By Dominique Mosbergen
Chopsticks, hair pins, pendants, trinkets: These are why African elephants are dying in droves.
In 2013, more than 35,000 elephants across Africa were killed for their ivory, which is often carved and sold as ornaments, jewelry and other gift items. China is a major importer of ivory, where it’s highly prized as a luxury good. Ivory sellers also do a roaring trade in Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and other parts of Asia; and troublingly, demand seems to be rising.
“Ivory is beautiful,” long-time ranger and conservationist Rory Young admits. “The problem is, we just can’t do this anymore.”
If we don’t stop the slaughter soon, he told The Huffington Post over Skype on Tuesday, not only will there be no more ivory to carve or sell, but no African elephants left on the planet, either.
In 2008, conservationists warned that African elephants would become extinct by 2020 if widespread poaching continued. Young says that given the current rate of slaughter, he's "absolutely convinced" that African elephants could indeed be annihilated in the next six years.
“It’s difficult to know where to start,” Young said, when asked to describe the extent of the African elephant poaching problem. “I could take you tomorrow to a park and show you fresh carcasses. It’s a tidal wave of destruction flooding across the continent.”
A ranger in Africa for more than two decades, Young has for years been on the forefront of the fight against poaching. He was one of the founders of Chengeta Wildlife, an organization that works to equip and train wildlife protection teams, and he now travels across Africa, training aspiring rangers and connecting with governments to urge them to adopt anti-poaching campaigns.
It’s a constant uphill battle.
Poachers are dangerous. They sometimes arm themselves with machine guns, and their tactics are unpredictable -- and brutal. Sometimes elephants are shot, but they are also trapped with snares and poisoned. Last year, for instance, poachers in Zimbabwe killed more than 300 elephants by lacing waterholes in Hwange National Park with cyanide.
The challenge to protect these majestic creatures becomes even greater in areas of conflict and abject poverty.
“In well-funded, 'celebrity-endorsed' places like parts of Kenya and South Africa, poaching is bad enough, but if you look at other countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, et cetera, elephants are just being wiped out,” said Young. “These are the countries that are absolutely desperate, and what I’m trying to do and what Chengeta is trying to do is to bring training to the guys there -- or the elephants will all soon be gone.”
Elephants, said Young, are the "most magnificent creatures."
"They can empathize. They’re self-aware," he went on to say. "When I see an elephant lying dead on the ground, it’s like seeing a friend getting shot.”
But if elephants went extinct, we wouldn’t just be losing an extraordinary animal, we'd also have an environmental calamity on our hands.
“Elephants are a keystone species,” said Young. “They have a profound effect on the ecosystem. If you protect an elephant, you protect the environment and all the animals around them.”
The time to act, Young says, is now.
The extinction of African elephants is "not a foregone conclusion," he insisted. "I’m doing everything I can in my life to stop that from happening. We can stop it." He also said the bush elephants' populations can grow very quickly when the animals are left in peace.
But to allow these populations to grow and flourish, everyone has to get involved.
"This is not just one group. It’s not the African poachers, it’s not China, it’s everyone. It takes governments in Africa actually doing something about the poachers on the ground; it takes an education system to teach the people -- kids in the schools, the villagers -- telling them it’s wrong. The same applies to people in Asia, who are buying the stuff," said Young. "It shouldn’t be easy to buy ivory. It shouldn’t be taken lightly."
It's also about raising awareness on a global scale, he added.
"When Jackie Chan stands up [to speak against the ivory trade\, a kid might be watching and he might tell his dad to not go out to buy that ivory envelope opener, but to buy a gold one instead. It takes a whole movement all around us to fix the problem. Everyone’s responsible; everyone's to blame."