By Scott Ramsay
Durban - Within a few months, Africa has lost two of her finest sons. In April, iSilo, the biggest tusker in southern Africa, born in the mid 1950s, was found dead in Tembe Elephant Park in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
Although he died reportedly of old age, his immense tusks – each weighing around 65kg and over 2m in length – had been hacked off and remain missing.
Then more recently, in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya, Satao, the biggest tusker in East Africa– with ivory as big as iSilo’s – was killed by poachers with poisoned spears.
In both cases, when rangers found the carcasses, the elephants’ faces had been so badly mutilated it took several days to confirm their identity. No arrests have been made yet in either case.
Satao and iSilo weighed 6 tons each and were the biggest terrestrial animals alive on earth. Their tusks scraped the ground as they walked, and both were of critical conservation importance.
They were the finest examples of the last of the thousands of great tuskers which used to roam Africa. But today on the continent there are probably no more than 40 left.
“Hunters and poachers have killed off most of Africa’s biggest elephants, including the so-called “hundred-pounders”, or elephants with tusks weighing more than 50kg each,” said wildlife veterinarian and elephant researcher Dr Johan Marais.
“Bulls reach their breeding prime at 35 to 40 years of age – the same time as each of their tusks reach over 50kg in weight. From then on, their ivory grows exponentially, so that it becomes very large over only a short number of years,” said Marais.
“Hunting and poaching of these big bulls takes place exactly at this stage, so that few of them are able to pass on their genes to future generations. This is why the number of hundred-pounders has dropped to less than 40 in the whole of Africa today.”
In the early 1900s great tuskers were common in the Congo, Ethiopia, southern Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.
The last of these giants now live in Tembe Elephant Park in north-eastern South Africa. This protected area – the land owned by the Tembe king – contains some of the finest elephant genes on the continent, “second only to Tsavo and Amboseli in Kenya”.
Tembe elephants were one of the few populations in Africa that weren’t persecuted by colonial hunters, because of the thick sand forests and tsetse flies. Today, a new threat is imminent.
According to Marais’s estimates, an elephant is being killed every 20 minutes in Africa. Last year about 35 000 elephants – 10 percent of the total population, and most in East Africa – were killed for their ivory. At these rates, the largest animal on earth will be near extinction in the wild in 15 years’ time.
While the poaching of rhinos is getting a lot of press, the destruction of Africa’s elephants is arguably more worrying. The high prices of rhino horn and ivory are driving the killing, and crime syndicates and militias like the Lord’s Resistance Army and al-Shabaab are at the centre of the destruction, selling the ivory and rhino horns on the black market to purchase weapons and drugs.
Ivory sells for up to R25 000/kg in China. Rhino horn is even more expensive.
But this is not the first time that elephants have been slaughtered en masse. For decades up until the 1980s, poaching was rife. A total ban on ivory sales in 1989 dried up the demand in Asia, and Africa’s elephants were largely left alone. There was almost no poaching on the continent for 15 years.
Then in 2007, the Convention on Trade of Endangered Species (Cites), approved the once-off sale to China of 260 tons of stockpiled ivory from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. This was the first time that China had been allowed to buy ivory legally since the 1989 ban. The funds received from the sale supposedly would be ploughed back into conservation, ensuring even more protection of Africa’s elephants.
At that time, Zimbabwe’s environment minister, Francis Nhema said: “This will allow human beings and elephants to co-exist.” And former Cites secretary general Willem Wijnstekers said: “This African solution to an African problem marks a great step forward for wildlife conservation.”
How wrong they were. Far from the predicted positive result, the once-off sale of ivory created a legal market that has stimulated demand in Asia, and this allowed criminal syndicates the ability to launder and “legalise” their poached ivory.
Soon poachers were once again slaughtering elephants in Africa. Tragically, but maybe predictably, the funds from the sale of ivory never reached the ground, where rangers today have all but lost the battle against poachers.
While Southern Africa has largely escaped the elephant slaughter seen in East Africa, the tidal wave of ivory poaching is moving southwards.
In Hwange National Park last year, several hundred elephants – and other animals – were poisoned with cyanide at a water hole. This year in Kruger National Park the first elephant in many years was killed by poachers in the northern Pafuri section, and the second was slaughtered just a few days ago.
And at Tembe, five hours north of Durban and close to the Mozambique border, the huge tuskers are now under serious threat. Most of the rhinos in Kruger National Park are being killed by Mozambicans.
A small team of dedicated rangers at Tembe, led by section ranger Len Gunter, is required to patrol the entire northern section of the 300km2 park, often with inadequate equipment, technology and back-up support. When I was there a few months ago, the park had run out of diesel for vehicles.
Government provincial department Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is responsible for the protection of Tembe and its elephants, but is in financial distress amid signs of mismanagement at head office. The organisation doesn’t seem prepared for the threat of elephant poaching, having lost many of their rhino at Tembe and other parks to poachers.
Tembe contains some of the finest elephants on the continent. According to bio-technician and elephant monitor Leonard Muller, several young bulls already boast impressive ivory, and are showing signs that they could continue the legacy of iSilo and Satao.