Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Elephants, Ivory, Africa and China #1

Warning! This is not a good news posting.

Anyone who follows Facebook, Linkedin or Twitter links that cover wildlife issues cannot fail to have seen the remarkable number of posts since December 1st about the utter disaster that is going on across all African states where elephants are found. Indeed, in some cases one can probably write where elephants used to roam. What a mess! 
The news has gone well beyond the social media scene and this scanned-in report in the Guardian, that I picked up in UK last week,  may have brought it to the attention of many others.  Sadly that is very unlikely to make a jot of difference to those who are engaged in the slaughter elephants and the use of their teeth for human pleasure.

A really authoritative 19-page report by a team from three main conservation groups (CITES Secretariat, IUCN / SSC African Elephant Specialist Group and TRAFFIC International sums it up nicely.

It is titled: Status of African elephant populations and levels of illegal killing and the illegal trade in ivory. 

The report deals with the 2012 situation and a few years prior.  A key sentence in the executive summary tells the sorry tale of the why?  

"Poverty and weak governance in elephant range States, together with demand for illegal ivory in consuming nations, are the three key factors identified by repeated MIKE analyses, including this one, as being most strongly associated with observed poaching trends."

Of the many reports in December 2013 that fit this picture I suppose the ones out of Tanzania are as good an example as any. The Prime Minister Jakaya Kikwete sacked four of his cabinet for what was reported as overzealous use of control measures in the so-called Operation Tokomeza.

Within two days the operation was restarted after a container load of ivory reputedly destined for China was seized at the Dar es Salaam port.

It may be that the situation in Tanzania is the worst in Africa. A posting by Richard Conniff of Dec 18 is titled Elephant Poaching: The Disaster in Tanzania says a lot.
Conniff’s post is either terrifying or beggars belief. He states that “Apparently, managing the media means keeping these results as quiet as possible.” So he quotes from none other than the National Geographic about the number of elephants in the Selous Game reserve alone. The latest, recently announced population estimate is 13,084. This indicates an unprecedented decline of nearly 80 percent over the last six years. For the mathematically disinclined that is a drop from 55,000 since 2007.

The numbers of elephants poached throughout Africa in 2012 are telling enough. The report, which is based on sound studies, gives an estimate of some 15,000 animals but acknowledges that:
Monitoring of elephant populations, apart from at a few well-monitored sites, is sporadic and inconsistent. The low precision of most estimates makes it difficult to detect any immediate repercussion on elephant numbers in the short-term but this does not mean there are no changes.

That is just 2012. There are no properly monitored figures for 2013, but none of the many claims gives a figure lower than 25K. The most dire claim comes from the International Fund for Animals Welfare who suggest that up to “50,000 elephants a year are now being slaughtered.”  In this post on Dec 20  they stated that more than 41 tonnes of elephant ivory have been seized in 2013, the largest quantity in 25 years.
Whether the situation has really “shocked world leaders out of their ennui and into action to halt poaching and ivory trafficking” is real or hoped for is more questionable.

Other postings mention numbers like 25 or 30,000 but all these numbers exceed any possible replacement numbers and all are horrific. Of course the use of cyanide at salt licks is nasty, but the wholesale mowing down of the sentient, intelligent creatures with automatic weapons is probably nastier. In the cyanide case, the affected animals will have died quickly and probably known little of what was happening to their herd mates. With a hail of bullets smashing into bone, lungs, hearts and brains many of the elephants will have been very well aware of what was happening.

Having written this last paragraph from the heart I am horrified to think that I could opine that cyanide was a better way to die than by gunfire. 

The Kenya government seems to have lifted themselves off their collective backsides and taken action. If the new Wildlife Conservation and Management Bill 2013 is signed into law by the president a life sentenced may be handed down for anyone convicted of rhino or elephant poaching.
At the other end of the trade chain a Dec 22 post from the South China Morning Post makes it clear that the Chinese do not seem to share the opinion of the Kenyans. 

Wildlife conservationists slammed a four-month jail term and fines of up to HK$80,000 for five ivory smugglers from the mainland as “too lenient”, saying it will do little to stop the illicit trade. (HK $  = 0.13 US$).

“It is way too lenient because Chinese people buying illicit ivory in Africa know that if they are caught, at most they will just lose the ivory and get a puny fine,” said Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Tom Milliken, of the wildlife group TRAFFIC, said while he welcomed the jail term as a deterrent, fines could be written off as “the price of doing business”.”

He is probably right. Another post of Dec 22, this one by Simon Parry tells us that the price of ivory in Hong Kong has risen 50-fold in the last 10 years. Not surprisingly big tusks sell at a premium. Parry gives an example of a 65kg pair of mounted tusks is on sale for HK$15 million [almost US $ 2 million] at Chinese Arts and Crafts in Wan Chai.

As described in this post of Dec 13 by Emily Matchar what the rest of the world knows as illegal ivory is called white gold in Hong Kong. With an increasingly wealthy Chinese middle class seeking status symbols does the elephant have a chance? Then of course there are the 270 odd Chinese billionaires (that is not a typo; It is B, not M).

I could go on, as I have only mentioned a small proportion of the December posts, but this one should give some flavour to those who have not been following the situation closely. Anyway, I have just gone over my one thousand word limit.

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