The call comes in camp at Sunday breakfast. David Daballen answers it, walking from the table as he talks. David works for Save the Elephants here in Kenya. Moments later he returns, announcing, “Another elephant just discovered killed, right across the river in Buffalo Springs, right inside the reserve, right off the road.”
That’s shocking. No elephant has till now been killed so deep inside the reserve, so near tourist lodges. “It’s never been worse,” David says. “We’re going in the wrong direction.”
Surging demand for ivory in China has been well publicized. But the publicity has overlooked the cause: The same international body that enacted a 1990 global ivory ban allowed China in 2008 to import ivory. This catastrophic reversal can be counted in carcasses — elephant and human.
Kenyan rangers recently killed two poachers nearby. Three days later, poachers shot three more elephants. Jobs here are few. Many poachers are young men with nothing to lose except their lives.
Ivory is about poverty, ethnic rivalry, terrorism and civil war. Elephant blood lubricates the flow of human blood. Blood ivory has been helping to finance Al Qaeda’s Al Shabab wing; Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and Sudan’s murderous Janjaweed. That a craving for carvings fuels this is symptomatic of distant and detached international markets, regulators, consumers and governments caring nothing for whom they hurt. Ivory is not just about elephants. In some ways, I wish it were.
Two nights ago, poachers killed two elephants about 40 kilometers away. In the week I’ve been here, local poachers have killed five. In the six weeks prior, they killed 27 elephants from just this population. The Buffalo Springs and Samburu reserves are among Kenya’s last elephant strongholds. Roughly 1,000 elephants — minus several per week now — use them.
Almost no protected area in Africa is big enough for elephants. They move in and out of the parks and reserves between traditional feeding and watering areas. Outside protected areas, they run into trouble with villagers and poachers. Inside, they run into poachers from nearby villages. With ivory prices at an all-time high, elephants’ prospects have dropped to an all-time low.
Of course, ivory trading is also about elephants. Elephants that are intelligent and live with their families for decades and need their mothers. Africa has lost perhaps 90 percent of its elephants in the last half-century. Sierra Leone saw its final elephants killed in 2009. Senegal retains under a dozen — if that. Gabon: 11,000 killed in the last decade, nearly 80 percent of its elephants. Democratic Republic of the Congo’s elephants have plummeted 90 percent. Chad and Cameroon, shot to pieces. Poaching is intensifying in Kenya and Tanzania — lucrative tourist destinations (in Kenya alone, nearly 500,000 people rely directly on tourism for employment).
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, regulates ivory trading. When elephant numbers were plummeting in the 1980s, CITES had a legal ivory quota system. That system had no restraining effect, because it facilitated easy laundering. Tanzania in the 1980s lost a staggering 236,000 elephants. Between 1974 and 1989, Kenya’s elephants fell from about 167,000 to 16,000, down 90 percent.
The only effort that has ever proved effective was the bitterly won ivory ban implemented by CITES in 1990. Ivory prices instantly collapsed. Elephant populations slowly increased. The ban worked.
But it lasted only until 1999. That year, CITES allowed Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia to sell 50 tons of stockpiled ivory to Japan, calling it a “one-time sale.” Then China wanted in. In a procedural sleight-of-hand, in 2008 the CITES secretariat let China bid on 102 tons of ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. (Another “one-time sale.”)
Immediately after China got its 2008 ivory pass, killing surged. In Kenya, for instance, fewer than 50 elephants were killed in 2007; this rocketed to about 250 in 2009 and just under 400 in 2012.
Permitting China to import ivory in 2008 opened the floodgates to laundering illegal tusks and stockpiling for more anticipated “one-time sales.” All this because some demand carvings that people could — literally — live without.
CITES must re-institute a clear, unequivocal, permanent ban on ivory trading.
Tanzania — where some estimate 60 elephants are being killed daily — recently petitioned Cites for a “one-time sale” of stockpiled tusks. Tanzania further sought ongoing permission to sell tusks, hides, feet, ears, tails and — if any remain — live elephants. Following fierce protest, Tanzania in January withdrew its proposal. For now.
How many elephants are dying? If the 38 tons of tusks seized in 2011 represented 10 percent of illegal ivory, it translates to something over 40,000 elephants killed annually — an elephant every 15 minutes.
Like the one on the hill up ahead. David and I approach the huge gray corpse. It’s Philo.
Philo was 15 years old, just halfway to contending for breeding rights. His face and tusks are gone. David determines that he was struck over there, ran bleeding 200 meters to here, then collapsed. Several shots to the head finished him. One wound is still bubbling crimson blood.
Four days earlier, a visiting researcher, Ike Leonard, had taken Philo’s last portrait. The photo captures Philo as a promising young bull jauntily showing off a bit of teenage swagger. An elephant keeper with Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, Leonard had come to help with research sponsored by Disney’s Worldwide Conservation Fund and to observe “how wild elephants live.” We are also observing how elephants die.
Carl Safina is founding president of Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University, where he is also co-chairman of the Center for Communicating Science. His latest book is A Sea in Flames: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Blowout.