Legal trade and military-style protection may help, but ultimately elephants and rhinos will not survive with their ecological function intact unless demand and price falls
From NatureUp : Astonishing numbers of elephants and rhinos are being poached across Africa. Between 25,000 and 40,000 elephants are likely to be illegally killed there this year. South Africa, home to about 80% of the continent’s rhinoceroses, is projected to lose between 900 and 1,000 of those primeval beasts to poachers by Christmas, up from a mere 13 in 2007.
Governments and conservation organisations are struggling to contain the rising carnage, a result of increasing demand for rhino horn and ivory in Asia, especially in China, Vietnam and Thailand.
I recently wrote about some proposed solutions to the problem for two US-based environmental magazines, Ensia and Yale e360. Although I’ve followed the poaching issue for years, researching these articles has heightened my sense of it being, to use an appropriate metaphor, a“blind-men-and-an-elephant” problem.
Stopping the onslaught of poachers is a daunting, complicated task. It requires understanding the economics of the illegal wildlife trade, the methods of the criminals engaging in it, the psychology of those buying its products and the biology of the animals being killed.
Many experts that I’ve interviewed understand only part of the problem and the solutions they propose are strongly coloured by personal expertise. Unsurprisingly, economists often put forward market-based solutions, legislators push more laws, police want better law enforcement, soldiers say they need more drones and guns, politicians think more speeches and treaties are useful, and conservationists with no deep experience in any of these fields tend to favour whichever solutions they’re most exposed to.
Most of those trying to save elephants and rhinos are intensely emotionally invested in their struggle. I can relate to them, because every time I encounter wild elephants I’m amazed by their power, their intelligence and their sense of fun. Rhinos are perhaps the nearest living thing we have to dinosaurs. The thought of the next generation not being able to experience these pachyderms is heartbreaking. We’ve recently lost the Western black rhino and the Vietnamese subspecies of Javan rhino to poachers, so the fear of further extinctions is not at all irrational.
But this desperate emotional investment combined with many individuals’ limited exposure to aspects of the poaching problem has led, in my opinion, to an unhelpful amount of conflict among conservationists and the decision-makers whose actions will decide the future of elephants and rhinos.
Opposing views have become strongly entrenched, and instead of acknowledging that there can be disagreement among honest people about the solutions to wildlife crime, many activists are quick to demonise those with differing ideas. Instead of asking more questions and together exploring the possible implications of various courses of action (because no one can, in my opinion, cover enough mental ground to take it all in alone) many pay lip service to the complexity of the issue and refuse to engage meaningfully with the “‘opposition” who, as it happens, want to save elephants and rhinos just as much as they do.
One extremely divisive potential solution that I explore in my Ensia articleis to re-legalise the international trade in rhino horn, which has been largely banned since 1976. South African state and private stockpiles contain over 18 tonnes of horn recovered from dead animals and de-horning operations, which could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars if it were allowed to be sold at today’s black market prices. The only people currently making money from the rhino horn trade are criminals, and it’s extraordinarily frustrating to some rhino custodians that they could fund conservation by selling these stockpiles if they were allowed to sell them.
Another potential solution is to adopt military equipment and tactics in the fight against poachers. This is the first-used option of many wildlife managers, and understandably so. Poachers don’t drop in with jasmine garlands in their hair to politely present you with tea and a plate of home-baked cookies; they’re often blooded, hard men with military training and increasingly sophisticated weapons who are a threat not just to animals but to people. I’d want my own squad of hard men with guns if I managed a wildlife reserve.
Military-style solutions to poaching are popular because there are many examples that when looked at in isolation seem to confirm their success, albeit success that comes at a high price in dollars and human lives. (Military-grade equipment costs millions, and poachers and game rangers are regularly killed in firefights.)
Game rangers training at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya. Photograph: Adam Welz
For example, when I visited the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in late 2011, they’d lost five of their famous rhinos that year to poachers. In response, they’d recently employed a just-retired British soldier to train a new anti-poaching squad equipped with Heckler and Koch assault rifles. Ol Pejeta lost no rhinos to poachers in 2012, and has lost only one so far this year.
