, simply because working with these large and potentially dangerous animals poses risks. To meet the challenge, Plotnik and colleagues Richard Lair, Wirot Suphachoksahakun, and Frans de Waal reworked a classic 1930s experiment used on primates.

      The researchers positioned a sliding table, holding enticing red bowls full of yummy corn, some distance away from a volleyball net. A rope was tied around the table such that the table would only move if two elephants working together pulled on the dangling rope ends. If just one elephant pulled, the rope would unravel. To get to the front of the volleyball net, the elephants had to walk down two separate, roped-off lanes.

      A total of 12 male and female elephants from the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, Thailand, participated. It's estimated that fewer than 2,500 of these animals are left in the Thai jungle, so conservation efforts now are critical.

      After quickly learning that the corn-on-the-table task could not be successfully completed solo, elephants would wait up to 45 seconds for the second "partner" elephant to show up. If the researchers did not release this second elephant, the first one basically looked around as if to say: "You've got to be kidding. It takes two to do this." In most cases, the elephants got the corn.Two elephants, named Neua Un and JoJo, even figured out how to outwit the researchers.

      "We were pleasantly surprised to see the youngest elephant, Neua Un, use her foot to hold the rope so that her partner had to do all the work," Plotnik said. "I hadn't thought about this beforehand, and Neua Un seemed to figure it out by chance, but it speaks volumes to the flexibility of elephant behavior that she was able to figure this out and stick to it."

      The other "cheater," JoJo, didn't even bother to walk up to the volleyball net unless his partner, Wanalee, was released.

      "Perhaps he had learned that if he approached the rope without her, he'd fail," Plotnik said, adding that such advanced learning, problem-solving, and cooperation are rare in the animal kingdom. Other animals clearly engage in teamwork, but he thinks they are "pre-programmed for it," unlike elephants that seem to understand the full process.

      Animal experts from around the world are praising the new research. Nicola Clayton, a professor of comparative cognition at the University of Cambridge; Diana Reiss, a professor of psychology at Hunter College; and Satoshi Hirata of Japan's Great Ape Research Institute, all told Discovery News they agree with the conclusions.

      "This is the first experimental evidence for learned cooperative behavior in this socially sophisticated species," Reiss noted. Clayton said the findings support the theory "that cognitive abilities evolved independently in animals that are as very distantly related from us as elephants and crows."

      Hirata was "amazed" when he first saw the videos of the elephant experiments.

      "We tend to think that elephants and humans are greatly different," Hirata said, "but the study results show that we share some social mind skills with elephants."

  • "Cameroon Fights Against Poaching, 4 March 2011"
    • Walter Wilson Nana, 4 March 2011, Africa News, (article)

      Twenty elephant tusks were seized aboard a truck in Ntam, a village located in the East Region of Cameroon, on the border with the Republic of Congo. The tusks were hidden in the rear chest of the 30-ton truck that was transporting some 300 bags of cocoa from Sembe in Congo-Brazzaville to Cameroon's economic capital, Douala. Five people have been arrested including the driver of the truck. They have been taken to Abong Mbang, a town in the East Region of Cameroon where it is expected poaching-related charges will be pressed against them. If found guilty, the suspect poachers might be slammed jail terms ranging from 1 to 3 years and a fine ranging between FCFA 3,000,000 (US$ 6000) to FCFA 10,000,000, (US$ 20000) according to Cameroonian law.

      According to Jacque Guillaume Touck Kamba, the game ranger manning the forestry and wildlife control post in Ntam, they discovered upon initial search, a small ivory tusk weighing less than 5kg concealed in a brief case in the driver compartment of the truck. “We began suspecting something was amiss. We systematically searched the entire truck and discovered 20 ivory tusks tucked in a chest at the rear of the truck,” Guillaume explained.

