By Joel Konopo
Carvings made out of ivory enthrall some ivory traders in Asia as much as it irritates US philanthropist Paul Allen and Michael Chase, a local conservationist.
It is this joy derived from ivory carvings – from poached elephants - that Chase wanted to disrupt back in 2001 when he established Elephants Without Borders (EWB), a non-profit conservation outfit, deep in the Okavango Delta. Chase, a University of Massachusetts elephant ecologist is witness to the destruction to habitat caused by illicit ivory trade. “These carvings that ironically derive joy for them leave carcasses in our region,” he remarked. The demand for ivory in the East, mostly China has seen population of elephants plummeting to record lows according to experts. Information on elephant population is disputed, but experts are in agreement that elephant population has reached a tipping point. Take the example of a cowardly attempt by Hwange National Park poachers who poisoned over 100 elephants using cyanide so that they could extract tusks with ease.
Poaching has driven elephant population from the highs of about one million in the 90s to around half a million today. Of the 500 000 in Africa, almost 40 percent are in Botswana, signaling that elephants have a tendency to avoid areas such as Angola that are hard hit by poaching to safer zones in northern Botswana. “We are actually losing an elephant every 15 minutes in Africa. Botswana is still a paradise of elephants,” Chase notes. He hopes that curbing ivory trade in the East will help end the slaughter of elephants in Africa. Approximately 30 000 elephants were killed illegally in Africa in 2012, the highest number in 20 years according to International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Reliable information on the status of African elephants is needed to settle disputes on how many elephants exist. A US billionaire and philanthropist, Paul Allen is driving a pan African Ariel Survey beginning this year to end the dispute and accurately determine the number, trends, size and challenges of key elephant population in Africa. Chase is excited by Paul’s initiative. “It is in this plight that Allen has selected Elephants Without Borders to assist. We will take this to the rest of Africa.”
EWB aims at providing groundbreaking research on African elephants and designing conservation corridors to encourage free movement of the mammals. Governments of 18 countries to be surveyed over a period of seven months will then use the findings on the habitat of African elephants. “Their fate is completely unknown. Allen has extended a grant to his organisation to enable us to accurately study their habitat,” he said. The research will begin next month and is expected to end in July this year. At a cost of US$7 million, the aim of the grant by Allen is to enable Elephant Without Borders count 90 percent of African savanna’s elephants, ending a decade-long spell of unreliable elephant census. Chase says the result of the study will also “make the world more aware of the plight of elephants.” Illegal ivory trade is big business in Mainland China with a kilogramme of ivory currently fetching around US$2000 in the black market.
The mad ivory rush has escalated habitat fragmentation for African elephants and in some cases rhinos. Sources say elephant tusks are then shipped to China for sale in the black market. However this is about to end as Chinese government began destroying six tonnes of ivory this week in full public view, a move conservationists and anti-ivory trade campaigners applauded. Chase has been waiting for moments such as one in Dongguan city in Guangdong province this Monday. “Demand for ivory is in the East,” he repeats angrily. “Just for carvings.” While he admits that AUV aerial surveys are “quite expensive” he adds that improvement in technologies could help reduce poaching.