But poaching in Kenya as a whole has gone up since 2011. The rhino and elephant slaughterers may be avoiding Ol Pejeta, but they’re hitting less well-protected areas of the country. As I explain in my Yale e360 article, researchers of the illegal drug trade call this the “balloon effect”. If you push down drug production in one area — for example by destroying coca crops in one part of Colombia — it pops up elsewhere. It’s simply proved impossible to control illegal activity across large, remote areas when a lucrative market for that activity’s products — eg cocaine — persists. Despite the US having spent billions on enforcement and interdiction operations in Latin America as part of the “war on drugs”, drug production remains high and murderous drug smuggling gangs remain extremely powerful. As many observers point out, the same criminals who smuggle drugs also often smuggle illegal wildlife products.
Some people have already started breeding rhino and regularly harvesting their horns in anticipation of legal trade. (The horn contains no nerves, so cutting it off is painless, and it grows back over a few years. No equivalent procedure is practical for elephants.) Their idea is to ensure the future of rhinos by create a profitable business supplying horn over the long term, which would pay for their expensive security and incentivise more people to breed them.
This might work. If legal horn farming turns out to be profitable, we might end up with many more rhinos than we have today. I’m concerned about what sort of rhinos those will be, though, because the most economical way to keep them for horn harvesting purposes is in dense concentrations, a bit like cattle in paddocks, where it’s cheaper to manage and guard them compared to when they’re free-ranging in large, wild areas.
Initiating a legal trade in rhino horn or ivory will not automatically remove the incentive to poach rhinos and elephants. A black market in these commodities is likely to persist if retail prices remain high, and there is no shortage of poor people in Africa who will risk their lives for the prospect of earning a life-changing amount of cash by shooting one animal, especially when the chances of being caught are low. This means that even those rhino custodians who aren’t involved in the horn trade and who aren’t managing their animals for maximum profit may be forced to confine their rhinos to small “intensive protection zones”, because it’s near-impossible to protect wide-ranging animals across massive, rugged areas like the large national parks and wilderness areas of Africa.
If the only practical way that we can protect animals is to confine them to small areas, the only sorts of rhinos and elephants we’ll have will be ecologically useless ones. They’ll look like the beasts we know, but they’ll no longer be able to fulfill their vital roles in the forests, savannas and drylands. Africa will have “paper pachyderms” to complement its many “paper parks“, those national parks which exist on maps but serve no real conservation purpose because they’re not managed and have been destroyed by settlers, miners and hunters.
Rhinos and elephants are ecosystem engineers, which means that Africa’s iconic ecosystems look and work the way they do because these animals have helped shape them over millions of years. Elephants and black rhinos maintain savannas by knocking down trees and munching bushes. White rhinos create “grazing lawns” for other herbivores to feed on. Elephants spread the seeds of forest trees and dig waterholes in dry river beds that countless other animals rely on to get through the dry season. All megaherbivores transport vital nutrients through landscapes. If wide-ranging elephants and rhinos are removed from Africa, its ecosystems will change fundamentally.
I’m not sure how large numbers of ecologically functional rhinos and elephants will survive unless the demand for and the price that users are prepared to pay for their products comes down drastically, which is why I’ve come to believe that persuading people not to buy rhino horn and new ivory, so-called “demand reduction”, is ultimately the most relevant part of the multi-faceted struggle to save these magnificent animals and the grand, diverse ecosystems that they’re part of. YouTube movies, social media campaigns and thousands of people talking to their friends might not be as sexy as machine gun-toting, drone-flying anti-poaching armies, but I think they’re worth far more investment and attention than they’re currently receiving.
I know that by saying this I’m opening myself up to attack. I’ve already been accused of being seduced by an organisation called WildAid that believes strongly in demand reduction and been lambasted on social media for writing about legal trade, which, apparently, is so wrong an idea that it shouldn’t even be mentioned in public. I’ve also been told that writers like me shouldn’t have opinions on the things they write about, even though I try to be clear about when I’m reporting as neutrally as possible on issues and when I’m delivering opinions on them.