      The ivory tusks had been split into 30 pieces so they could conveniently fit in the chest. “10 of the tusks weigh less than 5kg, while the other 10 weigh more than 5kg,” disclosed Touck Kamba. Going by the number of tusks, 10 elephants have been killed. Rangers suspect the elephants were poached in Nki National Park, located in the East Region of Cameroon, the tusks assembled in Souanke, a border town in Congo-Brazzaville and owners attempted to later smuggle them through the East and South Regions of Cameroon to Douala.

      This seizure brings once more to the fore the intensity of ivory trafficking in the Southeast of Cameroon and the increasing difficulties faced by Cameroon’s Ministry of Forestry and Wildlife, MINFOF, to wade off the killing. “Just a week before this seizure we, upon a tip off, missed by whisker poachers said to have been smuggling six ivory tusks extracted from elephants killed in Nki,” said Desiré Mpae, a game ranger working for Nki. “The poachers probably learnt of our arrival and escaped across the border to Souanke in Congo-Brazzaville,” said Mpae.

      According to Fidelis Pegue Manga, Communication Officer for the Worldwide Fund for Nature, WWF, Njengi Office in Yokadouma, the East Region of Cameroon, earlier in December 2010, game rangers at Ntam control post pursued and seized two ivory tusks from a fleeing poacher.


      Problems bedevilling anti-poaching efforts around Nki National park are enormous. “There are just 30 poorly equipped game rangers to protect a forest massif spanning more than 300,000 hectares,” explained Expedit Fouda, WWF Park Assistant for Nki. “Most of the poachers are armed with automatic rifles whereas you have as many as 10 game rangers to one old Mass 36 gun, which is not capable of dissuading these illegal hunters,” Fouda added. Rangers also complain of the numerous unprotected trails that lead to the heart of the park and decry the decline of anti-poaching support.

      Nki forms part of TRIDOM (Tri-National Dja-Odzala-Minkebe) that respectively comprise protected areas in Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville and Gabon. However, TRIDOM activities have been slow to take off even though Ministers in charge of Forestry and Wildlife of the aforementioned countries had earlier signed the TRIDOM accord. “The delay in launching TRIDOM activities is playing negatively against our effort. This, coupled with dwindling funding for conservation, has made it hard for us to sustain effort to fight ivory traffickers” stated Mboh Dandjouma, Conservator for Nki National Park.

  • " NY Ivory Smugglers Go Behind Bars, 3 March 2011 "

    • Agence France Press, 3 March 2011 (article)

      NEW YORK — Two men caught smuggling elephant ivory through New York's JFK airport have been put behind bars, officials said Thursday.

      Kemo Sylla and Mamadi Doumbouya were sentenced to 10 and 14 months respectively, the US attorney's office in Brooklyn said. Another four in the same gang had previously been sentenced to between 12 and 14 months in prison."All the ivory was imported through John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens, New York, disguised as African handicrafts and wooden instruments," the prosecutor's office said.

      Elephants, which were once systematically killed for their ivory tusks, are an internationally protected species. However, poachers continue to kill the endangered animals in order to satisfy a lucrative ivory market.

      "Despite international efforts to control the ivory trade and stop the decline of elephant populations, prices and demand remain high causing continued elephant poaching and illegal ivory finding its way into international and domestic markets," the US attorney's office said.

  • "China Ivory Demand Spurs Elephant Slaughter, 9 February 2011"

    • Holly Williams, 9 February 2011, Sky News, (article)

      A Sky News special investigation has shown how China is driving demand for smuggled ivory from Africa, leading to a surge in the slaughter of endangered elephants.An undercover Sky film crew made contact with a man in Beijing who revealed his family runs an international ivory trafficking operation.At a meeting set up at a five-star hotel, he showed off three pairs of recently arrived tusks with a price tag of £40,000.Asked if he could supply more, he replied: "Don't worry about that. If we can do a deal today, then next time I have some good ivory I'll call you."He explained his uncle works in West Africa and uses contacts to smuggle the tusks into China in their luggage.

