Viewpoint: Mourning the elephants

Horrific footage showing elephants that have been hacked to death for their ivory tusks reveals the terrifying toll that mass poaching is taking on Africa’s dwindling elephant population.

After having focused my last two installments on the African elephant, I was forced to take another look once again on the fate of the jumbos given the fact that Zimbabwe and Botswana are the only two countries with the remaining largest population in the world, over 100 000 apiece.

The recent disturbing video, released by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), shows mutilated elephants after a mass slaughter in Bouba N’Djida National Park in Cameroon, where poaching has hit record levels.

Between January and March this year, heavily armed foreign poachers killed 350 elephants in the national park. Authorities said the poachers targeting Bouba N’Djida national park were well-organised and worked in groups of 50.

Poachers killed an entire school of elephants in helicopter attacks, raining bullets down on adult and baby elephants alike. After the slaughter, poachers set about removing their tusks and genitals before smuggling them through South Sudan or Uganda.

The killing represents a significant percentage of Africa’s remaining elephant population. Nearly 500 elephants were killed in the same park during 2010. Since 1996, 120 park rangers have lost their lives trying to protect the elephants, and each month a significant number of Zimbabwe Parks rangers are killed battling marauding poachers along the Zambezi Valley.

Tens of thousands of the majestic jumbos are killed each year for their ivory tusks, which are mostly trafficked to Asia.

I could not agree more with WWF Cameroon project manager Philip Forboseh’s conclusions that the poaching crisis was a world heritage issue, not just an issue for Cameroon.

“When I looked at those elephants on the ground it was horrendous, I wished I didn’t see it,” he said. “I’m sad that it has taken hundreds of elephants to be slaughtered for the authorities to act.”

We know there are some elephants left, how many we don’t know. Zimbabwe is still to conduct its elephant count in as many years, but at the last count we had about 100 000. And estimates are that the figure has gone up significantly, although affected by poaching in the elephant range areas along the Zambezi Valley.

Since the mass slaughter earlier this year in Cameroon and elsewhere, other African countries have boosted security in their protected areas.

This horrendous footage came at a time the 62nd meeting of the Standing Committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), adopted crucial measures to halt the escalation of ivory and rhino horn smuggling.

The meeting in Geneva came a month after the Rio+20 Conference recognised the important role of Cites in its outcome document The Future We Want.

Cites Secretary-General John E Scanlon said the committee decided unanimously to take urgent measures to tackle the current poaching and smuggling crisis threatening elephant and rhino populations.

But a proposal to legalise the ivory trade by African range States including Zimbabwe and its neighbours as a way to combat rampant elephant poaching, sparked fierce debate at the meeting. This prompted Cites to meet again in October to fine tune the plan, which would then be considered for final approval at the March 2013 Cites CoP 16 conference in Bangkok, Thailand.

It is undisputable that an estimated 38000 African elephants are killed each year for their tusks. But the arguments were that reversing the ivory trade ban would have a devastating effect on elephants by triggering an increase in demand and sending even more illegal ivory into uncontrolled markets.

Some scientists believe that if poaching and the ivory trade was not brought under control, most populations of elephants could face extinction by 2020. The real solution therefore, is to better protect elephants in their home ranges and to pressure those nations participating in illegal trade to do more to combat ivory smuggling and sales.

A campaign is already at full throttle elsewhere to pressure the West not to support any proposals that would open the door to the bloody ivory trade.
The Cites thus also analysed the drivers behind the exploding demand in rhino horn and requested VietNam to report by next month on its actions to combat illegal trade in rhino horn.

Among other decisions taken by the committee, nine are total wildlife trade suspensions for lack of legislation to penalize illegal wildlife trade (the Comoros, Guinea-Bissau, Paraguay and Rwanda) or for failing to report trade in Cites-protected species (Guinea-Bissau, Nepal, Rwanda, the Solomon Islands and the Syrian Arab Republic).

Guinea was also warned to take a clear set of minimum actions to improve the issuance and monitoring of Cites permits and operations and to reduce illegal wildlife trade.

This being the case poor countries like Zimbabwe should mobilise to count their flagship species in preparation for the next Cites. Also to ensure that when the ivory moratorium collapses in 2017 the country would be better prepared for any eventuality.

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