Saturday, March 16, 2013

Avoid ivory and help protect the largest among us

You’d think that being the world’s largest land animal, by far, would keep you safe from certain things, such as getting hunted. It’s mostly true, but not true enough to keep elephants fit these days.

One of my first posts related a wonderful experience watching a herd of African elephants protect a very newly born baby from us and other potential threats. Here is another view of the little newborn:

This little guy’s family members are blessed with large size and relative safety from the top predators of their savanna home. Herds like this one are able to live long lives, despite the harsh conditions of eastern and southern African savannas, due in part to the extensive knowledge of their matriarchs. These mothers of most of the herd members know where and how to find water and food during the sometimes long periods with no rain.

elephants look for (and find!) water at the Samburu River, Kenya
They know how to deal with lions or hyenas that might try to grab a baby elephant and how to keep the herd together for decades, even during the long and likely stressful migrations to find food and water. Their size, shape, and features, the trunk being the most unusual and amazing, of a whole series of cool features, described here and here.

trunks: useful for picking up food, moving branches, and spraying water  

Their only real problem is humans.

We have always had an uneasy relationship with jumbos, as they are often called in South Asia, but now humans are killing elephants at an all-time high rate.

Why are we killing elephants? They eat plants and mainly try to avoid people when they can. But avoidance is getting harder, as we encroach into all the areas they have historically roamed, converting forest and savanna into agriculture, beating them into submission for the tourism or logging industries, or killing them outright.

In Asia

Across much of Asia, there simply isn’t enough area of natural vegetation to support elephants anymore, even where there once was. An elephant herd  uses vast areas, with home ranges of 180-400 km-sq, while south and southeast Asia have the world’s densest human populations, so you can see how the clash between ever-growing human communities and wide-ranging elephants was a train wreck in the making.

When rural people and remaining elephant herds meet, the result is usually conflict – elephants don’t survive in agricultural zones. In some areas, it is all-out war between hungry rural villagers chopping down remaining natural forest to plant subsistence crops and hungry elephants now deprived of their customary feeding spots and seasonal migration routes.

elephants in Thailand’s Khao Yai national park -- they lack tusks
and the size and shape of their ears and head differ from African elephants

Although most female Asian elephants lack tusks, the killing of male Asian elephants for their ivory (and skin) has led to a skewed sex ratio, with few males in the population, and elephants of both sexes are also killed for meat and their hides.

In Africa

The outrageous street value of ivory from elephant tusks – roughly $1,500 per kg in Asian markets (primarily China and Thailand), where most ivory is sold, has set off a veritable slaughter (nearly 25,000 animals were killed in 2011 of African elephants. Chinese investors call ivory “white gold”, while the more straightforward poachers and smugglers apparently call it “bloody teeth”.

Why? Ivory is the material that makes up elephants’ tusks. In case you don’t know already, ivory comes from dead elephants; it doesn’t fall out and regrow. Ivory is obtained by sawing off the tusk of an elephant. This is not something you do to a living elephant – it comes only from one that has either died naturally or been killed.

And elephants live 60-70 years, so the sheer volume of ivory seized – a small fraction of what is actually being (illegally) traded – can’t be explained by naturally-dying elephants.

Increased demand leads to increase prices and violent ends not only for elephants, but for park rangers and other villagers living near the animals. The big money has prompted well-armed militias and gangs from central and eastern Africa to ramp up the killing of elephants to feed the increasingly high demand for carvings and trinkets, principally in China. These groups, including Somalia's Al Shabaab, the Lord's Resistance Army, and Sudan’s Janjaweed (formed from the Arabic for "man", "gun", and "horse"- that might explain some things), use the cash they receive from the illegal sales to buy guns and continue their terrorist activities.

Today an estimated 472,000 elephants still remain in Africa, a small fraction of the estimated 5 million that lived there some 60 years ago. This map shows the historic and current areas in which African elephants still remain.

African elephant geographic ranges continues to decrease
map: National Geographic


Over the past 2 weeks, representatives of 178 countries attended the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) in Bangkok, Thailand to discuss and vote on numerous issues regarding international trade in plants and animals.

view from the back of the room at the CITES meeting
delegates get micorphones  plus seats with their country names 

I sat in on several days’ discussions, parked in the back of the big slow-moving meeting room, drafting this post and disheartened by the immense bureaucracy that reigns over discussions about the future survival of numerous and wonderful animal species, including rhinoceros, polar bear, humphead wrasse, and manta ray, in addition to elephants.

gorgeous humphead (a.k.a. Napoleon) wrasse
photo: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

In the case of elephants, international trade is currently banned for most /all?? populations, but exceptions made for one-off sales of stockpiled ivory to Japan in 1997 and China in 2008 means there is some legal ivory in those markets.

In Thailand, sale of ivory from domesticated elephants is legal. These exemptions have created loopholes in the ivory ban that have allowed the laundering of illegal ivory to reach buyers.

The official votes at CITES 2013 involved changes in the language on the logistics of monitoring the currently illegal trade in ivory, such as cooperation measures between countries, enforcement efforts, and on which ivory seizures to perform DNA analysis.

NGO's & filmakers push for action to slow the ivory trade

The mere existence of this very formal and highly structured meeting recognizes that countries want the trade in animals and their parts to continue, which, together with the glacial pace and formal, procedural language of the debate, is very frustrating to conservationists. For example, Thailand argued for and achieved the insertion of the blanket phrase “if possible” into documentation requiring DNA analysis of large shipments of seized ivory, which, in effect, provides them an open option not to analyze shipments at will. While their pretext was a lack of resources, they rejected an alternative that required analysis whenever the specific resources to do the analyses were made available.

the ivory trade has made even ellies in Tanzania's Tarangire National Park unsafe.
help their fitness and that of the rangers and others that protect them
by not buying ivory and speaking out against the trade

According to the New York Times, Meng Xianlin, executive director general of China’s endangered species trade authority, has insisted that elephant herds could endure a legal international ivory trade and has asked CITES to let China buy confiscated tusks from poached elephants as well as those obtained legally because demand in Asia required about 220 tons of raw ivory — which would take the lives of roughly 20,000 elephants — every year.

Ironic, this request -- the reason that CITES even considers restrictions on trade in ivory or other live and dead animal products is the rapidly declining size of their respective wild populations.

Help improve the fitness of the elephant and the people working to maintain it!

  • Don’t buy ivory and other elephant products! Super easy.
  • Tell your friends not to buy ivory. Especially if you live in China, the world’s largest market for ivory and many other products endangering whole species.
  • Support campaigns to slow the ivory trade and calls on the Asian markets to work harder to reduce demand and African countries to strengthen their penalties for elephant hunters
  • If you find yourself in Africa or Asia, visit a national park to see these big jumbos in their native habitat – they are fun to watch, have complicated social structures so there is always something fun going on, and your support increases the value of living elephants.
  • If you can't visit, you can read more about elephants - Save The Elephants has a wealth of information on both African and Asian elephants.
  • Other groups, including International Fund for Animal Welfare and World Wildlife Fund, have campaigned to ban the ivory trade.
  • This article in The Ecologist is a detailed description of 
  • Watch National Geographic's film, Battle for the Elephants.

extra credit:  find the baby ellie in this photo!


  1. Found the little tyke!

    1. It's not easy, with that big grey wall of Elephant in front of it!

  2. Elephants are one of the most wonderful and kind animals in the world! First I met them at the Chiang Mai Zoo. I became very friendly with them, so for all of my rest I came to them for several times. For this, I specially rented a scooter, so that it was easier for me to get to the Zoo. I made a lot of photos with them and now it's my favourite animal!

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