Tuesday, September 13, 2016

It Ain’t No Elephantasy

I remember my first trip to Kenya in 1977. There were elephants, magnificent and free, everywhere. Herds. Lone bulls. Everywhere. I loved their magnificence. Every few years, I’d return to Kenya and good chunks of southern and eastern Africa. And every few years, there would be a lot less of some species or another. White rhinos are virtually extinct now with black rhinos not too far behind. Haven’t seen rhinos on my last few trips to that great continent. Cheetahs were devastated by disease, and gorillas struggled through genocidal wars right through their territory. All those “once common” big five have dwindled.
Farms and cities continued to consume more wild land. Global warming-induced droughts made other territory uninhabitable for man and beast alike. And then there were and still are the poachers, catering to expensive but perverted appetites for souvenirs, purported life-enhancers and aphrodisiacs from endangered species, and precious ivory so gorgeous for carving over the ages. Death and extinction accelerated. Of all of the life extinguishers, nothing has come close to poaching as the great African species exterminator.
The long lines of elephants, wandering in their quest for grasses and water, have become infrequent to the point of rarity. You used to drive only a short distance to see massive gatherings of these sensitive, intelligent, big gray beasts. Now, it’s an effort, and generally you just see much smaller clusters of cows and their calves roaming the forests and plains.
The lone bulls, particularly the big ones with massive tusks, are even harder find. All that ivory has made them particularly glorious targets. Park rangers seem to be fighting a civil war against criminals out to make a very healthy living… money that is hard to generate without taking these enormous animals down. Poverty and starvation averted, avarice sated, and species decimated. It’s happening so fast. Forest elephants are almost extinct, and even the plains elephants have watched precipitous declines in their numbers. All the international ecological treaties notwithstanding, these animals do not seem long for this world.
“Africa’s elephant population has plunged faster than almost anyone predicted, raising startling questions about the failure to protect one of the world's largest mammals… There are now only 352,271 savanna elephants in nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa, according to Elephants Without Borders, a research organization that just completed an 18-country census. Between 2007 and 2014, the elephant population declined by at least 30 percent, or 144,000 elephants, the study found.
“Previous estimates had suggested that the population was considerably higher, making the results of the new study, called the Great Elephant Census, a devastating revelation… ‘These dramatic declines in elephant populations are almost certainly due to poaching for ivory,’ the study said. ‘Elephant poaching has increased substantially over the past 5-10 years, especially in eastern and western Africa.’
“The researchers delivered their findings after years of travel across Africa in helicopters and bush planes, spending about 10,000 hours in the air. National Geographic called the study ‘the largest wildlife census in history.’ Some of the countries included, such as Angola, had never before been surveyed. ‘If we can’t save the African elephant, what is the hope of conserving the rest of Africa’s wildlife?’ said Mike Chase, the principal investigator in the census and the founder of Elephants Without Borders.
“The population of savanna elephants declined dramatically as their land was destroyed. Their range ‘shrank from three million square miles in 1979 to just over one million square miles in 2007,’ according to the World Wildlife Fund.” Washington Post, August 31st.
For poachers, they face their own risks of being shot or jailed, but the money is just too lucrative to stop them and the earning alternatives are subsistence living in a world of contracting natural resources and decreasingly productive farmland. Many poachers cannot see another way. “Many African nations have attempted to boost their conservation efforts, particularly through the creation of anti-poaching units deployed to national parks, savannas and forests.
“Earlier this year, Kenya set fire to 105 tons of ivory, an attempt to prove, in the words of President Uhuru Kenyatta, that “for us, ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants.” The United States recently announced a near-total ban on the ivory trade.
“But for all the attention that poaching — and the subsequent decline in elephants — has received, there’s no sign that it will stop anytime soon. On much of the continent, desperately poor poachers are paid far more than they would earn otherwise to target elephants and rhinos. If they are caught, which is relatively rare, they often serve short jail sentences.” The Post. I remember the argument from locals who railed at the thought that the West wanted them to maintain the species in the national parks – good for tourism we said – when we built our great Western industrial societies by devastating our own lands, hunting numerous species into extinction. They tell me that they just want to follow our model and get rich too.
I’m Peter Dekom, and global poverty, governmental corruption combine with environmental damage to make poaching just a really good job… with few alternatives for a meaningful livelihood.

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