How the illegal practice of poaching is bringing one of the most endangered species to the brink of extinction
When the news broke that one of Botswana’s biggest elephants recently got killed by a trophy hunter, animal activists and wildlife conservation organisations flocked on Twitter to express their rage.
The outcry was not unfounded — elephants have been among the endangered species category for decades. According to WWF, in a time-span of 50 years both the Asian and the African elephant populations have been decreasing so fast that their extinction is expected within this century.
Thanks to a 2016 research study based on the Great Elephant Census — the only one conducted on a full-scale nation — it was revealed that elephant populations are “currently shrinking by 8% per year continent-wide, primarily due to poaching”.
Now, a petition launched by animal advocates is pressing the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to still uphold the ivory trade ban that was firstly introduced more than 30 years ago.
Currently one of the major threats for elephants, it consists of killing these animals in order to sell their ivory tusks. Nowadays poaching is considered an illegal activity – mostly operated by single criminals or organised criminal syndicates of ivory.
According to WWF, poaching is driving the worldwide elephant population to extinction: it is estimated that only 415,000 African elephants and about 40,000-50,000 Asian elephants are still alive.
Why is it so popular?
The so-called ivory trade is one of the reasons why elephants are constantly being killed by poachers and trophy hunters. Unfortunately ivory is considered to be the “white gold” nowadays with a single pound of tusk that can sell for up to $1,500 (roughly £1200). In Asia, the demand for ivory is very high due to the use of it in jewellery and objects but also because of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Up until 1989, poaching for ivory was not internationally recognised as an illegal activity. Then CITES enlisted African elephants under Appendix I which grants them the highest level of protection – a milestone that Asian elephants had instead had already reached in 1975. There is a major loophole though: domestic sale of ivory in the African continent is still unregulated. Some countries — such as Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe — were not in favour of the ban and have lobbied to ease the protection given to elephants by CITES. As a result, in 1997 and 2008 African elephants were down-listed from Appendix I to Appendix II — which grants them a lower level of protection — and huge sell-offs of ivory have been permitted. One of the arguments brought forward by those African governments favouring the ivory trade is that the money gained from the sale of ivory could be spent on the conservation of elephants. But according to wildlife conservation activists, the argument of facilitating the killing of elephants in order to raise money to spend on their protection is deeply flawed.
“Efforts to stop poaching are hampered by lack of funds and poaching is exacerbated by constant talk of opening up the ivory trade, which incentivises the criminal gangs and ivory dealers to keep building their stocks,” stated Ian Redmond, conservationist and co-founder of Rebalance Earth, an organisation committed to empowering communities and safeguarding wildlife.
Other causes of concern:
While the petition recently launched signals an ever-lasting amount of support to protect the endangered species, the reality of poaching is far more complicated. Climate change and deforestation hugely affect the elephants’ natural habitats, forcing them to move elsewhere and get often in conflict with humans due to the destruction of crops and other cultures. This is why poaching elephants has also been allowed as a way to mitigate human-animal conflicts.
“A century ago, Africa is thought to have had around 10 million elephants, mega-gardeners of the forests and savannahs, keystone species central to the health of these globally important ecosystems which drive global weather patterns, sequester and store carbon and regulate the climate. Now they are reduced to maybe 400,000 – we’ve lost more than 96% of the elephant workforce. The last thing we need is population control. Corridors to reverse habitat fragmentation are essential,” commented Redmond.
Besides advocating to stop poaching for ivory, organisations such as Wildlife SOS and the African Wildlife Foundation are also trying to mitigate human-elephant conflicts by implementing community projects such as trying to preserve the animals migrations routes and incentivising communities to invest in wildlife tourism instead.
Redmond has put forward the same idea with Rebalance Earth.
“Payment for ecosystem services for megafauna such as elephants and rhino might provide the economic alternative to counter the consumptive use lobby. If an elephant earns $30K per year ($1.75 million over the course of a 60-year lifespan) communities will be incentivised to ensure they live as long as possible,” the conservationist concluded.
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