If you, dear reader, are inclined to join the mud-slinging parade, please consider the following: I’m open to the possibility that my view of the potential and importance of demand reduction is because I’m a biased “blind man” who has spent a large chunk of his life working in the media, and none in law enforcement, the military or commerce. I might not have understood significant parts of the poaching problem, so I’m not claiming to have the answer. I’m not even advocating the removal of emotion from the debate.
What I am saying is that I’m not sure how large, ecologically functional populations of rhinos and elephants will survive across their historic ranges in Africa (and Asia) if the price of and demand for newly harvested rhino horn and ivory remain high. I remain curious about solutions to the poaching problem and am open to changing my mind in the face of new information and argument. I hope you are, too.
New factsheet about rice and its importance – some are now listed as World Heritage sites – please click here
Having been very close to Asian elephants, I can atest to how amazing these creatures are! Interesting and shocking news from ENN
From the minute we have breakfast to the moment we brush our teeth and go to bed, the vast majority of us will be consuming palm oil without even realizing it, or realizing the damage to the natural world that this is doing.
Palm oil is a key ingredient in everything from cereal, biscuits and margarine to shampoo, lipstick and toothpaste. Our insatiable demand for these products is ripping the heart out of Asia’s forests and driving critically endangered animals to extinction.
This includes the Sumatran elephant, the most endangered of all the world’s elephants. With barely more than 2,000 left in the wild, forest clearance has already halved their population within one generation. Roughly 85 per cent of their habitat lies outside protected areas, mostly in the lowlands and gentle hills that are the first to be cleared for logging, mining, and paper and palm oil production. As the forest disappears, elephants take to the palm oil plantations and farms, bringing them into conflict with people.
The consequences are alarming: between 1984 and 2009, approximately 700 elephants were captured and placed in captivity. Most would die, until Elephant Family stepped in with the Veterinary Society for Sumatran Wildlife Conservation to transform their lives. Many others have been poisoned, the most recent being two found dead in Tesso Nilo National Park, Riau Province on 3rd June; they are thought to have eaten rat poison from a palm oil plantation nearby.
The equally tragic story of Raja the baby elephant is just the tip of the iceberg that threatens to sink the Sumatran elephant. The Ecologist Film Unit came across him recently while documenting the Sumatran elephant’s demise with Elephant Family; he was being held hostage by villagers demanding compensation for their loss of crops to elephants. He died a week ago despite our best efforts to rescue him.
These elephants might still be alive if their habitat had not been cleared so that we could have palm oil. Addressing this is not straightforward however. Palm oil is not often declared in lists of ingredients, but is hidden as a generic ‘vegetable oil’, or as one of its many derivatives, such as sodium laureth sulphate in personal care products.
Continue reading at The Ecologist.
My kids just want to play videos games and watch TV all day. Do you have any tips for getting them outside to appreciate nature more? – Sue Levinson, Bowie, Md.
Getting kids away from computer and TV screens and outside into the fresh air is an increasing challenge for parents everywhere.
Researchers have found that U.S. children today spend about half as much time outdoors as their counterparts did 20 years ago. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that kids aged eight to 18 spend on average more than seven and a half hours a day, or some 53-plus hours per week, engaging with so-called entertainment media.
Meanwhile, the Children & Nature Network, a nonprofit founded by writers and educators concerned about “nature deficit disorder,” finds that, in a typical week, only 6 percent of American kids age nine to 13 play outside on their own.
According to Richard Louv, a founding board member of C&NN and author of the book, Last Child in the Woods, kids who stay inside too much can suffer from “nature deficit disorder” which can contribute to a range of behavioral problems including attention disorders, depression and declining creativity as well as physical problems like obesity.
Louv blames parental paranoia about potential dangers lurking outdoors, restricted access to natural areas, and the lure of video games, websites and TV for “nature deficit disorder.”
Of course, one of the keys to getting kids to appreciate nature is for parents to lead by example by getting off the couch and into the outdoors themselves. Since kids love being with their parents, why not take the fun outside?
