By Tom Bawden
Poaching elephants for the illegal trade in ivory is becoming increasingly industrialised. The rate of killing, against a relatively slow natural population growth, could result in the extinction of the species – the largest land animal on the planet – in areas of Africa where it was once plentiful. The prospect of the elephant joining the dodo and, more recently, some sub-species of rhino and tigers, is a horrifying one.
The reasons why elephants are being slaughtered in escalating numbers in recent years are as much about economics as the drugs, war and terrorism that the trade funds.
Newly rich Asians demand increasing numbers of the ivory goods they associate with a classy Western lifestyle, driving up prices and profits – and are being aided by a massive failure on the part of the international community to enforce even existing rules. Those most closely involved in trying to fight the illegal trade, including The Independent on Sunday's partnership charity Space for Giants, warn that the demand from Asia threatens to wipe out many of the most endangered species within decades, if not earlier.
Poaching is becoming industrialised, with the most advanced weaponry being deployed to maximise the "harvest" of ivory – now more valuable weight for weight than gold. Governments, police and wildlife services across Africa are finding the battle difficult. An estimated 30,000 elephants have been killed every year since the start of the decade, and experts believe the number has soared this year. Estimates suggest that 100 elephants per day are being killed for their ivory. Today, rhinos are being killed in even the most heavily protected private sanctuaries.
Dr Max Graham, chief executive of Space for Giants, which works in Kenya to defend the elephant population, explains: "The high price of ivory in Asia is driving the current surge in poaching globally, while local poverty and poor governance are enabling it to happen locally. There are things that we can do, however."
Dr Graham points to the work the charity does in training and supporting wildlife community scouts, working with local magistrates and law enforcement agencies to prosecute the poachers, creating refuges, and to lobby governments around the world to take more effective action.
Efforts by Space for Giants and other groups have culminated in a planned London conference in February. Heads of government from nations affected by wildlife destruction will attend, and it will be hosted by the Prime Minister. Prince Charles and Prince William will be high-profile supporters of the effort. More....