World Elephant Day: Not much to celebrate

Aug 12, 2020 | Commentary

By Dr Adam Cruise – Stellenbosch University, South Africa

Today is World Elephant Day, a day the world celebrates the majestic giants of Africa and Asia. Sadly, however, there is not much to cheer about.

Poaching for elephant tusks, mysterious die-offs that nobody seems to be able to solve, live exports of baby elephants to China, trophy hunting and the persistence of legal (and illegal) global ivory markets are decimating elephant populations. Since 2007, Africa has lost more than a third of its elephants.

Poaching not declining

Recent research has shown that poaching of elephants for their tusks in Africa is not declining. Ongoing poaching in Central and Western Africa is steadily wiping out the species. In Western Africa, remaining elephants are mostly in small, scattered populations that may be too small to withstand much more poaching. In many places they have been exterminated completely. In Central Africa, home of the African forest elephant, there have been severe losses due to poaching and habitat loss in recent years.

Even southern Africa, where the largest remaining population of African elephants resides, there has been a dramatic increase in poaching. Analyses of recent large ivory seizures  show that the continent’s largest poaching hotspot may be in northern Botswana and neighbouring countries. At a single site in Botswana, the proportion of illegally killed elephants increased by approximately 60% in 2018.

Mysterious mass die-offs in Botswana

Since May, more than 400 elephants in Botswana have mysteriously died in a concentrated area in northern Botswana, and nobody know what’s causing it. After an inordinately slow reaction, the Botswana government belatedly sent blood and tissue samples of the dead elephants to labs in Zimbabwe, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, but the deaths remain a mystery.

Most of the deaths – of both sexes and all ages – have occurred to the north of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, an area teeming with wildlife. Of the carcasses discovered, some lay on their knees and faces, suggesting sudden death, others have succumbed slowly. The tusks of the dead elephants are still in place suggesting poaching was not the cause. Other possible causes are: ingestion of toxic bacteria in water, anthrax poisoning, viral infection from rodents, or a pathogenic microbe, or it could be some combination of these causes.

Botswana’s environment ministry said in a statement it was investigating natural poisoning as a potential cause of death. And yet after three months, it’s still all just speculation, and the cause or causes remain elusive.

Zimbabwe’s iniquitous title

In Zimbabwe, cyanide poisoning of elephants as a means of poaching has steadily been on the rise in recent years with hundreds of elephants dying from this method. Trophy hunting of elephants also persists in this country as it does in Namibia, South Africa and, from last year Botswana, among others. Thankfully, COVID-19 has given the elephants a respite from trophy hunters, but sadly not from poachers.

Zimbabwe also holds the iniquitous title of being the largest exporter of live wild elephants in the world. Since 2012, the country has rounded up 144 baby and juvenile elephants and unceremoniously shipped them off to China, where most, if they survive, languish in zoos or are made to perform at so-called ‘safari parks’. The last export – of 32 juvenile elephants – occurred in October last year against international regulations. At least one elephant has known to have since died while the others are being trained to perform at a soon-to-be opened mega safari park near Hangzhou.

Legal ivory markets persist

While countries like China, United Kingdom and the United States of America have banned the legal sales of ivory within their borders, the illegal markets continue without any sign of slowing down.

Worse, most countries still permit legal sales. One can legally buy ivory carvings in South Africa or Zimbabwe but it’s the two largest legal markets, the European Union and Japan that is both fuelling a demand for ivory and providing a conduit for the sales of illegal ivory that is seeing more elephants being poached.

Currently, there is little if any political will from the European Union to close its ivory market, even though there is a vague commitment for “… a further tightening of the rules on EU ivory trade” in the EU’s new Biodiversity Strategy. But that just seems to be just lip-service, or perhaps it’s the latent patronisation of European Commission leaders when it comes to dealing with Africa. In a recent article, African journalist, Rosie Awori, called out European leaders for their double standards. She pointed out that tightening the rules does not mean anything if the bloc still maintains a thriving ivory market.

In Japan it’s the same thing. Ivory in Japan fetches high prices for use in jewellery, name seals and picks for the samisen, a traditional stringed instrument. Even though international trade in ivory is prohibited, it is suspected that large volumes of poached ivory have made its way into Japan to meet consumer demand. Legal ivory sales have long been attributed to providing a cover for the illicit trafficking of ivory.

A letter from the Council of the Elders of the African Elephant Coalition, which represents the majority of African elephant range states, called on the governor of Tokyo “to ban the trade of elephant ivory” and appealed to him “to recommend that the national government of Japan take urgent action to close its domestic ivory market.”

However, it remains to be seen whether either Japan or the EU will pay any heed to Africa’s voices, and their plea to protect their rapidly disappearing elephants. Given the long history of these nations’ attitude toward Africa, that unfortunately may not materialise.

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