For those kids who need a little extra prodding beyond following a parent’s good example, the National Wildlife Federation, a leading national nonprofit dedicated to preserving and appreciating wildlife, offers lots of suggestions and other resources through its Be Out There campaign.
One tip is to pack an “explorer’s kit” complete with a magnifying glass, binoculars, containers for collecting, field guides, a notebook, bug repellent and Band-Aids, into a backpack and leave it by the door to facilitate spontaneous outdoor adventures. Another idea is to set aside one hour each day as “green hour,” during which kids go outside exploring, discovering and learning about the natural world.
NWF’s online Activity Finder helps parents discover fun outdoor activities segmented by age. Examples include going on a Conifer Quest and making a board displaying the different types of evergreen trees in the neighborhood, turning an old soda bottle into a terrarium and building a wildlife brush shelter.
Another great source of inspiration is C&NN. It encourages people of all ages to spend more time outdoors at various family-friendly events as part of its nationwide Let’s Get Outside initiative. Visitors to the C&NN website can scroll through dozens of events within driving distance of most Americans and anyone can register an appropriate event there as well.
Researchers have found that children who play outside are in better shape, more creative, less aggressive and show better concentration than their couch potato counterparts. And it is also the most direct route to environmental awareness for adults is participating in wild nature activities as kids. So do yourself and your children a favor, and take a hike.
Dear EarthTalk: How are populations of African elephants faring these days? What conservation efforts are under way and are they working? – Libby Broullette, Salem, Mass.
A century ago some five millions wild elephants roamed Africa. Today fewer than 500,000 remain, a result of poaching for meat and ivory as well as habitat loss due to expanding human development. A worldwide ban on ivory sales in 1990 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species allowed some populations to recover briefly, but a recent resurgence in illegal poaching means the iconic species is still in hot water.
The United Nations Environment Programme reported recently that African elephants are “under severe threat” with double the number killed and triple the amount of ivory seized in recent years over previous decades. And the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which maintains the international “Red List of Threatened Species,” categorizes African elephants as “vulnerable” and warns that conservation initiatives are not working to stem declining population numbers.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, poachers kill tens of thousands of African elephants each year to meet the growing demand for ivory products across the Far East.
“Asia stands behind a steadily increasing trend in illegal ivory and there are still thriving domestic ivory markets in Africa,” says WWF.
In addition to the demand for ivory, war and natural resource exploitation across Africa contribute to poaching as increasingly larger numbers of hungry people turn to wild elephant meat as a source of food. WWF reports that limited resources, along with the remoteness and inaccessibility of so much elephant habitat, make it difficult for governments and agencies to monitor and protect elephant herds.
Beyond poaching, habitat loss looms larger and larger over Africa’s diverse fauna, especially elephants as they require large ranges and dine on copious amounts of tree and plant life.
“African elephants’ natural habitat is also shrinking as human populations grow and forest and savannas are cleared for infrastructure development and agriculture,” says WWF.
Researchers estimate that elephants’ range across Africa has been reduced from three million to just one million square miles in the last three decades.
“Commercial logging, plantations for biofuels and extractive industries like logging and mining not only destroy habitat but also open access to remote elephant forests for poachers,” adds WWF. “In addition, extensive logging of forests leaves elephants with a very limited food supply, which results in high levels of human-elephant conflict when hungry elephants enter villages and destroy local farmers’ crops.”
In 2011, U.S. Congress reauthorized the long dormant African Elephant Conservation Act, putting $1.7 million into rescue efforts. Green groups raised another $3.6 million and now 29 on-the-ground projects are working to help restore elephant herds across Africa.
Efforts include promoting partnerships between African and Far East wildlife and law enforcement agencies to detect and intercept illegally trafficked wildlife and improve prosecution rates, installing radio networks to improve communication between wildlife protection personnel, and aerial surveillance to rapidly detect and respond to poaching. Let’s just hope efforts like these will bear fruit in the face of rapidly continuing habitat loss.
Send environmental questions to: Earth Talk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; Click here to submit it at emagazine or e-mail: email@example.com.
