The African elephants are dying—one every 17 minutes. This calculates to about 80 elephants slaughtered daily, and 30,000 every year.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that less than 500,000 African elephants remain in the wild, down from at least three million.
At the rate at which the elephants are being decimated, they could be extinct in the wild – wiping them out from our eco-cultural heritage that drives tourism – in a matter of decades.
As is happening currently, the slaughter is being carried out by transnational criminal syndicates for the elephant tusks. The poaching rackets are run like military operations, complete with machine guns, night-vision goggles, and helicopters.
Profits from the illegal sale of ivory, rhinoceros horn and other wildlife products are funding terrorist and other extremist groups.
The National Geographic documentary, Warlords of Ivory, has vividly told the harrowing story.
Using artificial tusks implanted with a tracking device, the documentary traced the bloody path of ivory stripped from the carcasses and transported across Africa to be traded for money and ammunition that is then used to sustain campaigns of crime and terrorism.
The documentary showed how the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Ugandan rebel group, is part of the scheme on 600-mile journey through dense jungle from Congo’s Garamba National Park into the Central African Republic and on to the Sudan and beyond.
It is important to bear this picture in mind. And when Kenya was torching its stockpile last Saturday, “it [wasn’t] really about burning ivory at all: it’s about saving elephants. Burning the stockpiles is part of a wider conservation strategy to eliminate demand for ivory and put value instead on living elephants,” writes the passionate Kenyan conservationist, Paula Kahumbu, in the Guardian.
Other commentators note living elephants are worth a great deal more than their tusks. According to some estimates, one live, adult, elephant brings in about US$1.6 million from tourism during the course of its life — that’s 76 times more than the price its tusks fetch on the black market.
Paula quotes the World Travel and Tourism Council pointing out that leisure tourism generated KSh238 billion (US$2.4 billion) for the Kenyan economy in 2014, while more than half a million people are employed, directly or indirectly, by the tourism sector.
The value of the burned ivory – 105 tonnes of it, equivalent to 65,000 elephants – was estimated at only KSh3 billion (US$30 million), at black market prices.
In my view, the argument that one live elephant is worth 76 times more than its tusks trumps all other arguments. Do the math, and it does not take much imagination to see what the elephant symbolically means to many an African economy through tourism.
Despite all the arguments challenging the wisdom of destroying such a large haul even as the elephants face extinction, increasing the effectiveness of anti-poaching operations, improving law enforcement in demand countries, and reducing demand among consumers are the keys to stemming the flow of ivory and rhino horn from Africa.
Since Kenya became the first nation to publicly destroy ivory in 1989, at least 15 nations across the world have held public events to eliminate ivory stockpiles. The burns may have been political, but they have served to raise global awareness. The message has been singular to what it all means to our economies and ecological heritage.
With the awareness, it is my view that ivory trade should be addressed as a moral and ethical issue: that is, through social disapproval with the knowledge that ivory belongs to living elephants in the wild and no one should possess or commercially trade in ivory.
Paula Kahumbu puts it more bluntly, when she says that we need “to attach a stigma to buying the product, and make it illegal.”
Even as efforts continue, the risk of looming loss is criminal and certainly immoral that syndicates should pander to the taste of carved figurines, bracelets and other baubles, and the myth of medicinal value in rhino horns in Asia and elsewhere.
The elephant should loom large when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) holds the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) in South Africa later this year.