By Levi Mukarati
“Unlike past mass extinctions caused by events like asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions and natural climate shifts, the current crisis is almost entirely caused by us, humans,” explains the Centre for Biological Diversity, an international non-profit organisation working to protect endangered species. “In fact, 99 percent of currently threatened species are at risk from human activities…”
On November 11, 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared that the West African black rhinoceros had been hunted to extinction.
A giant about to disappear
Today, another of Africa’s treasures, the elephant, finds itself in the same predicament as the West African black rhinoceros.
It is estimated that at the current poaching rate, children born in 2040 are unlikely to see a wild elephant.
Records show that despite an estimated five million elephants having roamed Africa from the Mediterranean coast to the southern tip of the continent just 60 years ago, only a tenth of that population remains.
Conservationists say the magnificent beasts are being “butchered left, right and centre and have nowhere to hide.”
Intensive illegal hunting of elephants for ivory, trophies, meat, medicines and jewellery; habitat loss and, to a lesser extent, climate change-induced droughts, have reduced elephant populations on the continent to less than 650 000. Investigations show that the animals are mostly slaughtered for their ivory which is used in making billiard balls, piano keys, Scottish bagpipes, buttons, chop sticks and a wide range of ornamental items.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) African Elephant Crisis 2013 Rapid Response Assessment, the world’s largest terrestrial animal is now extinct in North Africa and only found in 35 to 38 countries on the continent.
“Their presence in three countries, namely Senegal, Somalia and Sudan, remains uncertain. Current population estimates suggest alarming declines in elephant population in parts of Central and West Africa,” states part of the Rapid Response Assessment Report.
“Previously secure populations in Eastern and Southern Africa are under growing threat as a wave of poaching seems to be spreading east and southwards across the African continent.
“Currently, it is likely that the total continental population estimate is in the range of 420 000 to 650 000 with just three countries, Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe accounting for well over half of these elephants.”
With populations diminishing at an alarming rate in West and Central Africa, fears are that poachers are moving down south and the Zimbabwean elephant is under threat.
Zimbabwe, like other nations, has been facing its challenges against poachers with the worst case being cyanide poisoning that killed an estimated 115 jumbos last year.
Critics say with the rate at which jumbos are being slaughtered, it is worrisome to note that the country has no accurate records on its elephants.
“Very few new surveys were conducted in Zimbabwe since 2007 and covered a small percentage of the overall (elephant) population. Half of the estimates included in the current update are now older than 10 years, resulting in an overall degradation of the quality of data from Zimbabwe,” said Elephant Database in its 2012 report.
“This lack of systematic and updated monitoring data is of serious concern for possibly the third largest elephant population in Africa.”
However, the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority public relations manager, Ms Caroline Washaya-Moyo, said estimates peg the country’s herd at about 100 000.
“Roughly, 100 elephants were poached in the country last year, but additional to that, there are some which may have been poached outside the country as elephants tend to cross into neighbouring reserves,” she told The Sunday Mail In-Depth.
“At the moment, the elephant population is standing at about 100 000 and we put in place measures such as continuous training of game rangers to ensure that these elephants are protected.”
Last week, the authority received 23 all-terrain vehicles and kits for rangers to combat elephant poaching in the Hwange National Park. The development came as a new United Nations report shows that in 2012, more than 22 000 elephants were killed in Africa alone. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) states that despite the 2012 figure being 3 000 less than the killings in 2011, the drop is not enough and poaching continues to threaten the population of Africa’s “keystone” species.
Elephant protection watchdogs say illegal trade in ivory is driven and sustained by consumers who are willing to pay high prices for the commodity, regardless of its origin or legality.
While demand in 20th century markets like Europe, North America and, more recently, Japan, has dwindled through awareness campaigns linking ivory to the death of elephants, emerging markets in China and Thailand have put the African elephant on target.
China’s ivory market has flourished as a result of changes in wealth and consumer spending patterns that the World Bank attributed to economic growth in the Asian country over the last 20 years.
Experts say consumers in China view ivory as a status symbol with a kilogramme of ivory selling for more than $2 000 on the streets of Beijing while a single tusk can fetch up to $50 000.
Investigations revealed that ivory from West and Central Africa is in demand because it is hard, more elastic and suitable for carving than that from Eastern and Southern Africa or Asia.
Despite the 1989 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) ban on international trade in ivory, thousands of the endangered animals continue to die. Conservationists say understanding the reasons behind the recent surge in elephant poaching is no simple task.
Experts concluded that the high levels of poaching, especially in East, West and Central Africa, is facilitated by conflicts which have, through lawlessness, provided arms for illegal killing of elephants. Furthermore, highly organised criminal networks operate with relative impunity to move large shipments of ivory off the continent to Asian markets.
“The prevalence of unregulated domestic ivory markets in many African cities, coupled with the large number of potential Asian buyers residing in Africa associated with infrastructure projects and resource extraction operations, also fuel the demand for ivory. This situation is further exacerbated in many countries due to weak governance and collusive corruption at all levels,” states UNEP.
The United Nations cites poverty levels in Africa as a factor used by organised criminals to recruit locals or bribe the police, military personnel and wildlife rangers. On the other hand, poachers are becoming more equipped, conducting sophisticated operations, and are better supported by illegal traders and criminal networks.
Poachers have been daringly targeting elephants in protected areas or on private land while the networks of receivers, facilitators and buyers moving illegal ivory across international borders continue to thrive.
Investigations show that a variety of smuggling methods are used by land, river or sea with the majority of ivory being shipped in containers from East African sea ports to Asia by ocean vessels.
“Results from monitoring and systematic surveys … reveal that poaching levels have tripled in recent years, with several elephants killed every single hour of the day. In Central and West Africa, the elephant may soon disappear from whole areas unless urgent action is taken,” said the United Nations under-secretary-general and UNEP executive director Achim Steiner.
Experts say it is clear that the African elephant faces the most serious conservation crisis since the species were moved from CITES Appendix II (not under threat of extinction) to Appendix I (threatened with extinction) in 1989, and a ban on commercial trade in ivory and other elephant specimens came into effect. Despite Appendix 1 classifying the animal as under threat from extinction, some criminals continue killing the elephant and cashing in from those who want to maintain a “status symbol” in society.