- African elephants face extinction ‘within a decade’ (itv.com)
- Elephants (ecofriendsmne.wordpress.com)
- Poachers kill at least 26 elephants in Central Africa (mnn.com)
- GRAPHIC PHOTOS: Massive Elephant Slaughter Strikes Sanctuary (huffingtonpost.com)
- African leaders must emulate Chinese celebrities to save elephants | Paula Kahumbu (guardian.co.uk)
- At Least 26 Elephants Killed by Poachers in Central Africa (livescience.com)
A real wildlife problem gets a solution that just might work!…. Radical scheme will inject horns with parasiticides and pink dye in bid to safeguard rhino numbers. The Guardian reports
A game reserve in South Africa has taken the radical step of poisoning rhino horns so that people risk becoming “seriously ill” if they consume them.
Sabi Sand said it had injected a mix of parasiticides and indelible pink dye into more than 100 rhinos’ horns over the past 18 months to combat international poaching syndicates. More than 200 rhinos have been poached so far this year in South Africa, driven by demand in the far east, where horn ground into powder is seen as a delicacy or traditional medicine.
“Consumers of the powdered horn in Asia risk becoming seriously ill from ingesting a so-called medicinal product, which is now contaminated with a non-lethal chemical package,” said Andrew Parker, chief executive of the Sabi Sand Wildtuin Association, a group of private landowners in Mpumalanga province.
The “toxification” process involves tranquilising a rhino, drilling a hole in its horn then injecting the dye and parasiticides generally used to control ticks on animals such as horses, cattle and sheep; it is toxic to humans. “It’ll make [people] very ill – nausea, stomach ache, diarrhoea – it won’t kill them,” Parker continued. “It will be very visible, so it would take a very stupid consumer to consume this.”
Asked if he had any moral qualms about harming potentially naive consumers, Parker replied: “The practice is legal. The chemicals are available over the counter. We are advertising it, doing a media run now and putting up signs on our fences. If somebody does consume it, they won’t die and hopefully word will spread that you shouldn’t take rhino horn.”
The dye can be detected by airport scanners as well as when the horn is ground into a powder.
Up to 1,000 rhinos will die this year, Parker said, so bold action was necessary. “Despite all the interventions by police, the body count has continued to climb. Everything we’ve tried has not been working and for poachers it has become a low-risk, high-reward ratio. By contaminating the horn, you reduce the reward and the horn becomes a valueless product.
“If the poacher hacks off the horn, he’ll immediately see it’s contaminated. We’re saying to the poachers: ‘Don’t bother coming to Sabi Sand. You’re wasting your time.'”
But the scheme got a mixed reception from Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network. Tom Milliken, its rhino programme coordinator, said it could act as a deterrent in areas where it is highly publicised but “is impractical in situations involving free-ranging animals in large areas, places like Kruger national park with 20,000 sq km. Thus, like dehorning, it probably has the effect of displacing poaching intensity to other areas, not stopping it altogether.”
Milliken, author of a report on rhino-horn consumption in Vietnam, also expressed concerns about the end-user market: “One wonders if unscrupulous dealers in these markets will not simply employ some means to ‘bleach’ them to back to a ‘normal’ appearance and continue raking in high profits.”
“These dealers are already perpetuating fraud on so many levels in the interest of windfall profits, so it’s hard to imagine that they will suddenly be bothered about putting potentially toxic horns into circulation. The prospect of human suffering deters few criminals and that’s what we are dealing with here.”
South Africa National Parks has backed the initiative but spokesman Ike Phaahla admitted that it would be “virtually impossible” to apply the process to all the rhinos in national parks because of lack of resources.
The government said this week that 203 rhinos have been killed by poachers so far this year, including 145 in Kruger park. Sixty suspected poachers have been arrested.
- Innovation And Toxic Hope (raxacollective.wordpress.com)
- Wildlife Managers Are Poisoning Rhino Horns to Stop People From Eating Them (blogs.smithsonianmag.com)
- Mozambican rhino poacher jailed for 15 years (thezimbabwean.co.uk)
- Rhino horn worth $2.75 million stolen from ranch (wildlifenews.co.uk)
- South African minister backs legalisation of rhino horn trade (environmentaleducationuk.wordpress.com)