The Ivory Curse: How to save our Elephants ?

The Gaia Concept by James Lovelock argues that the entire ecosystem of our planet is one. Even though criticized, in one way I do believe so. Our ancestors had deep roots and connections with Mother Nature and however as time progressed we have constructed a reality that humanity and nature are two different entities. On this note, this article attempts to address a key issue faced by one of the most gracious species to walk this earth, the Elephant.  The African and Asian Elephants are among the many species that face a man made threat and are heading towards extinction.

“In 1979 there were an estimated 1.3 million African Elephants. A decade later, widespread poaching had reduced that figure by more than half. Just 600,000 African Elephants remain” (BloodyIvory.org). This depletion is mainly due to ivory trade and habitat destruction.

Ivory is the hard white material found in the tusks of the African Elephant. Since ancient times the commodity was highly valued and is used for making a range of items. In 1989 a worldwide ban on Ivory Trade was imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This as a result led to a widespread black market network of illegal Ivory.

Elephants have two main classifications. The Asian Elephant among only few have tusks and the bigger African Elephant. Both male and female African Elephants have tusks and are most at risk of poaching. One of the main solutions to address this issue is to educate the public of the source and the methods of obtaining Ivory. A survey conducted in China showed that up to 70% of the public did not know that Ivory comes from ‘dead’ elephants.

Preservation through shared knowledge of the consequences is perhaps the most effective way to address any issue of this sort. The World Wildlife Fund provides a long list of endangered species and are these animals are categorized into “Critically Endangered”, “Endangered”, “Vulnerable”, “Near Threatened”, and “Least Concern”. We do have a moral obligation to even go through this list as somewhere down the line our activities have resulted in such a scenario.  ( WWF list of endangered species )

Between 2009 and 2014 criminal networks trafficked as much as 170 tons of ivory. The price per kg has increased dramatically from USD 5 in 1989 to USD 2,100 (The USD 2,100 figure was reported in China in 2014).

Governments have shown concern but it is evident that more robust steps need to be taken to address these issues. In an article published on the 25th August 2105, the WWF shares the story of Thailand destroying a stockpile of ceased ivory. Most of the Ivory in this stockpile was elephants poached in Africa and shipped illegally. Around 30,000 elephants die each year due to the ivory demand from countries like Thailand and China. The Thai government also committed to address such wildlife crime. In his visit to Kenya, President Obama announced the long-awaited regulations against wildlife crime. U.S. ivory regulations will go a long way to address this issue.

Yang Feng Glan, who is called the “Ivory Queen” was arrested in Tanzania and is accused for providing leadership to smuggle Ivory worth £ 1.62 million from Africa to the consumers in China. China is the biggest market for ivory smugglers and the United States is the second largest. Andrea Crosta, the co-founder of The Elephant Action League states that hopefully Yang Feng Glan will be able to lead the authorities to other major traffickers and corrupt government officials.

Khalfan is a customs worker in Kenya. He officially makes $400 a month. Yet he drives a BMW and has bought a property in a beach resort town. He has told the Wall Street Journal that he regularly receives payments as high as $4,900 to ensure that containers pass without inspection. He further stated that the only time a container is stopped is when the right amount of money doesn’t go to the right people.

Mombasa is a port in Kenya and is called the hub for black market ivory networks. It is stretched along the Indian Ocean and is a key transit point for illegal ivory shipments. Reports state that record breaking numbers of tusks leave Mombasa in containers of dried fish, tea, buried in chilli powder and shea butter.

Central Africa lost 64% of its elephant population in the decade to 2012. Despite the available knowledge very less is done by local governments to address these issues. Corruption and high returns on black market ivory are the main reasons behind this and what the example of Khalfan shows is that the ivory networks are well established.

Apart from illegal poaching for ivory, African Elephants and other species are threatened by the increasing habitat loss due to expanding human settlement, expanding agricultural lands, and infrastructure projects. In fact, this exact factor is applicable for aquatic species as marine and coastal degradation continues to grow.

Palm oil plantations in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are a direct threat to species such as the Orangutans. Habitat loss is a main issue in rural areas of countries like Sri Lanka, where cultivating in forest areas have resulted in elephants trespassing in farm lands and even attacking individuals.  These cumulative issues need to be addressed as it has bigger implications as one might understand.

Climate Change is the other main factor that is altering the natural ways of many species. Climate Change is altering seasonal patterns, species ranges and seasonal breading patterns. Many species will not be able to adapt to climate change at the required pace resulting in a mass biodiversity loss in the coming years, if human collective consciousness does not act upon it.

The illegal trade in ivory mainly occurs within the Indian Ocean Region. The ivory is sourced from Central Africa, exported from East African ports like Mombasa to East Asian countries where the demand is present. The African elephant is most at risk from this ivory trade. Asian tuskers are naturally fewer in number and are more affected by habitat loss by farming communities encroaching on their habitat leading to the human-elephant conflict. Sri Lanka is a good case study for this issue.

Solutions to the illegal trade must address both supply and demand. In China, advertisements are making people aware of the reality of the ivory they value and people are turning away from this prized commodity. Meanwhile in Africa youth are being recruited as Park rangers to fight poachers. South Asia requires proper wildlife management to ensure that excess populations of elephants are managed and even culled to curb the human-elephant conflict.

On a regional scale, countries need to cooperate to ensure that they have uniform practices on the matter, otherwise the illegal market cannot be combated and culling might lead to an increase in supply unless the tusks are burnt. It is another issue which requires a wider Indian Ocean regional cooperation. But is unfortunately absent.

These wildlife crimes are among the many issues that mainstream media dedicate less time to, but have serious implications on the entire ecosystem of this planet. As the biggest threat to many of the earth’s species the human being has a moral obligation to answer and account to prevent these threats. Perhaps not many of us understand the importance of addressing these, but with time running out we are also running out of options. It is our right to preserve the planet to all the species.

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