The headline conclusion of the Great Elephant Census that Africa's elephants have declined should not have come as a surprise to anyone. But the horrifying extent has sent a massive blow to the heart of the conservation world, where millions of dollars have been spent in trying to protect these beloved animals.
The decline of Africa's elephants should make us rethink the wisdom of a decision made in 1997 by CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which allowed four southern African countries to have their elephants moved from Appendix I listing, with the highest level of protection, to Appendix II, which allows some trade.
This opened the door for a one-off sale of ivory to Japan in 2002 and to China and Japan in 2008, despite warnings from experts that this would unleash explosive demand -- resulting in ivory price inflation -- and trigger an uncontrollable poaching surge that would feed illegal ivory into the legal markets of China. The predictions were correct, but an underestimate of what happened because nobody imagined the emergence of international criminal cartels, or the rise of online sales.
CITES introduced a monitoring system called MIKE (Monitoring of Illegal Killing of Elephants) to detect if there was any evidence of a poaching surge. This system has consistently concluded that poaching is increasing, but "no evidence was found to suggest that illegal killing of elephants increased or decreased as a direct result of the one-off ivory sales or the nine-year moratorium."
Instead, the program attributes the poaching to poor governance, corruption and poverty, thus placing the blame on poor African countries and ignoring the fact that the killing is a direct result of demand in countries like China, Japan and the US, which was unleashed when one-off sales were allowed because the stigma associated with owning ivory was lifted.
Southern African countries have always claimed that they should be allowed to sell ivory as a reward for their elephant protection achievements and buyers of ivory in China and Japan are shielded from news of the killing fields; they are persuaded to think that by buying ivory, they are helping elephants and Africa. But earlier this week one person discovered just how deeply this ignorance is hurting elephants. Japanese first lady Akie Abe visited the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage in Kenya with first lady Margaret Kenyatta. There, she met the victims of poaching. She was so moved by the experience that she burst into tears and said she had no idea that this was happening. Later that day, a quote of hers was posted on Facebook:
"Feeding them milk, stroking them... I felt a kind of connection with these babies.
And before I realized I was in tears.
It almost felt like touching God...
More and more elephants are slaughtered for the sake of ivory.
Elephants maintain our forests and protect our environments.
We Japanese who have a taste for ivory, must not turn our back on this issue as something happening far away..."
One of the most important findings of the Great Elephant Census is evidence of high rates of poaching in several southern African countries that were previously reported to be safe havens, like Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique. Similar trends are expected to be true in South Africa and Namibia. This reveals how the power of demand can undermine even the strongest protection efforts: we must create awareness in demand countries.
And it's not just the demand countries where people are ignorant. Most people mourning the deaths of these elephants will be from the West; sadly, many Africans are not engaged in the issue. We take it for granted that the world cares about elephants because people have fallen in love with them through heart-warming documentaries on National Geographic or the Discovery Channel. Few Africans are even aware that there is a problem. They have never seen an elephant, on TV or in real life. Award-winning documentaries made in Africa and that are routine in European and American homes are rarely seen in Africa. When Kenya started its own wildlife TV series NTV Wild (a partnership between WildlifeDirect, TV station NTV and the Kenya Wildlife Service) Kenyans got to see their own wildlife for the first time. This has created a national sense of pride and support for our wildlife heritage, with citizens engaging in efforts to end poaching and protect parks from developments.
The Great Elephant Census leaves no one in doubt that African elephants are in deep trouble and that there will be no turning back for some populations. We must now collectively act to prevent their further decline by drawing a red line for elephants, and doing everything possible to defend these magnificent iconic species, a view that is shared by Richard Leakey: "All experiments at ivory trade have failed to protect elephants, and have instead put them in peril. Surely we now are at a point when any use of elephant products is shameful. Let's now stop it once and for all. Arguments to counter this are simply ridiculous in the 21st century."
I have four suggestions:
1) We must permanently eliminate global demand for ivory
This includes the closure of all domestic ivory markets, and restoring the highest level of protection for all African elephant populations to Appendix I status. We should penalize those countries that refuse to do this and conduct massive public awareness campaigns in demand countries in their own languages.
2) We must implement effective deterrents to this crime
These deterrents must include arrests, successful prosecutions and penalties. In Kenya, elephant poaching has declined by 80% in recent years due to the highest level of political will, and the targeted training of frontline officers, investigators, prosecutors and magistrates. It is critical that specific interventions are informed by evidence. WildlifeDirect monitors wildlife trials in Kenyan courts and released findings of noncompliance which led to the implementation of 10 major recommendations, including the creation of a specialized prosecution team. That, in turn, led to the successful prosecution of kingpin Feisal Mohamed Ali, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison and a fine of $200,000 in July for illegal possession of ivory. This approach can be replicated in other countries to avoid wasting valuable donor funding and time.
3) Africans must take the lead
The Giants Club initiative can deliver leadership at the highest level. But we must also build pride and understanding of general populations by engaging and mobilizing African experts and ordinary citizens alike in meaningful ways, especially in communities near wildlife reserves and parks, as they are at the front line of defense. Massive public awareness campaigns are also required.
4) Keep up the pressure on African countries
Despite the GEC and other data, some countries will deny the findings and continue to promote ivory trade for economic gain. These countries must be reminded that CITES was founded to protect endangered species and the precautionary principle is the most important mechanism to prevent trade from threatening any species. The precautionary principle must be invoked for African elephants at the next CITES conference of the Parties in Johannesburg this September.
Dr. Paula Kahumbu is the CEO of the Kenyan conservation NGO WildlifeDirect and is leading the Hands Off Our Elephants Campaign with Kenya's first lady Margaret Kenyatta. Hands Off Our Elephants is a campaign to restore Kenyan leadership in elephant conservation through behavior change at all levels of society, from rural communities to business leaders and political decision makers. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.