Day after day, people come to the zoo to enjoy our African elephants, Missy and Kimba. Lee Richardson Zoo has had elephants on display for a long time. We got our first Asian elephant, Penny, in the 1950s. We have cared for elephants ever since and plan to continue to share these amazing animal ambassadors with our visitors for years to come.
Moki and Chana, our first African elephants, arrived in 1986. The community helped to name them and watched them grow up. Eventually we exchanged those two girls with Jacksonville Zoo and received Missy and Kimba. While it was difficult to say farewell to the animals Garden City saw grow up into giants, it was for a good cause. They left so that they could hopefully have calves of their own and help continue the species.
While Missy and Kimba have an easy life here at Lee Richardson Zoo, the same cannot be said for their wild counterparts. In 2012, 35,000 wild African elephants were slaughtered. That comes to about 96 elephants a day. "Why?" you may wonder. The answer is ivory. For centuries, ivory has attracted a great deal of unwanted attention for elephants.
This problem isn't caused by legal hunters. It is caused by poachers, and there is a huge difference. Legal hunters, in fact, greatly support the cause of conservation. Legal hunters purchase the right to hunt a certain number of individuals in an area that is overpopulated by elephants, such as the situation in Botswana. For species such as elephants, these hunters are spending millions of dollars for the right to hunt an individual or two. That money goes back into conservation efforts to pay for anti-poaching patrols, population observations and habitat restoration. It is the poachers that are the problem. Poachers are illegal hunters who disregard laws and regulations set in place to keep wild populations healthy.
This isn't the first time poaching has been a problem for elephants. In 1989, poaching became such a problem that an international ban on ivory trade was put in place. The first time this problem arose, the poaching was often done by poor individuals who saw an opportunity to make some significant income to feed their families. It was unorganized and sporadic. Perhaps a village's crops suffered from drought or an elephant damaged their fields and they needed money to purchase food, tools, seeds or clean water. Today's crisis is different. It is being done primarily for profit by organized criminals. The operation is on par with a paramilitary group with whole squads in action. Lookouts monitor the location of anti-poaching patrols, tracker teams with GPS follow herds, and then a helicopter team with high-caliber machine guns eliminates a herd of 50-plus elephants in a matter of seconds. This is the fifth most profitable crime in the world, bringing in between $7 billion to $10 billion annually. If this slaughter continues, it is estimated that wild elephants will be extinct within a decade. African forest elephants lost 76 percent of their numbers in the last 10 years alone (322,000 down to 80,000). These rates of decline are far from sustainable.
The primary motivator behind this slaughter is greed. Greed is fed by demand. All we have to do is reduce the demand. The United States is the second leading consumer of illegal ivory, just behind China. As we speak, government officials are looking into solutions to this problem. Both the U.S. and China each destroyed six tons of confiscated ivory last year. The hope is, if we eliminate the markets, then there is no demand. In the end, it is up to each state's legislature to decide its position on ivory sales. This puts the power of this issue into the hands of the voters. We need to let our legislators know we want to be a no ivory trade zone, here in Kansas and throughout the U.S.
To learn more about this issue and, more importantly, how you can help, visit www.96elephants.org. Lee Richardson Zoo is happy to do its part in helping with this educational effort started by the Wildlife Conservation Society (aka the Bronx Zoo). If you want to go a step further, consider a donation to the International Elephant Foundation by visiting www.elephantconservation.org. We are proud to help with the Species Survival Plan (a captive breeding program) for elephants through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. So come down and say hi to Missy and Kimba, and remember, you can be a voice for their wild kin.
"If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in the dark with a mosquito." — Betty Reese