      Despite a worldwide ban on the sale of ivory, environmental groups say there has been a surge in the slaughter of elephants in Africa.The animals are gunned down by poachers before having their tusks sawn off. There is evidence the carnage is being driven by demand from the Far East and, in particular, by China's new found wealth.

      An investigation carried out by the Environmental Investigation Agency in 2010 found a booming underground trade in Zambia, where African traders have learned the Chinese word for ivory - xiangya. One dealer - identifying himself only as Stephen - described how he had sold three tonnes of ivory to a Chinese government delegation. He said: "There was no problem because, at that time, it was a matter of just going to the airport and putting on their plane. They went safely." Customs officials in Hong Kong last year found 384 tusks packed inside a container shipped from Tanzania and labelled "dried anchovies".

      Meanwhile, in Congo's Lubumbashi Airport, three Chinese nationals were discovered carrying six suitcases packed full of tusks.Experts say the busts reveal only a tiny portion of a growing illicit trade. But, once the ivory makes its way into China, it is virtually impossible to trace, thanks to a legal loophole. In China's high-end ivory showrooms, elegant carvings sell for as much as £200,000.Often taking several months to complete, they are highly prized by China's new rich as status symbols.All the dealers are accredited with the government and the ornaments come with a certificate issued by China's State Forestry Administration.The certification process is supposed to guarantee that all the ivory on sale comes from a special, one-off deal done by China in 2008, when the country was permitted to buy several thousand tusks confiscated and stockpiled by African governments.However, Sky News can reveal China's legal ivory trade serves as a front for the trade in trafficked tusks.Filming secretly at one government accredited workshop, the manager said her business would only carve ivory that came with a certificate. However, when she left the room, one of her workers explained he also carved illegal tusks, even showing off chunks of smuggled ivory.

      Lisa Hua from the International Fund for Animal Welfare said China's legal ivory trade only serves to encourage poachers and smugglers. "As long as there's a legal trade, the illegal ivory will find its way into the market," she said."And that will directly threaten the survival of endangered elephants in the wild."


      IFAW and other animal protection groups are calling for the Chinese authorities to implement a total ban on the sale of ivory.

  • "Congo Arrests Ivory Poacher, 23 January 2011"

    • AFP, 23 March 2011, (article)

      BRAZZAVILLE — Officials in Congo were on Sunday holding a Chinese national as he tried to smuggle 10 kilos (22 pounds) of ivory -- including five large elephant tusks -- out of Congo, a wildlife group said.

      The 35-year old was arrested Saturday at Maya-Maya airport, in the capital Brazzaville, said Naftali Honig, coordinator of the Project to Apply the Law on Fauna (PALF). Officials found five large elephant tusks, 80 ivory chopsticks, several hankos, or Chinese name seals, three 3 ivory carvings and many small ivory items, he added. He was taking a flight bound for Beijing. The Congolese paramilitary gendarmerie are holding the suspect, who faces up to five years in prison if convicted of the attempt to smuggle the wildlife artefacts.

      "We vowed to help the government of Congo send a zero tolerance message to ivory traffickers, and as you can see this message is in action," said Honig.

      Earlier this month five African poachers trafficking endangered species were arrested and put behind bars in Gabon.On that occasion, officials seized 13 heads and 32 hands of apes, 12 panther hides, a lion hide, five elephant tails and numerous hides of other less endangered species, according to another wildlife group there. It was the biggest ever seizure conducted in Africa concerning apes, according to Gabon's AALF, known by its French acronym for Support for the Application of the Wildlife Act.


These news flashes are provided by 'Save The Elephants' Elephant News Service. This service is the result of the hard work of Melissa Groo, an ELP team member who also works part-time for Save The Elephants. Here we have selected a few items that have bubbled to the top of our attention in the last few months. All articles are archived at the Elephant News Service where you can also sign up for the service.

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© Melissa Groo

White butterflies, Dzanga Bai, CAR